Athlete lashes out at lack of Sparc support
02 October 2006
By JONATHAN MILLMOW
New Zealand’s top 800m runner Jason Stewart has lashed out at the hands that feed him.
In a surprising move, the 24-year-old Napier athlete has criticised Sparc and Athletics New Zealand (ANZ) for failing to support leading middle distance runners since the Melbourne Commonwealth Games.
Stewart finished fifth in a strong field in Melbourne, two places outside the criteria that would have guaranteed him a $15,000 payday from Sparc under its PEG (performance enhancement grant) scheme.
Stewart immediately returned to Europe for the fifth winter on the trot in the expectation that funding would follow in some capacity. But it hasn’t and he has come out blazing from his Finland base.
Sparc got both barrels, with Stewart labelling some of their funding criteria “ridiculous” and accusing it of “handcuffing” ANZ.
ANZ did not escape either, the sport’s body criticised as desperately needing someone knowledgeable to take the athletes’ cases to Sparc.
The irony was that as Stewart was putting his career-threatening outburst on the line, ANZ was announcing the appointment of Raylene Bates as its sports services manager.
“My only beef with Athletics New Zealand is that they need someone knowledgeable within the sport to be going to Sparc and saying `it is not fair that Paul Hamblyn finishes fourth in the 1500m at the Commonwealth Games and doesn’t get a cent’,” Stewart told The Dominion Post.
Stewart may not be a household name but he is no slug on the running track. He finished seventh at the world junior championships in 2000 and his career has progressed steadily since. He narrowly missed qualifying for the semifinals at both the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens and the 2005 world championships in Helsinki and at one point last year had a world ranking of 32 (now in the 50s). His fifth in Melbourne this year was behind two smart Kenyans.
Athletics New Zealand stand-in chief executive Tony Murdoch acknowledged the period since Melbourne had been difficult for athletes.
High Performance manager Eric Hollingsworth resigned in April and has not been replaced, and chief executive Jeremy Kennerley left in late August.
Murdoch said Sparc’s recent major review of funding led to a moratorium on high performance funding, but that was now lifted.
However, ANZ’s problem extended further.
“The fact that a high performance director has not been appointed has meant that we have had to put a moratorium on to our own allocation of funds into that area,” Murdoch said.
"Raylene’s appointment this week should mean that athletics can begin to access the increased level of funding through Sparc.
“Athletics New Zealand is aware that these moratoriums have placed a strain on athletes, but in a sense it has had to sit on its hands.”
Murdoch added Stewart had been supported in the past, a fact the athlete openly admitted. He received a $10,000 PEG from Sparc after recording a personal best of 1min 49.19s in Athens and ANZ gave him $4000 last year to train with Nick Willis in the United States leading up to Melbourne.
Stewart finds fault with several aspects of Sparc’s programme. He says it is not only obsessed with finding world champions but should not be comparing the 800m and 1500m with other sports because the depth in events is wide ranging.
“Basically Sparc is saying you are competing in a tough event, but too bad, we want to get world champions in synchronised gymnastics or tiddlywinks,” Stewart said.
“The thing that makes me laugh about Sparc is that they have this policy of supporting ‘sports that matter to New Zealanders’ like rugby, netball and cricket. But New Zealanders are crying out for the next John Walker or the next Peter Snell.”
To secure a PEG an athlete has to win a medal at a major event or be ranked in the top 16 in the world.
"The irony is if I was in the top 16 in the world in my event I wouldn’t be giving a toss about $15,000 from Sparc because you’d be making US$80,000 for a start.
"I was fifth at the Commonwealth Games against some of the strongest runners from Kenya and I don’t get a cent. I used to sit back when I was younger and take it on the chin, but it’s ridiculous and it’s about time people knew the truth.
“I’m not asking for $30,000 or $40,000, all I want is just enough to get by on so we are not killing ourselves doing this. All I want is my trip funded this year.”
Stewart says he has learned to fashion something from nothing during his years in Europe, including this year putting himself forward as a paid pacemaker in races.
"I’m coming up 25 and I’ve got to get real about what is a career and what is not, and if I can’t come out financially well in the next couple of years, I’m not a fool, I’ll just have to give it away.
“I think I’ve got a bit to offer. I definitely think I can progress to the semifinals at a world champs and the Olympics but . . .”
Stewart says Hamblyn, Adrian Blincoe and himself have put in funding proposals to ANZ under the direct athlete support scheme to cover their expenses. They are asking for between $8000 to $10,000.
The trio’s case differs to that of the United States based pair of Willis and Kimberley Smith, who have significant backing from sportswear companies.
"We hear athletics is now one of the top funded sports but I don’t know where that money is going because it is certainly not going to people like me.
“I can’t imagine who is more deserving than me. I’ve been doing this for five years, basically getting nothing at all. I’m over here in Europe showing everyone I want to get better but we don’t know what is going on so that is the hardest thing to swallow.”
Stewart accepts his tirade could have repercussions but seems to accept that if it doesn’t help him it might help others such as Hamblyn, Blincoe and Kate McIlroy.
"What have I got to lose? I don’t want to be seen as bitching, I feel I’ve got a legitimate claim. People need to know what is going on.
“Some of the frustration is with Athletics New Zealand but a number of the athletes realise they are handcuffed in a lot of what they can do by the people that supply them with the money which is Sparc.”
Both ANZ and Sparc refute Stewart’s claim of the sport being handcuffed.
Murdoch said having only been in the caretaker job three weeks it was “too early” for him to accurately gauge how things operated but added “in my short dealings, it’s worked well”.
Sparc senior adviser, high performance, Marty Toomey, struggles to see how they can be criticised when Stewart has not qualified for a PEG and they pour money into ANZ’s high performance programme.
Toomey points out that athletes on the fringe of a PEG are normally identified by their respective sports as targeted athletes and receive funding.
“We certainly don’t dictate where that money is spent,” Toomey said.
"Athletics New Zealand puts up a high performance plan which shows their plans and they have flexibility to chop and change provided we have the confidence they are going to achieve the outcomes we both agreed on.
“We certainly don’t retain a right of veto over how they spend the money.”