Kiwis Can Fly

September 27, 2013
Paul Janssen

No, I am not going there (well not entirely) … there is enough debate, discussion, argument and general consternation over New Zealand’s result in the America’s Cup to last a lifetime and I don’t want to add fuel to the fire.

Besides our PA has more passion for the race and Team NZ than anyone I know and I don’t want to put my foot in it – or suffer her wrath.

We lost, let’s move on.

The race itself does however pose a number of fascinating questions, which I believe I can safely discuss without too many glaring looks from the office next door.

The two things that spring to mind is the question of the level of technology in sport and how far is too far; the second somewhat related but slightly more ‘Go New Zealand Go…’ is how far this small country, at the end of the earth, can go in terms of developing some of the world’s most amazing technology (and not just in the field of sports).

In the modern sporting environment technology is almost as important as the athlete and in some competitions the technology is so incredibly advanced it’s hard to see if there is an athlete involved at all. Although I don’t want to focus on yachting exclusively it is a great example of how far removed the sport itself is from the mechanics and engineering of the equipment. The boats that sailed this race were more like formula one race cars than aquatic vessels. They had ‘wings’ not sails and reached speeds that the average competitive sailor can only dream about. They were and, still are, amazing pieces of equipment and a testament to the engineering capabilities us humans can achieve.

But is it sport?

I may be hunted down or driven out of town for suggesting this, but when the technology in sport is so advanced you need a billionaire’s bank balance (or the Government’s Credit Card) to fund the building of the equipment, to me that is when the sport leaves the room.

I have no doubt that there is skill involved in the racing of these boats, but equally I have as much (if not more) admiration for the people that built, designed and maintained the boat as the crews that were on it. There has been such an exponential growth in the technological wizardry from one regatta to the next, that you have to wonder where it will end (if they indeed race again).

And it’s not just yachting.

BMW have now taken to developing Bobsleds, yes that’s right Bobsleds. The German car manufacturer, well known for its investment into car racing, has decided to lend that technology to the guys on the ice.

Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Electro-Communications in Tokyo are creating a football with a camera that even whilst rotating at dizzying speeds will be able to record and play back an image of the ball in flight.

Football fans will soon be treated to real time statistics of their favourite players’ movements, record by sensors built into the uniforms, designed to track the entire athletic endeavour. The result being valuable player data that can be fed back into training programmes to produce ‘super-athletes’. I am not sure how relevant that will be to the average Manchester United fan…

Technology has a definite place in sport and to assume otherwise is a bit like standing in front of a speeding freight train with your hand raised. However, at what point do we stop cheering for the athletes, coaches and skippers and start cheering for the analysts, programmers and engineers?

You lose something in sport when the final decision rests on which piece of technology a team did or didn’t have and ultimately the contest is no longer about the best sports person but the best researchers and the largest pools of funding – hardly a level playing field.

In saying that however, there are a lot of positives to be taken from the technology advances that the sports field creates, many of which find themselves in other places, providing many other benefits.

And if there is one place where research, ingenuity and a knack for creative solutions is literally boiling over, it’s New Zealand.

We built the boats, we engineered the foils and we sent the opposing team the last minute componentry to give them edge. Some might say this is slightly traitorous but the reality is that this little island (well two islands) nation had the knowledge and ingenuity to design some of the most impressive aquatic equipment of all time.

And it doesn’t stop there.

Most people know that a New Zealander was the first to split the atom in 1919 (It was Ernest Rutherford if you missed the memo); however I imagine that few people are aware of the other technological achievements that have been born in the woolsheds of this great nation.

  • Alan Gibbs invented the world’s first aquatic motor vehicle transforming from land crawler to boat at the push of a button.
  • Paul Beckett designed and manufactured the Blokart, which is basically a land based yacht that has become a huge sporting attraction on the beaches of New Zealand.
  • AJ Hackett made paying someone money to jump off a bridge a worldwide phenomenon.
    Geoff Barnett created The Shweeb – a human powered monorail race track that attracts thousands of punters and a substantial amount of R&D funding from Google.
  • William Hamilton invented the first non-propeller powered boat.
  • Colin Murdoch invented the disposable hypodermic syringe.
  • William Atack was the first referee in sports history to use a whistle to stop a game.
  • John Britten, who suffered from dyslexia, invented a world record setting motorcycle.
  • Morton Coutts revolutionised the science of brewing beer – quite possibly one of the most revered Kiwis on the planet.
    And the list goes on.

For a small country we come up with some pretty damn clever ideas and not all of them are fixated on sheep (although there are great many that are).

There is something I tell people whom I meet overseas about New Zealanders …”We punch above our weight”. We don’t let the fact that we are only 4.3 million persons in a country that many people on the planet confuse with Australia, hold us back. We aim pretty high and usually get there.

Okay so we might not have won the Cup and there will be raging debate (certainly in this office) over whether the game was played fairly (or played at all). Whilst I take my hat off to the team for being great sportsmen and putting on a good show; I take an even bigger hat off to the guys behind the scenes.

The engineers, the inventors, the analysts and the dreamers – the guys that don’t see impossible just varying shades of possible.

They are the ones that generate the interest in New Zealand technological industry and ultimately drive significant investment into this country but don’t always get the podium finish or showered in champagne.

We might be small, we might have only a handful of people but it’s what we do with them that really counts.

As for the America’s Cup, we put up a good fight, raced a good race and held our heads up high. And if there was ever a cause to be slightly relieved about losing because of technology it’s the fact that it was a bunch of Kiwis that invented it.

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