As the spotlight falls on Southern Lakes mountains, Winter Games glory won’t be the only thing Kiwi athletes are chasing.
New Zealand’s biggest snow sports event will also be a platform for international exposure – and a shot at the big money via international sponsorships.
For the next 10 days, some 200 Kiwi athletes will be pitted against 600 of the world’s best in alpine ski racing, freeskiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing, curling, ice skating and adaptive disciplines.
When it comes to funding, NZ’s snow sports athletes competing at the Winter Games could be seen as David taking on Goliath.
There’s no denying NZ’s got talent, but the difference in money poured into northern hemisphere snow sports is huge – and so is the calibre of athletes.
Take Kelly Clark of the United States, who last week won the Burton NZ Open halfpipe at Cardrona and is entering her specialty event at the Winter Games.
Arguably the world’s best woman snowboarder, she became the youngest female to take Olympic gold in the halfpipe, winning in 2002 aged 18.
A Burton-sponsored rider and a member of the US snowboarding team, Clark will be one of the high earners in the sport.
Kiwi snowboarder Paula Mitchell, 28 – who finished 25th in last week’s Burton NZ Open – is excited about competing against riders such as Clark again at the Winter Games.
Mitchell, gunning for a spot on NZ’s Olympic snowboard team, is conscious of the fact there are plenty of underdogs vying for recognition and sponsorship.
“Comparing us to some of the Americans, we’re not getting as much as they are. No one really knows who’s getting how much but I don’t think the Kiwis are up there yet,” she says.
“Getting sponsorship in NZ is so much harder because the industries are so much smaller…you’ve got to kind of move internationally.”
Even in NZ, snow sports funding via the government’s Sport and Recreation NZ (Sparc) is miniscule compared with rugby – Sparc dished out $2.16m to the NZ Rugby Union in 2008 alone.
Selected elite snow sports athletes have been given $2 million over the past four years but only $276,000 has been devoted to developing snow sports in the past two years, Snow Sports NZ boss Ross Palmer says.
Kiwi athletes depend on sponsorship to get by.
Queenstown free skier Harry Pettit, 16, who’s entering Winter Games slopestyle and big air events, says for relatively unknown athletes the Games are an ideal chance to leverage sponsorship off results.
“It’s going to be good if you don’t have sponsors and you do well, there’s no doubt you’ll be picking up sponsorship after the event.
“I know that the top dudes are earning between $500,000 and the top dude, [Winter Games entrant] Jon Olsson, is earning like $1m euros or something.”
Queenstowner and NZ No. 2 alpine ski racer Tim Cafe, 22, isn’t fazed by rubbing shoulders with the likes of Canadian alpine skier and 2009 world champs bronze medallist Michael Janyk at the Winter Games – he’s raced against him plenty of times.
Still, it’s a “huge thing” for other emerging talent, Cafe says.
“The spotlight is on us and the young guys are going to have the opportunity to see the top athletes and compare themselves against them. And if they do well, they’re going to have recognition and leverage to give sponsors.”
Nat Anglem, in the top three men’s cross-country skiers, works as a doctor to fund his sport but it’s not the lack of government and sponsorship funding that’s a “major limitation” for him – it’s the lack of experienced coaches in NZ.
“The major difference for [top northern hemisphere cross-country ski teams] is that they’ve been skiing for probably 15 years longer than I have.
“If I was in the top 10 in the world – NZ or outside – I’m sure I would attract a lot more funding.”