Māori customs help athletes to be at their best mentally on the world stage, according to new research.

Sport Manawatū chief executive Trevor Shailer has researched the effect of Māori culture on New Zealand athletes at Olympic and Commonwealth games. He found many athletes felt buoyed by the presence of rituals, such as a traditional welcome into the athletes village and celebratory haka.

Shailer, who boxed at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and won bronze at the 1994 Victoria, Canada, Commonwealth Games, wanted to document the history of Māori culture in the games environment and give guidance on how it could be included in the future.

There had been anecdotal evidence of the positive effect of Māori culture, but no proper research had been undertaken.

“The key thing was around trying to provide a historical account of how Māori culture was incorporated … it was about looking back to look forward.”

Participating in the rituals formed a strong sense of identity, Shailer said, which was important for people competing at elite events.

Many of the athletes he spoke to said the Māori rituals and artifacts they were exposed to during competition helped them feel connected to New Zealand.

“When you’re on the world stage at a pinnacle event, who you are is quite important … It’s the sense of belonging and connection, the sense New Zealand is behind the team.”

In 2004, the first kākahu, or cloak, was made for the Olympic team’s flagbearer and a special mauri stone was gifted to them by Ngāi Tahu. The stone now travels with each Olympic and Commonwealth team and acts as an “anchor to home”.

Looking to the future, Shailer said New Zealand’s sporting codes needed to have a joint approach to how they exposed people to Māori culture, so it was familiar by the time they reached the top level.

Palmerston North-born athlete Ben Langton-Burnell, who competed in javelin at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, said being part of a haka was one of the most significant parts of his sporting experience.

“That is one of the biggest symbols of that togetherness … it’s something we can all link to.

“No other country has anything like that.”

He said the displays of Māori culture all linked back into the silver fern and created a strong sense of national pride.

Shailer did the research as part of his executive masters in sports organisations management from the MEMOS Association. He graduated in Switzerland in October.

Other countries could use the research to help them incorporate indigenous culture into their sporting environments.


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Photo caption: Sport Manawatū chief executive Trevor Shailer has found Māori culture helps New Zealand’s Olympic and Commonwealth games athletes forge a sense of togetherness.

Photo by: David Unwin, Stuff