On the eve of his final Olympic mission, Dave Currie talks to Karen Pasco about the state of the Games and those who play them.
He is a former national wrestler and Black Cap team manager, granddad, mountain biker, cancer survivor and describes himself as having a “misplaced degree of optimism”. New Zealand Olympic games chef de mission Dave Currie is enthralled with life.
It was September 2, 1960. On this particular early spring day, a momentous occasion was about to take place. Schoolboy Dave Currie was sitting at his desk along with the others in his class, tuned in to the radio which was transmitting the happenings in Rome.
This was the day New Zealand Olympic athletes Peter Snell (800m) and Murray Halberg (5000m) would win gold medals at the Rome Olympics within half an hour of each other – a momentous occasion in New Zealand’s sporting history. It is a day that is etched into the memory of Dave, now head of the New Zealand Olympic team in his role as chef de mission.
He describes it as his Olympic serendipity. “It really had an impact on me. I remember going to the pictures and seeing it all.” What he didn’t realise then is that 40 years later, when in his role with the Murray Halberg Trust, he would accompany those two athletes to Rome when they returned to recount their memories of that very day.
Although many know what Currie’s present job title is, there are not many who understand what the role entails. “I remember when I got the job my granddaughter asked me what I was going to cook for everybody,” he jokes. The English translation is head of mission, how he describes it is general manager of the team, the “leader of
His role means he wears many hats; negotiator, diplomat, project manager, leader, decision maker, co-ordinator, team builder, communicator, motivator and liaison. His job is to ensure each athlete has the best possible environment to reach their goals and to bring the sporting codes together as a team. “What we’ve got is 17 sports. All of them come with their own culture and have distinct ways they operate. What we’ve got to do is wrap that all into a strong and secure New Zealand team.”
Currie had always wanted to attend an Olympic Games – as a competitor. It was as a marathon runner he thought he had the best chance, but not starting until he was about 40 and unable to crack the 2hr 20 minute mark, meant it was not achievable.
He arrived at the chef de mission position through a history of sporting roles. From 1987 to 1997 he was the race director of Ironman, for 17 years the executive director for the Murray Halberg Trust and latterly the Black Caps’ team manager.
In 1988 he was asked to run as a guide for a blind marathon runner at the Seoul Olympics. Through this he became involved in sports for the disabled and got the job as president of New Zealand Paralympics and was asked to take the team to Sydney in 2000.
He had seen the chef de mission job advertised but didn’t apply. Aware that previous chef de missions Les Mills and Dave Gerrard had both been Olympians, he thought he would not meet the hiring criteria. Then someone strongly recommended to him that it might be worth his while. “I was pretty pragmatic they didn’t really have too many applicants so I got it.”
So for the past decade Currie has worked on developing a culture within the team, as well as carrying out a tremendous amount of behind-the-scenes work to ensure each campaign has run as smoothly as possible.
His biggest challenge, without a doubt, was the 2010 Commonwealth Games in India. The uncertainty of whether venues or accommodation would be ready in time was frustrating and caused much anxiety in the lead up.
“It was incredibly close to the wire that we just weren’t going to bring athletes and we were just going to pull out. I was on conference calls for an hour a day with the New Zealand diplomat in India in the lead-up,” he says. “What is funny though is when the athletes arrived they kept saying ‘what was all the fuss about’.”
Currie believes that the Commonwealth Games need to return to the games of old and stop trying to replicate the Olympics, which is putting countries in huge debt. “There used to be 2000 athletes go to the Commonwealth’s, now there are between 6000 and 7000. We need to get it back to a manageable size. Very few countries can afford to hold them now because they’ve just become too huge and big and costly.”
The highlights of previous Olympic and Commonwealth Games is certainly seeing the medal-winning performances of athletes. Currie has huge respect for athletes who have devoted 10, 15 or even 20 years to reach the point where they are on the world platform.
“I’ve been privileged of being at every medal performance of New Zealanders since the Sydney Paralympics. To be there and be with groups of New Zealanders when athletes perform is just extraordinary.”
He scrolls off the names of some of those athletes who provided the magic – Sarah Ulmer, Hamish Carter, Valerie Villi and the Evers-Swindell twins – those who showed the determination to dedicate their lives to their sport and also the courage to pit themselves against the world’s best with millions around the world watching – and still come first.
He vividly remembers Valerie Villi at Beijing, her strength and her absolute focus. “She walked into the stadium and stared down her competitors. She walked out almost knowing that she’d won. She had the appearance that it was her domain and her space and she really kicked butt. It was probably the most determined performance I’ve ever seen.”
There are 200 athletes and 100 support staff (including managers and coaches) in the New Zealand Olympic team travelling to London for this year’s Games. Currie has travelled to Old Blighty four times in the past two years to ensure the relationship between the organising committee and the New Zealand team is strong, to see the progress of the living and sport environments and understand what it will be like for athletes and staff when they arrive. He then conveys that information back to the athletes and staff. “Athletes will put up with anything as long as they know what to expect.”
One of this year’s challenges is having the New Zealanders split up around the United Kingdom. The Olympic Village is, for the first time, right next door to the Olympic Park in Stratford, East London, but the rowers will be based at Eton Dorney, the sailors at Weymouth and the men’s and women’s football teams will be playing at different venues dotted around the UK.
In order to make sure team unity is maintained Currie says it is important to make all athletes feel included. “It’s not easy but we will go to all the outlying venues and welcome them into the team separately.
We’ll also use newsletters, Facebook and Skype and texting. When they finish competition, they will come up to the main village anyway. Every member in the team wants to come and share and be part of that group.”
This year New Zealand has managed to secure its very own nine storey apartment block that will house just the Kiwis. Integral to the teambuilding, including the “One Team, One Spirit” ideal of the team, is the distinct decoration of the apartment block. In previous years the New Zealand athletes’ home away from home has been the envy of other nations. In Beijing it was banners of ferns and photos of previous New Zealand Olympic greats that adorned the walls and
Currie remains tight-lipped about how Aotearoa will be reflected in the New Zealand camp. He does admit that in the 40ft container which is shipping sports equipment, supplements and special athlete requirements to the Games, there are also beanbags, coffee makers and “other” decorations.
Although it is important to foster the team spirit, Currie says it’s a careful balance between that and getting the athletes hyped up. “What they want when they get there is to train, eat, rest, train, sleep. We don’t want people fired up. They’re in a supportive environment, we want them to focus and do the job they’re there to do. We can celebrate when it’s all over.”
He believes the evolution of New Zealand since the last London Games in 1948 is incredible. “In 1948 we were still pretty much an economy of Britain – we’re no longer like that. We’re a strong, united people, a country which has been forged by the arrival of different immigrants during the past 800 years. We’ve all been brought together in a special way to create a united society with strong respect for each other.”
It is just not the nation which has changed since 1948 – the athletes also have a far different experience. As an example he tells the story of New Zealand backstroker
Ngaire Galloway, who qualified for the 1948 London Games.
About a week before she was due to leave she was told she would need a female chaperone, which would have to fund themselves, to accompany her to the Games – otherwise she couldn’t go.
After organising her chaperone, they arrived at the ship in Auckland only to find there was no swimming pool on board.
She had the builder create a paddling pool she could use during the six-week journey to at least give her legs a kick-out. Ngaire overcame the odds and although she didn’t win a medal, Currie says her story of determination is one that is used to motivate the team.
The 2012 New Zealand Olympic team is focussing its public campaign on the parochial conviction “Making us Proud”. To highlight this, the nz2012.com website invites ordinary and extraordinary people to tell their stories about how they are inspired by someone or something from their country; “When you were most proud to be a New Zealander”.
Some of the postings relate to sport others don’t, but it is the patriotism that Currie believes will get Joe Public stirred to support the team. “New Zealanders are unique we get out in the world and demand to do well. Peter Jackson, our scientists there’s so
many people – we just want to carry on that strong tradition.”
The website also allows supporters to get a chance to mingle in the thoughts of competitors. Blogs are posted by athletes, and even Currie’s messages to the team are there for all to see – providing a window into a world normally closed off – a sharp marketing ploy to rouse the masses and engage them on what Currie and every New Zealander hopes will be a successful month of competition
He has come a long way from the boy who sat in that classroom and listened to the live broadcast of his sporting heroes. In a round-about way he reached his goal of making it to the Olympics – but now he knows it is time for change. The London Olympics will be his last hoorah as chef de mission after three Olympics, one Paralympics and three Commonwealth Games, Currie is calling time – although he cheekily adds he may do a “David Lange”.
“It’s an appropriate time. Most people only do one Olympics and Commonwealth Games. You can go forever but it just seems like the right time. It’s been an extraordinary privilege really, a delight to do it. It’s just been fantastic.”
He is unsure yet of what the future holds but is confident that whatever he does, it will matter. ‘I’m keen to stay involved in sport. Certainly carrying on and doing something that makes a difference afterwards. If you can’t make a difference in something there’s no point really.”