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The Halberg Awards were a night for women – or they should've been

Supreme winners: the world champion Silver Ferns and coach Noeline Taurua, centre, at the Halberg Awards. Photo/Getty Images

The Silver Ferns won the supreme award this year, but Israel Adesanya hogged the spotlight.

Women very nearly scooped the pool at this year’s Halberg Awards.

The emerging talent award went to Alice Robinson, the first New Zealander to win a gold medal in the 38-year history of the World Junior Alpine Skiing Championships and the first since Claudia Riegler in 1997 to win a World Cup event. Last weekend in Slovenia, the 18-year-old won her second World Cup giant slalom of the season and is now fifth in the World Cup standings. Since ski racers usually don’t peak until their mid-twenties, Robinson seems destined for superstardom.

Canoeist Lisa Carrington was sportswoman of the year for the fourth time in a row. Sophie Pascoe, who won four gold medals at the World Para Swimming Championships, won the para athlete/team award for the sixth time since the category was introduced in 2011.

The Silver Ferns won the supreme award and team of the year, and their victory over Australia in the pulsating Netball World Cup final was voted sporting moment of the year. Ferns coach Noeline Taurua was coach of the year and took out the leadership award, and former Ferns player and coach Yvonne Willering won the lifetime achievement award.

But in a decision that smacked of tokenism, the sportsman of the year award was given to an actual man: UFC middleweight world champion Israel Adesanya, who thus became the first combat athlete to win a Halberg. Typically, he proceeded to hog the spotlight by delivering a mildly sweary speech deploring tall poppy syndrome.

The predominantly male sporting media swooned. The Herald called it “powerful”; Newshub opted for “rousing”. Sky Sport deemed it “iconic”, which suggests they don’t make icons like they used to. The Spin Off reckoned it was “the best acceptance speech in Halberg history”, but seeing the usual Halberg fare can apparently be filed under “fawning cavalcade of bullshit”, perhaps that’s not much of an achievement.

“New Zealand, we have this culture of tall poppy syndrome, which is messed up,” said Adesanya. “When you see one of us rising, you want to tear him down because you feel inadequate and you want to call it humble. I am extraordinarily humble, believe me.”

Israel Adesanya. Photo/Getty Images

A few observations about tall poppy syndrome. First, if you’re going to denounce it, where better than at a gathering of the nation’s elite athletes? Second, isn’t it the case that the syndrome is part and parcel, admittedly not always for the better, of the “Jack is as good as his master” egalitarianism on which we Kiwis pride ourselves?

Third, isn’t the media applauding an athlete for attacking tall poppy syndrome a little like oil companies applauding Greta Thunberg for slagging off those who contribute to and deny climate change? Where would the syndrome be without the media’s enthusiastic participation?

Endorsing Adesanya’s sentiments, a Stuff columnist cited “all round nice guy” Sonny Bill Williams, referencing his empathy after the Christchurch mosque shootings and campaigning on behalf of victims of the Syrian civil war and China’s repressed Uighur community. But when Williams suggested last year that the media should keep sport in perspective given what’s going on in the real world, columnists lined up to tell him to “shove his sermon” and “get a life”.

That said, although some in the sports media give every impression of subscribing to press baron Lord Beaverbrook’s attitude to tall poppies – “Kiss ’em one day and kick ’em the next” – few sports journalists see their roles as ensuring stars don’t get too big for their boots. However, professional sport is a results-driven, highly rewarded industry in which successes and failures are public, precisely measured, recorded for posterity and analysed to death: for both athlete and paid observer, criticism goes with the territory. The Black Caps were showered with media and public praise for their performances at the Cricket World Cup, but they must have expected the brickbats that came their way when they crumbled in Australia.

Although Adesanya’s fusillade was more scattergun than sniper’s rifle, I’d like to think the point he really wanted to get across was this: “Understand this, if you see one of us shining – whether it be the netball team, the Black Caps, the sailors – pump them up, embrace them, because, if they win, you win. If I win, you win.”

And I’d like to think most Kiwis would agree with him.

This article was first published in the February 29, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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