This year, 2012, the whistle-blowing former Tour de France cyclist Stephen Swart was given the award for New Zealander of the Year. The award, started in 1991, has included cultural icons from the arts (Dame Malvina Major, Jane Campion, Peter Jackson), sporting stars from yachting, rugby and the Olympics, as well as authors, scientists, politicians and outstanding contributors to the social fabric of the country. In 1994, the title was given collectively to the residents of Auckland – some 1 million in the country’s largest city – for enduring that year’s water crisis (your author was one of the residents at that time so, if you’ll pardon the pun, a diluted recipient of the award).
Swart’s selection is unusual for two reasons. Firstly, cycling is a second or third tier sport in New Zealand, behind such niche sports as rugby, yachting, cricket and netball or even more well-known sports such as basketball and soccer. Secondly, Swart’s contribution to the dethroning of Lance Armstrong and the cleaning up of cycling was far away from New Zealand. As the editorial in the NZ Herald noted, the accolade normally “recognizes a particularly notable contribution to national life.” In this case Swart “created shockwaves far beyond the confines of this small nation.”
Yet Swart’s courage in talking about his own – and Armstrong’s – drug taking as long ago as 1997 was lauded. “It took courage to expose the much-celebrated Armstrong’s drug-taking when no one else wanted to know he was a cheat,” the editorial said. “Swart’s particular bravery lay in being the first cyclist to break that code of silence that had enveloped the sport.” Strong praise, indeed.
But why would New Zealanders care about a predominantly European sport? The antipodeans like their overseas sporting adventures. Cycling may not be a top-tier sport but it does have solid (and growing) popularity. With cycling finally getting cleaner, the NZ Herald noted that there is now “hope that the increasing number of talented and determined New Zealanders now working their way to the top of cycling will not have to face the choice of doping or accept a lesser career. Kiwis are strong people, they excel so long as the playing field is level.”
Which is what it is all about – the level playing field. Swart receiving the award is testimony to the interests of this small country in acknowledging his contribution to levelling that playing field and giving Kiwis the opportunity to shine on the world stage, no matter what the sport. Fair play and fair chances for all. An award reflecting the idealism of the amateur ethic that has driven so much of New Zealand’s sporting identity.