Fern farewell

Kereyn Smith during the New Zealand Olympic team function and Tokyo flagbearer announcement at...
Kereyn Smith during the New Zealand Olympic team function and Tokyo flagbearer announcement at AUT City Campus in Auckland in June. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Kereyn Smith has come a long way since she ran the Academy of Sport in Dunedin — and since she was running around on a Clinton farm as a girl. In the coming months, she will end her 11-year spell as chief executive and secretary-general of the New Zealand Olympic Committee. Hayden Meikle tracks her down for a chat.

How long have you been in the NZOC role, Kereyn?

Nearly 11 years. By the time I pass the baton to somebody else, I’m anticipating it will be 2022, which will be 11 years for me.

That’s a good stretch. Does it just feel like time to go?

Yeah, I think my original thoughts were that post-Tokyo 2020 would be a good time for reflection, and time to move on. With the Covid delay, the complexity around planning and preparation was not really conducive to moving on. There is a window now to get someone in place for the next Commonwealth Games then on to the Paris Olympics in 2024. It’s just the right time for me and for the organisation. I feel really lucky to have been involved in this job at a time when New Zealand sport has really stepped forward.

What are your plans?

I’m going to wait for the phone to ring, ha ha. I’m sort of imagining I just want to spend a little bit of time reflecting on things. I’d really love to do some projects — not that I know what they will look like — that can kind of use some of the cumulative experience and knowledge that you gain in a job like this. I’m really looking forward to just pursuing something, but no fixed plans at this point.

How has the Olympic role changed from when you started?

It’s changed a lot. It’s really interesting because it feels like sport has been professional in New Zealand for a long time, but in reality, it hasn’t. I was only the third or fourth CEO of the NZOC. It’s moved to become an organisation that is about leadership, that every day is contributing to New Zealand sport, both domestically and internationally. It’s got a clear role and function that isn’t just around the Olympic and Commonwealth Games. It’s a real leader of New Zealand sport. So I think the organisation is more enduring, and has more purpose and meaning.

You’ve been a strong advocate for women in sport. Have we seen that area take a leap over the past decade?

Definitely. One of my proudest moments was in 2015 when the New Zealand Olympic Committee won the global IOC award for its work in women in sport. That kind of recognised where we had moved to, in terms of an organisation working with female athletes and how we advocated for them. It reflected our policies and our representation, as well as the success and profile female athletes were achieving. That’s just continued to evolve. Diversity and inclusion are now the big things that have also evolved.

What’s been the toughest thing to deal with?

I’ve certainly reflected, over the past 12 months, on Tokyo. I remember a site visit our leadership team had there in February 2020. There were whispers about Covid but it was very low-key and I think we all thought it would just go away. Everything was set for utopia, for a great Olympic Games. The village and the venues were stunning, and there was just so much confidence and trust in what the Japanese people were going to deliver. Everything was looking great for this to be the ultimate Games. Then, bit by bit, it felt like it was unravelling. There was a point in time when we wondered, can we get back up this mountain? Or will Tokyo even happen? That was tough. It was tough for all sports, and all athletes. We felt like we were going through things over and over again. MIQ, vaccinations, flight schedules — it just seemed like, is this possible? But we believed strongly we were on a pathway that could work. It’s a fascinating story, and what the Japanese pulled off was nothing short of a miracle.

There has been some negativity around the Olympics — they’ve got too big, or too commercial, and not enough countries can realistically host the Games. Where do you stand on the Olympic movement and where it is heading?

I think the Olympics will always be a topic of conversation. Without doubt, they’re the biggest event in the world. Not many events have 206 countries and happen every four years, summer and winter. They’re an easy target. But at the heart of it, the Olympic movement stands for really good things in the world. Without the Olympics, world sport would be hugely the poorer. Arguably, the Olympic movement has never been stronger. I really value what it does, and the role the Games play. It’s not just about glitz and glamour but about hope and inspiration.

Give me your three favourite Olympic or Commonwealth Games moments from your time with the NZOC.

There are often so many it’s hard to differentiate. But I will pick one each from the last three Games. My favourite moment at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games was the double golden rugby sevens finals session that saw the New Zealand men and women win gold medals within just minutes of each other. At the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games, it’s the session that saw Zoi Sadowski-Synnott and Nico Porteous winning bronze medals within hours of each other. That was an inspiring and exciting moment for me. Young Kiwis, in new events, paving the way for a new generation of athletes to make their mark on the world stage. And at Tokyo, something that really sticks in my mind is the “power of the hour” at the rowing finals on the last day of the regatta. Three medals, each telling amazing stories, and reflecting the sheer grit, talent, innovation and determination of Kiwi athletes. The Emma Twigg dream come true at long last, our women’s eight creating Olympic history, and a stunning and unexpected victory by the men’s eight.

Do you get back to Dunedin much?

I was supposed to be coming down this weekend, actually, for the rugby which is no longer happening. That would have been quite special. I’ve still got family in Otago and I love to get back there.


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