Sport in Dunedin

Dunedin is sometimes referred to the Edinburgh of New Zealand because of its Scottish roots. It is also a university town, with most NZ doctors trained at the medical college here. It seems redundant to say it is a beautiful location as everywhere in New Zealand is in different ways.  I really enjoyed the central business district with the interesting railway station and the Octogon in the center of town.  Dunedin is also one of many cities in NZ that prides itself on its gardens (Christchurch, Wellington to name others).  My main purpose was to see the penguins but if it had not poured rain I would have also gone to the Dunedin Botanic Garden or the more recently planted Dunedin Chinese Garden.  There also was not time to go to the only castle in NZ–Larnach Castle and gardens.  All give me reasons to return.

selfie in front of Dunedin Railway Station
selfie in front of Dunedin Railway Station

New Zealanders are also known for their love of sports of all sorts.  Rugby is king, and Dunedin’s skyline is dominated in the harbor area by Forsyth Barr Stadium, built for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. The All Blacks beat the Springboks (South Africa) in Auckland on September 14, as part of the Investec Rugby Championship and they were facing Argentina in a few days in La Plata.  The sports commentators were buzzing about this and that to do with rugby, but the eyes of the nation were firmly fixed on the America’s Cup.

When I arrived in Auckland the race was being broadcast on every television in the Auckland airport.  I had already been “educated” by Kiwis on my flight who were returning from watching the race in San Francisco.  I already knew that the average Kiwi was way more passionate about the race than 10 Americans put together. And I learned quickly not to argue with people who clearly knew way more about the competition and sailing than I will ever know.  So I asked questions like, “Oh, how did the American’s cheat?” When I commented that I hope the Cup returns to NZ so I can watch it in Auckland, they would nod vigorously and launch into a detailed explanation of how NZ will change the rules to make it more competitive.  As one fan pointed out to me, when they hosted the America’s Cup in 2003 there were many more nations participating and some women-only teams.

By the time I arrived in Dunedin (after my time in Oamaru) the American team had roared back to tie up the series and there was just one race left–sudden death.  Bad time to be “American Julie” in New Zealand.

Coincidentally I decided to see if the railway station was as lovely inside as it is outside and stumbled upon the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame.  (It is.) The admission is just $5NZ, and the friendly older gentleman who was at reception was enthusiastic about all sports. For a country of 4.4 million, they have a remarkable number of world-class athletes. You might think the Hall of Fame is dominated by rugby, actually, there are terrific athletes in a wide variety of sports, including sailing. There were several handouts provided including one confirming that the All Blacks got their name from their “sable and unrelieved costume” as early as 1893. And they have performed the pre-match haka as early as 1888, but did not become a ritual until the first World Cup in 1987.

NZ Sports Hall of Fame entrance on e floor off ground
NZ Sports Hall of Fame entrance one floor off ground

My host pointed out that the Americans had done a remarkable job recovering from the NZ team’s 8-1 lead in the America’s Cup and I could feel the sting in his voice. So later when I saw a list at the exhibit for Sir Edmund Hillary of the most important sportsman of the 20th Century (as voted by American sportswriters), and I saw that the great mountaineer and inductee was 9th, and I saw that Lance Armstrong was 2nd, I crossed out Lance’s name and showed him that Hillary was actually 8th. We had a lovely chat about sports and sportsmanship.

It made me think about the sporting paradoxes in the USA: we love an underdog, and everyone loves to hate a team (like the Yankees) when we feel that they “bought” their championships, and yet, people are lined up to buy a team and spend billions to have a championship too.  We have many gracious sportsmen/women, and we tend to forgive some very bad behavior, like John McEnroe and Tiger Woods because of their sports prowess. And we tend to turn a blind eye to cheating if everyone is making money, and then express outrage when the person gets caught.

As much fun as I was having, I had a date with penguins that evening, so I drove to the Hotel St. Clair in the beach suburb St. Clair. I found it on Trip Advisor and this hotel property is terrific. My room had a great view of the sea and a television.  In the morning I was able to watch the final America’s Cup race at 9 a.m. before checking out. If you saw the race then you know that after the first turn the result was never in doubt. The NZ sports announcers grumbled a fair bit about the technological advantage and about “Herbie” the hydraulic system that helped the Oracle boat get on its foils more quickly. (I read later that this was greatly exaggerated.) As the American team celebrated their victory, one announcer made a snarky comment that since Brit Ben Ainslie was on the team, Britain would no doubt say they won.

I expected people to be disappointed and Kiwis were really demoralized. They would hear my accent and they would congratulate me on the American team’s win.  I realized from previous conversations that it did not help to point out that people in the US were not nearly as caught up in the America’s Cup as they are in NZ.  I had my own “shock and awe” at how much faster the American boat was in the last 9 races, so I nodded when they talked about the technological advantage. I also tried to point out that there were Kiwis on every team, so really they could not lose, but that fell on deaf ears.  

One woman I met was still holding her “lucky bear” she got when New Zealand won the cup in 1995. She was near tears when she talked about the loss earlier in the day.  On Friday when I walked with the American women, one of them shared that she read in the paper that psychologists are concerned that Kiwis over-identify with sports teams confusing their own self-esteem with how well their team plays.  Hey, I used to be on that emotional roller coaster when I followed USC’s football team more closely.  In a country where most of the population lives very close to the sea, and most people have a rudimentary understanding of sailing, and a heritage of sailing (whether you harken to the amazing Polynesian/Maori traditions or the British Navy), so sailing is probably always going to matter more to most New Zealanders.

I was glad when I got to Auckland that people were recovering and celebrating the achievement of fielding a terrific team and coming close to winning.  There was mostly praise for the Captain Baaaahker (Barker with a NZ accent).  The Auckland Museum honored the team by lighting the museum with their team colors for 3 consecutive nights. And hundreds of people greeted the team at the airport.

The New Zealand Herald is still covering the post-race “news”, but the All Blacks win over the Pumas in Argentina helped to soothe the national psyche.