Who won New Zealand sport in 2021?

OPINION:

It’s near the end of 2021 so it’s time to reflect on the new dystopia and desperately search for a few wins in what was, let’s face it, a pretty average year.

Despite the efforts of the team of 1.7 million (I’m sorry, but Auckland did A LOT of the work), the way forward is still as uncertain as ever in this weird, tireless simulation. But you know what’s been pretty damn good? Sport.

Sport in 2021 has been the salve to our collective anxieties, injecting much-needed feelings of joy and community, and sometimes heartbreak, amid widespread illness, economic angst and technological alienation, not just for fans, but for athletes as well.

To celebrate the thing that saw so many – often literal – wins this year, it’s time to celebrate those wins by making them compete in an extremely scientific round-of-16 tournament bracket.

Rules

1. Covid-19 will once again be barred from the tournament, because it continues to win – a lot – and would dominate if allowed to compete.
2. There were so many winners in sport globally, but this bracket will mainly focus on New Zealand sport.
3. As Lydia Ko would say, good vibes only.

Honourable mentions (lost in the qualifying stage)

Swimmers

Lewis Clareburt kicked things off for NZ’s up-and-coming swimmers at the Olympics and quickly emerged as one of the country’s top swimmers, if you weren’t already paying attention. He wasn’t quite ready to take the step into the medals but don’t bet against him in Paris 2024.

At the Paralympics, Tupou Neiufi claimed gold in the 100m breaststroke S8 and swimming legend Sophie Pascoe took home four more medals, including two golds. Neiufi’s win was a great moment, while Pascoe cemented her place as a Kiwi swimming legend.

Face masks

Face masks allowed sports and basically everything else that was being active in life to continue.

Quick power rankings of athletes in face masks:

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo

2. Naomi Osaka

1. Lisa Carrington

Rowers

So many rowing medals for New Zealand, including three golds, which is great considering how much money is pumped into the sport compared to how many Kiwis actually do it. It’s good to see fast-growing sports like basketball recently get some love from High Performance Sport New Zealand, in what is a pretty flawed system.

Horse racing

Horse racing is a winner basically because it’s not greyhound racing. Wherever you sit on the racing ethical scale – animal abuse, or giving horses a life that’s pretty luxe until you beat them to run faster, and occasionally euthanise them – it’s a lot better than greyhound racing.

A Government review of the greyhound industry found that 103 dogs were euthanised in the first seven months of the year, with several for “no reason given” – either through sheer profit-driven negligence or poor record keeping. The greyhound industry faces extinction if it doesn’t clean up its act.

And, of course, the actual win for New Zealand in the Melbourne Cup! The race that stops the nation and certain segments of Aotearoa was an all-Kiwi affair, with Verry Elleegant, jockey James McDonald and legendary trainer Chris Waller taking home the Cup.

The America's Cup

So New Zealanders like sailing every four years, huh? It dominated headlines for a few months and occasionally still pops up in the form of dramedy (or maybe even satire?) through sailing’s very own Logan Roy. However, everyone eventually caught on to how much of a waste of taxpayer money it was, especially because, um, we’re in a pandemic. Plus, the sport is pretty inaccessible for the large majority of Kiwis.

Longform

Longform made a comeback in 2021, from test cricket showing that it’s clearly the better format than T20s, to Taylor Swift’s ‘All Too Well (Taylor’s Version)’, a 10-minute power ballad and absolute banger that became the longest song in history to top the Billboard Top 100 charts.

Is this piece an example of longform winning yet again? I guess we’ll find out.

The top 16 seeding

Delta conference

1. Lisa Carrington

What more can you say about Lisa Carrington. An incredible career and an almost perfect Tokyo Olympics, taking home three gold medals. She’s easily the country’s most dominant Olympian ever.

2. Black Caps

What a year for cricket’s “nice guys”. The stats say it all:

Tests: Three wins (Pakistan, England, India), two draws (England, India), one loss (India – in the final test of the year); won the inaugural World Test Championship.

ODIs: Three from three wins against Bangladesh.

T20s: 13 wins out of 23; runners-up in the T20 Cricket World Cup.

3. Tokyo Olympics

As soon as the first, albeit borderline unethical, Tokyo Olympics starting gun fired, the world became a brighter place. The grass glistened with a more vibrant green, the men and women battling it out in epic physical pursuits resisted the virus and harsh environments.

The “new normal” was in sight. The world stood still – in an ultra-fast paced online environment – to watch our larger screens: together. (At least in theory, anyway.)

Plus, the actual sports were great.

4. Peter Burling and Blair Tuke

They were the main men of Team New Zealand’s America’s Cup-winning crew, took out silver in Tokyo (although they probably should’ve got gold), led New Zealand’s SailGP team, and seem to be genuine lovers of the sea and sailing in general. Sailing might not be for everyone, but it’s hard not to like the country’s favourite sailing bros.

5. Lydia Ko

Lydia Ko is back. Not only is she playing some of the best golf of her career – at a time when women’s golf is at an all-time high in terms of talent and popularity – Ko is also just a straight up chill vibe, ya know.

6. Black Ferns Sevens

One of the most dominant teams in sport, coupled with an exuberant mana on and off the field, made for one of the most fun and awesome teams to watch and follow in Tokyo. And shouts to Ruby Tui for her multiple viral interviews.

https://www.youtube.com/embed//5doO9_uiqGI

7. Ajaz Patel

Patel achieved one of NZ sport’s greatest achievements against test giants India in Mumbai, the city of his birth. Not only was it a historic feat and perfect encapsulation of modern day Aotearoa, it’s a better real-life version of those saccharine ANZ ads. Ah, when life imitates ads.

8. All Whites

We might be seeing the All Whites’ golden generation develop right in front of our eyes. Under coach Danny Hay, the young side is not only playing attractive, positive football, but they’re showcasing an impressive level of depth that should see them become less of a layup come World Cup time next year (assuming they qualify). Also, they managed to keep their name, despite some weird corporate wokeness from NZ Football. Good stuff Whites.

Omicron conference

1. Vaccines

Sport, like most things in life, simply could not continue without vaccines – the real MVP of 2021.

2. Live crowds

Despite the cognitive dissonance of seeing fully packed stadiums around the world as Omicron starts to wreak havoc, it was great to have sport in front of crowds again this year. Sport is simply not the same without fans.

3. Mental health awareness

As athletes gain more of a platform, some have used the sporting stage to highlight the growing issue of mental health. Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka led the way internationally, while in New Zealand athletes like Amelia Kerr and Anton Lienert-Brown have spoken bravely about their own struggles.

4. Unions

In 2021, unions all over the world and the country have used their collective bargaining power to demand long overdue improvements to working conditions, better pay and a more equitable sharing of resources within late stage capitalist organisations.

And sport, especially within our national game, was no different. As sport becomes more commercialised and financially minded, athletes have used collective bargaining as a tool to get paid what they’re worth and negotiate better deals. This year’s big winners were the New Zealand Rugby Players’ Association, who continue to stand strong against selling part of the sport’s governing body to the speculative world of private equity.

5. Silver Lake

As important research for this part of the bracket, I managed to score an exclusive zoom interview* with Mr Silver Lake, also known by his white rapper name Lil Lake, who spoke to me about all things investment, from crypto to being a proud tech bro.

When I asked about his interest in the All Blacks, Lake showed me his 2ETH ($6000) Ardie Savea NFT that he proudly owns, which he believes will double in value next year.

“NFTs have always existed when you think about it, but we’ve just never thought to monetise it – and that’s its genius,” says Lake, wearing Tesla merch and ironic Oakley sunglasses. “Like private equity, there are NFT haters. But from where I’m sitting, all tech – and money – really does is improve literally everything.

“With me, the All Blacks can make the world a better place – one bitcoin at a time.”

*Mr Silver Lake is not a real person. Silver Lake is an American private equity firm interested in buying into New Zealand Rugby.

6. Women’s sport

Women’s sport made big strides in 2021, from the Wellington Phoenix – the first New Zealand professional women’s football club – and confirmation of the women’s Super Rugby competition, to women making up the majority of New Zealand’s record medal haul at the Tokyo Olympics. Things seem to be only going up from here, in spite of sport’s shameful sexist history (and sometimes present).

7. Sportswashing

Sportswashing is the term for when an individual, group, corporation, or nation-state uses sport to improve its reputation and public image. Sportswashing had a big year: climate polluting giant Ineos signed a big deal to sponsor the All Blacks, the Highlanders were called the Speight’s Highlanders (not that beer is bad, but not a health product like sport and exercise), and Newcastle United now have a lot of money thanks to the Saudi-led takeover of the club, which went through despite protests against the Gulf kingdom’s human rights record.

8. Player power

Welcome to New Zealand sport’s player power era, when athletes have more and more leverage to negotiate large contracts and have the ability to control their message through non-traditional media like Instagram and podcasts. Athletes like Ardie Savea and Israel Adesanya are outspoken, unapologetic and business savvy, all while knowing that the only ones looking out for their own best interests are themselves. SBW would be proud.

Round of 16

Delta conference

1. Lisa Carrington v 8. All Whites

Oh boy, an absolute thrashing to start. The All Whites are still young and relatively unproven, but maybe, just maybe, 2022 could be their year (as in maybe a few more upset draws at the World Cup). Carrington, on the other hand, paddles her way to the lead in this bracket right from the start, like she did against basically everyone in Tokyo.

4. Peter Burling and Blair Tuke v 5. Lydia Ko

Lydia Ko’s medal playoff in Tokyo was one of the most entertaining parts of the Games, while sailing at the Olympics was fairly, well, meh. Even though Burling and the very handsome Tuke have technically achieved more in 2021, Ko is just cooler and competes in a more competitive and difficult sport. Sorry lads.

3. Tokyo Olympics v 6. Black Ferns Sevens

The Olympics was a great few weeks. I still miss it. But it also probably shouldn’t have happened. Meanwhile, the Black Ferns battled the elements and brought home gold, while showcasing Aotearoa and Māori culture to the world. The Tokyo Olympics is finally #cancelled (from this bracket) in an early upset.

2. The Black Caps v 7. Ajaz Patel

Controversy hits Bracket HQ in the first round. The Black Caps, one of the favourites to take out the whole thing, are somehow drawn against someone who plays in the team. Who made these ridiculous rules? Should Patel even be allowed to compete? I guess the Black Caps move on by default, which means Patel technically still stays in the tournament.

Omicron conference

1. Vaccines v 8. Player power

Player power only goes so far when you’re an anti-vaxxer. Just ask NBA star Kyrie Irving, or former Breakers guard (and former anti-vaxxer) Tai Webster. Webster parted ways with the Kiwi ANBL club after refusing the Covid-19 vaccine for “personal reasons”. But after probably realising it meant he wouldn’t be able to do things or play basketball overseas, he eventually bit the bullet and got the jab in order to join Lithuanian EuroLeague club Žalgiris Kaunas.

Or… hear me out here, but what if Webster faked being anti-vaxx in order to make a player power move to get out of his contract to be able to play in Europe? Or have I just been reading too many Webster family conspiratorial tweets? Really makes you think. Regardless, vaccines win.

4. Unions v 5. Silver Lake

Storylines galore in this first round matchup. It’s almost as if this was planned. The NZRPA – via collective bargaining – have so far blocked NZ Rugby’s Silver Lake deal from progressing, with the players’ union citing worries about what will be lost from the game if the deal goes through. NZR are now exploring other forms of investment, which seems to be what the players wanted in the first place. The Silver Lake deal is not dead, but the NZRPA are sitting right at the head of the table and have shown yet again the power of the collective.

3. Mental health awareness v 6. Women’s sport

Both mental health in sport and women’s sport have a long way to go. But both made strong strides in 2021. Ultimately mental health awareness takes out a close victory, because we all need to take care of our mental health in these times.

2. Live crowds v 7. Sportswashing

Crowds are back, but they are no match for sport’s ability to sell out to basically anyone/anything for money.

Quarter-finals

Delta conference

1. Lisa Carrington v 5. Lydia Ko

Ko ended the year at world No 3 in the world rankings, but the best women’s golfer of 2021 was definitely Nelly Korda. I mean, there’s even another Ko (Jin Young Ko of South Korea) ranked higher than Lydia. Is there a better sprint kayaker on the planet that’s not named Lisa Carrington? No.

6. Black Ferns Sevens v 2. Black Caps

The Black Caps have shown the ability to compete in all three formats of the game against anyone in the world. The Black Ferns were only great in the sevens arena, but had a pretty tough year in XVs.

No, Black Caps. You’re not allowed to forfeit. Stop being so nice.

Omicron conference

1. Vaccines v 4. Unions

The vast majority of professional athletes are vaccinated against Covid-19 as you basically need to be to do your job, especially if you’re competing overseas. Vaccines edge Unions in a hard-fought battle. We do, indeed, live in a society after all.

3. Mental health awareness v 7. Sportswashing

Sportswashing has slowly revealed itself to be a major force in this tournament, with not only a strong starting lineup but a deep bench. Take next year’s Fifa World Cup in Qatar, where the middle eastern country’s largely migrant workforce continues to suffer exploitative working conditions – including thousands of deaths – in preparation for the massive global competition. The World Cup is yet another example of sportswashing, an attempt to distract from Qatar’s poor human rights record. On the other hand, mental health awareness is great, but often not a luxury afforded to the working class.

A special thanks to Jeff Bezos and Amazon, proud sponsors of the 2021 Bracket.

Semifinals

Delta conference final

1. Lisa Carrington v 2 Black Caps

Two great Kiwi success stories battling it out for the Delta trophy. This one is so close it requires a super over. Carrington wins on gold medal countback.

Omicron conference final

1. Vaccines v 7. Sportswashing

The appropriation of sport as a PR tool for dodgy corporations and countries is no match for the best tool to get us out of this Covid-19 nightmare.

The grand final

Lisa Carrington v Vaccines

Vaccines are great and all but there’s still work to be done to reach thousands of New Zealanders. Congrats Lisa Carrington on winning the 2021 Bracket, perhaps your greatest achievement to date.

Can’t wait to see what 2022 throws at us.

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