The most powerful woman in New Zealand sport, Kereyn Smith, has been working furiously through the Olympic meltdown to make sure Kiwi athletes are heard
The small office in Kereyn Smith’s Auckland townhouse – until now unused and “somewhat chaotic” – has become New Zealand’s Olympic war room.
It’s here in her isolation bunker that Smith, the head of the New Zealand Olympic Committee, is fervently lobbying on behalf of Kiwi athletes as the world draws up a plan determining the future of the next Olympic Games.
She’s frequently been up well into the early hours of the morning over the last fortnight, on conference calls with the International Olympic Committee and representatives from most of the 205 other Olympic nations, many dialling in from their own lockdown refuges.
Smith is among a small number of female voices on the call – as one of the few women to hold a top leadership position in the Olympic movement.
She’s relieved that the Tokyo Olympics, slated for July, have finally been postponed until next year because of the coronavirus pandemic. “It just didn’t feel right [to go ahead],” she says.
“It was what the big majority of New Zealand athletes wanted too. They were starting to worry about their own health and well-being; their training was compromised, and it wasn’t an even playing field across the globe.”
Now there’s been a new date to be set – the opening ceremony will be July 23, 2021 – she and her team can help athletes to refocus, and redraw their programmes ahead of another 16 months of training.
At the same time, Smith has dealt with other late-night calls around organising the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games (she’s also vice president of the Commonwealth Games Federation board).
Surely Smith, the most powerful leader in New Zealand sport right now, must be exhausted in these strange and unsettling times?
“Possibly. I wouldn’t mind a sleep-in, if that’s what you’re asking,” she says. “It’s been pretty relentless and frantic. But gosh, at the end of the day, it’s not life or death is it?
“There’s a lot of work ahead of us… to reschedule our planning for next year – which will now overlap with organising our teams for both the Winter Olympics and the Commonwealth Games in 2022. But that’s okay – we’ll regroup and advance.”
Smith ponders how she’s got through this past fortnight of uncertainty and change.
“The leadership requirements in these extraordinary times are probably similar to those for a successful athlete: resilience, determination and focusing on what you can control.”
It seems she has those traits in spades.
Back in 2011, Smith became the first female in the 100-year history of the NZOC to be appointed as its secretary general, or CEO. The role has changed her life.
“In this job, you plan in four-year cycles. A lot of your time is spent building new relationships internationally, with people you only see once a year, so it takes time for you to feel you’re established and able to influence,” Smith says. And she’s in no hurry to move on, either (although she’d be honoured to one day be a member of the IOC).
As a girl, growing up in rural south Otago, Smith knew little about the Olympic Games.
“I didn’t know much existed beyond the farm. I was doing my chores and doing what my four brothers did – playing sport. I didn’t really have any vision of what was possible,” she says.
“The most significant thing we did in sport was get up in the middle of the night to watch the All Blacks play on our black and white TV. I had no idea how an Olympic team came together.”
At Clinton Primary School, Smith was introduced to netball – but admits she would have chosen rugby had it been an option. “Dad was a life member of the local rugby club, and Mum was a rugby nut. I got paid to clean my brothers’ boots.”
At teacher’s college in Christchurch, she played netball on Saturdays and rugby on Sundays for the Crusadettes, the university rugby side. “I only found out recently we were in one of the world’s first club competitions for women’s rugby,” she says.
She taught physed in Marlborough and Otago before heading overseas, and when she returned home, she leaped into sports management – starting as executive director of Sport Manawatu.
She was private secretary to the Minister of Sport, John Banks, in the early 1990s, before heading the Hillary Commission (now known as Sport New Zealand). For a decade she was the CEO of the Academy of Sport South Island, and then replaced Barry Maister as head of the NZOC – the top job in sports leadership in the country.
But it was her time as a volunteer with netball that Smith learned so much of her leadership. For 11 years, she was on the Netball New Zealand board – six of those as chair – leading the sport’s evolution from amateur to semi-professional status. She then spent six years as the vice-president of the International Netball Federation.
“Being involved in netball really was like a women’s leadership academy. It had a profound influence on me,” she says. “How grateful am I now to have worked with amazing women leaders like Lois Muir, Christine Archer, Sheryl Wells and Monica Leggat?
“They weren’t there to grandstand. They just did stuff. They had a real love of the sport and wanted to uphold its standards, values and integrity.”
Dame Lois Muir, in particular, has had a major impact on her career. “Everyone knows her coaching exploits, which I greatly admire,” Smith says. “But she’s also a wonderful caring person, who takes you under her wing, and gives really good direct advice.”
A lot of that has rubbed off on Smith. London Olympian Sarah Cowley-Ross, now a member of the New Zealand Athlete Commission, describes her as an exceptional and compassionate leader.
“Kereyn is so passionate, and she never stops working for the betterment of others. She brings people with her,” Cowley-Ross says. “Once at a meeting she said: ‘We can all do more’, and that really stuck with me. If someone who does so much insists she can still do more, than I needed to up my game.”
Smith has always been a strong advocate for women in sport.
In 2015, she accepted the World Trophy at the IOC Women and Sport Awards on behalf of the NZOC – recognising the efforts New Zealand had made to improve gender equality in sport.
The number of women in Olympic leadership roles internationally is increasing, but slowly, Smith acknowledges. “When you go to a meeting there are still a lot of dark suits, and most of them are worn by men,” she says.
Smith is playing her part to right the gender imbalance she sees. She’s always pushed national sports bodies to have more female representation on their boards.
And with the grant for that IOC award, the NZOC established the Women in Sport Leadership Academy to help Olympic sportswomen transition from competition into sports leadership roles. (Earlier this year, Smith married Pauline Harrison, the programme leader of the academy worldwide.)
“We have so many talented female leaders who, given the confidence skills and networks, will make a massive difference to world sport. Ali Shanks, Chantal Brunner, Sarah Walker and Sarah Cowley-Ross – they’re all putting their hands up and leading,” Smith says.
“Realising the full potential of women doesn’t have to be at the expense of men.”
Throughout the discussions on whether the Olympics should still go ahead in July, Smith kept New Zealand’s athletes at the top of the agenda.
“The NZOC is a business, but Kereyn has put the athletes’ well-being at the forefront,” says Cowley-Ross. “She constantly asks what do the athletes want? How are they coping? She’s very receptive to hearing what others want and need.”
Smith has been the go-between, letting the IOC know what the New Zealand team want, while keeping everyone in the New Zealand campaign – from athletes to coaches, commercial partners, stakeholders and the media – well-informed.
“In the time of the coronavirus, the communication can’t be alarmist – it has to be calm, and clear,” she says.
“There have been long days, with lots of actions and task sheets. That’s when having an experienced, competent team around you pays big dividends.”
These Olympics – the first postponed in the history of the modern Games – were always going to be a big deal for New Zealand.
“Tokyo is going to be massive, because it feels close to home,” Smith says. “And it may be our biggest ever Olympic team.” New Zealand took 199 to the 2016 Rio Games.
“There’s a bit of pressure – for the last few years we’ve continued to grow in terms of reach, impact and results, so people expect that trajectory to continue. We just have to do everything we can to make sure it goes well.”
The date of the 2021 Olympics was to have been known in three weeks, but the IOC made its announcement – of July 23 to August 8 – early this morning.
“Covid-19 is clearly a huge global event. Because there needs to be further qualifying events for Tokyo, there has to be time to conduct them and give everyone a fair and reasonable chance to attend,” she says.
“It’s pretty epic to move an Olympic Games. Once we know the date, we will reschedule everything – re-forecast and re-budget. It will have significant financial implications too.”
Despite the late nights and long days, it’s still a job Smith loves.
“It’s a very special opportunity to do this. It combines my passion for sport and leadership, in a role where you can influence and lead. And there’s the other side, around values and education – growing people and working with athletes to develop and empower them,” she says.
“It’s a lovely mixture of the things I feel really passionate about.”