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Māori culture plays key role in NZ Olympic team's campaign

Almost 40 athletes who identify as being of Māori descent will compete at the Tokyo Games this year.

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There are around 40 athletes who identify as being of Māori descent at the Tokyo Games. Source: 1 NEWS

The New Zealand Olympic Team has worked hard to provide an environment that incorporates tikanga Māori and reinforce athletes' identity with advisors such as former Commonwealth Games medallist Trevor Shailer helping lay the foundation over the years.

Shailer also competed in boxing at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, but he told Te Karere he was fighting more than just an opponent in the ring.

“I by in large lived in fear I was going to get found out that I shouldn't be there,” Shailer said.

“It was so big for me and my whānau to be there - so elite.

“It almost felt out of place to now where the whakawhānaungatanga is to connect and have a ritual.”

Troubled by his own experiences, Shailer said he didn't want other athletes to feel the same as he did.

After retirement, he moved into cultural advisory for the New Zealand Olympic Team with late kaumatua Amster Reedy.

“We used to call him a whakamā [shame] buster,” Shailer recalled. “His job was to break down the shyness for athletes.

“When you're at the world stage, at the pinnacle, my belief is that there is a one per cent about who you are.

“If they can have a strong foundation of who they are as Māori and Kiwis, it will help their performance.”

Additions like kākahu for the flag bearers and the gifting of pounamu on arrival at the athletes’ village has helped galvanise the team's unique cultural identity and rituals too.

Sarah Hirini of the Black Ferns poses for a photo with the New Zealand Team Te Pou Hapai Wahine kākahu. Source: Getty

Unfortunately, for the first time in many Olympics, Shailer isn’t in the village due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But while he can't help guide athletes in Tokyo, he's confident of a strong medal haul.

“The level of adversity within the Games environment, we've always tended to do well and we do well because Māori culture is part of that process.”

Shailer’s work has now been turned into a thesis, looking into the influence of Māori cultural on the New Zealand Olympic team based on his experiences and that of others.

He soon hopes to turn it into a book as well.