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How connecting with Māori culture played a key role in our Olympic success

Headlines 12/08/2021

Now that the Olympic games have concluded, and our little ripper of a country produced our best ever performance, we now have the time and perspective to reflect on such a momentous accomplishment. 

So many factors contribute to the success of our athletes, none more so than their own hard work, dedication, and preparation in the lead up to these games.

But another somewhat 'surprising' factor that has played a key role in the success of some of our athletes is Te Ao Māori, or more specifically, how our athletes have connected with Māori culture and the positive effect it's had on their performance.

Lisa Carrington etched herself into New Zealand sporting folklore by becoming our most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, with a series of incredible gold medal winning performances out on the water.

Lisa was born in Tauranga but raised in the eastern Bay of Plenty town of Ōhope, and is of Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki and Ngāti Porou descent. When speaking to Te Karere before she left for Tokyo, the 32-year-old stated that strengthening her Māori identity helped her remain steady in life and on the water.

“As I've got older and got more experienced, matured a bit. my ability to connect back to my heritage and my identity has been really important and helpful,” Carrington said.

“To know my ancestors and what they did and the challenges that they went through so I could be here now has been a really cool realisation.

“I am both Māori and pākehā - to acknowledge both sides is really important.”

Carrington's mum and dad, Pat and Glynis, said they felt proud watching their superstar daughter go on a journey of self-discovery.

“She's always had it in there, maybe she's sharing it with everyone a little bit more,” her mum said.

“The whanaungatanga, manaakitanga in the team - Lisa has been driving that, acting and bringing it all together, it's been an important part of her development,” father Pat added.

She has been exemplifying sporting excellence in Aotearoa for nearly a decade, but she also exemplifies the values all Kiwi's should aspire to hold as well.

“It's like the kumara - it never speaks of it's sweetness,” Pat said.

“Even though she’s quite and humble, there's real strength in her and power within her.”

And it's not just Carrington that has felt a connection to Te Ao Māori, with Kiwi boxing ace David Nyika also feeling a cultural connection during his time with Team NZ.

The 26-year-old is of Ugandan descent, and when speaking to Te Ao Toa he stated that the influence of Māori culture has been "contagious" throughout the games village.

"It's kind of changed my entire outlook on, I don't want to sound dramatic and say life, but my feeling of connectedness to Māori culture has increased ten-fold," Nyika said about the honour of being flagbearer for Aotearoa at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo games.

"I respect the rugby sevens men and women so much. Basically, with the help of the support staff and the wider team, they've created a culture within their own teams that has spread and it's so contagious throughout the entire village. 

"There's no country here that does it quite like us in terms of respecting ourselves, respecting our teammates, respecting our culture." 

So let's take these learnings from the Olympic village, and how beneficial it was to our athletes in one of the most stressful sporting environments in the world, and apply it to the context of everyday Kiwis.

Immersion in Te Ao Māori has helped our athletes excel at the highest level, so imagine what it can do for you in your day to day life?

It can provide a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging to something bigger than yourself, and a spiritual grounding that Western civilization often longs for. To understand where you're going in this big messed up world, it helps if you understand where you come from, and Te Ao Māori helps you celebrate your heritage in a truly meaningful and holistic way.

We are currently going through a period of immense growth as a country in regards to the treatment of our indigenous culture, and some people have been extremely hesitant and/or resistant to this cultural shift. Some have even claimed that Māori language and culture is being 'shoved down peoples throats'.

That kind of rhetoric is a product of fear and ignorance, but the times are a changing e te whānau.

Te Ao Māori is a gift, not a threat, so don't be afraid of it.