Nigel Avery, chef de mission, NZ Olympic Team

[As published in March/April BayBuzz magazine.]

Nigel Avery will have one of the best seats in the house at this year’s Paris Olympics. 

The Hawke’s Bay based former Olympian and five-time medal winning Commonwealth Games weightlifter will be doing much of the heavy lifting at the Games, making sure our 200+ athletes only need to focus on winning a medal or personal best (PB). 

Nigel is the New Zealand Olympic team’s chef de mission, a role that ensures the smooth running of New Zealand’s Olympic campaign, drawing on his own experiences to ensure our athletes and their support teams have the experience of a lifetime. 

“There’s quite a bit to the role. I’m group spokesperson and will front the media both in good and difficult situations. I drive the culture within the team, am a cheerleader in the stadium as well as putting the athletes first at all times, making sure we are all proudly representing New Zealand.” 

As a weightlifter he knows how the smallest details can make a huge difference to the performance of an athlete. It’s not all strength, it’s about timing, flexibility, agility, mental wellbeing, and focus. 

It’s these attributes as well as a cool and calm persona that saw him appointed to the coveted chef de mission role, usually a 7-year fixed term tenure, before the Birmingham Commonwealth Games in 2022. 

Although he’s not expecting any trouble, more hoping for a solid medal haul, Nigel has to be ready should any particular drama or incident unfold. In fact he says it’s something that’s top of mind as it gets closer to the opening ceremony of July 26. 

However he’s confident that if any issue arises, he’s well equipped with support resources and able to draw on his experience as an athlete as well as a media commentator at previous Games. He says it’s all about preparation, knowing what’s expected and a strong culture of manaaki – hospitality, kindness and support. 

“I’ve been an athlete myself, so you’ve been there (Olympics) and seen how it operates. 

“I’m pretty calm and measured – fair but firm. I’m good working with people and our product is people. We’ve got to make sure that everybody’s happy and feels welcomed, valued and respected.” 

Other Hawke’s Bay athletes likely to be involved include Tokyo rowing gold medalists Emma Twigg, Tom Mackintosh, canoe racing’s Aimee Fisher, who missed Tokyo, as well as hockey player Sean Finlay. 

Nigel, an accountant graduate, followed his parents Sir Graeme and Gaby Avery to Hawke’s Bay back in the 1990s when they founded Sileni Estate. He was a senior executive within the business based in the Bay as well as spending time with wife Shelley and his three daughters Blaise, Hunter and Neve in the United States. 

Shelley and the girls will be in Paris, but with such a hectic schedule Nigel’s unsure how much time he’ll get to spend with them.

“I might only just bump into them by accident,” he says. 

In the lead up to the Games, Nigel, who owns a mortgage brokering business, MortgageMe, is a contractor to the NZOC, reporting to the chief executive, balancing both roles as the intensity builds up over a four-year cycle. 

In the year of the Olympics, the role amplifies and by the time the Olympics start, he’s taken over the full reins, overseeing a support team of over 50 personnel. 

Nigel is equally excited and nervous as he counts down the days to the opening ceremony on July 26. 

In typical French style, the opening ceremony will be full of fanfare and for the first time in Olympic history, it will not be held within a stadium, instead within the heart of the city, along its main artery, the Seine River. 

Some 10,400 athletes will participate in the opening ceremony, many on the 160 boats that will wind their way along the Seine. 

It’s just another logistical challenge, of which there will be many throughout the 19 days and beyond. 

To ensure the Games are successful in medals and PBs well as off the field, Nigel breaks down the Olympics into several stages. 

There’s the preparation and set up phase, most of which is done out of the New Zealand Olympic Committee’s offices in Auckland. Plus workshops around the country with athletes discussing how they can best prepare themselves for the non-competitive aspects of the Games – which is where there’s the greatest risk of reputational damage for the individual, team and country. 

Athletes and their support teams are schooled up on the privilege and responsibility involved in representing New Zealand. And details attended to, like taking their measurements for uniforms as well as photos and profiles for media purposes. 

He says making sure everyone in the team is on the same page is vital, but it’s a challenge due to the nature of athletes across 31 sports participating at the world’s largest sporting event. 

“We’re a team of teams and we want to make sure everybody feels part of the New Zealand team, regardless of where they’re based.” 

The next stage of set up is when Nigel and his support crew get access to the athlete village, usually a couple of weeks out from the start and creating a little taste of home. 

“That’s a big thing as you are trying to create a true Kiwi experience which is going to inspire people as they walk in those doors. 

“Shortly after that the village opens and we move into kind of an arrivals phase where we’re welcoming athletes, which is a really important phase. 

“It’s a bit of a revolving door as some athletes are competing in the first couple of days and then leaving the village just as others have arrived. 

“As an example, the 7s rugby teams could be finished on day one of the competition. So they’re not going to be around too long. You could be helping them with their celebrations and then saying farewell before welcoming another team.”

Twenty one of the 32 sport events are within 10 kilometres of the athlete village, but logistics become more challenging with the likes of canoe racing, equestrian, rowing and golf events over 40 kilometres away, while surfing, a sport introduced at the Tokyo Olympics, will be held 15,000 kilometres away.

New Zealand’s two likely surfing competitors Saffi Vette and Billy Stairm will be riding the world’s scariest waves at Teahupo’o in Tahiti, French Polynesia. 

“It will certainly be a challenge, and we are trying as much as we can (to include Saffi and Billy) but obviously geographic separation means we will need some virtual connections.

“I’m hoping there is a time when they are both in New Zealand before departure (theirs and ours) that we can do something special for them.”

When Nigel arrives in Paris for the Olympics there will be daily meetings with other chef de missions to talk about any concerns or issues before getting out and about to support Kiwis competing in anything from gymnastics to swimming to weightlifting. 

“Some of the competitions might go until midnight, so they’re pretty long days. I’m always a pretty nervous supporter. 

“It’s kind of like having a child, you experience all the emotions, there’s joy, sadness, fear and frustration, but ultimately it’s an extremely energizing and exciting experience.

“I’m super excited, the Olympics only come around every four years and for some athletes they will only ever participate at one Games, so we have to make it a special occasion.” 

Mixed in with watching sport, Nigel will also host sponsors, donors and fans at fan HQ, New Zealand House, which will be situated on the famous Champs-Élysées. 

The 57-year-old is also involved in deciding who will be bestowed the honour of flagbearer and leading the New Zealand team at the opening ceremony, a proud moment he experienced at the Manchester 2002 Commonwealth Games. 

In the next issue of BayBuzz we will profile some of the Hawke’s Bay athletes who have been selected to represent the silver fern. 


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