Good sport

Good sport

This hook explores the ways that sport contributes to a sense of comradeship.

Wood-chopping competition at New Zealand Base Depot Sports(external link)

Wood-chopping competition at New Zealand Base Depot Sports, Etaples, by Henry Sanders, 1918. Alexander Turnbull Library. 1/2-013428-G


At the beginning of the First World War, soldiers were discouraged from playing sport because it was viewed as distraction. By 1916, the benefits of sport as a way to foster camaraderie, help maintain soldiers’ fitness, and boost morale were widely recognised. Although there were few opportunites to play sport at Gallipoli, at the Western Front sport was actively encouraged by the authorities. Some games were impromptu, but there were also organised competitions that included events common in New Zealand rural areas at the time: wood chopping, boxing, tugs of war, horse racing, athletics, and above all, rugby. One advantage of these types of activities was that they needed little additional equipment. 

Back at home, there was considerable debate about whether domestic games should continue during the war. Before the war, sport was perceived as a way to keep young men in shape so that they would be ready to defend the British Empire. During the war, some people felt that sportsmen eligible for service should sign up rather than continue to play sport. One rugby administrator of the time, Edgar Wylie, summed it up at the national union’s annual meeting in 1915: “The plums of rugby should not be open to those who remain behind. While the men were fit to play rugby, they were fit to go to the front.” In many instances, entire school sports teams enlisted after leaving school. Some sports players refused to play against “shirkers” who had chosen not to enlist. When conscription was introduced in 1916, these debates became redundant. 

Possible discussion questions 

What might have been the benefits of holding a sports competition during a time of conflict? 

Why does the New Zealand military continue to place a high priority on involvement in sport? 

What are some similarities between the attributes of a good sportsperson and the attributes of a good soldier? 

Why does sport have such a high profile in New Zealand society in general?

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