Next week's NZCT AIMS Games is being embraced by national sporting bodies, as the intermediate-aged sporting tournament opens up new avenues for aspiring athletes.
The Tauranga-based tournament will feature more than 9300 competitors across 21 sporting codes when it starts on Sunday. It's the largest sporting tournament of its kind in New Zealand, having grown significantly in each of the 13 years it's been running.
Sport New Zealand chief executive Peter Miskimmin attended last year's tournament and came away thoroughly impressed.
"For many of the youngsters, AIMS Games is the first chance they will have had to pitch themselves against the best in their chosen sports," Miskimmin said. "The more young people take part in enjoyable sporting events that are age-appropriate and tailored to their development like this, the more likely they will remain involved in sport for life. AIMS Games is also an important opportunity for talent identification and a step in the pathway to competitive and elite competition."
The sheer scale of the event has appealed to the contributing sports. There are 840 rugby sevens players involved next week, for example, as New Zealand Rugby celebrates a first Olympic rugby medal following the national women's team's silver in Rio.
“It’s great news to see such big numbers for sevens - we see huge potential to grow the sevens game on the back of our men's and women's teams competing at the Olympics and the AIMS Games will certainly help in that regard," NZR high performance sevens manager Tony Philp said. "We hope the Olympics really inspires the young sevens players at the AIMS Games and other young athletes around the country."
All Black hooker Nathan Harris and sevens representative Kelly Brazier will be at the AIMS Games supporting young athletes, while a number of other Olympic stars will also be present. Rio canoe slalom silver medalist Luuka Jones is a guest speaker at the opening ceremony, helping welcome canoe slalom as one of three new AIMS Games sports this year, while another new sport - BMX - will have Olympians Sarah Walker, Kurt Pickard and Trent Jones at their finals day. Sailing siblings Sam and Molly Meech - fresh from winning bronze and silver respectively in Rio - will be at the games.
Hockey has 1040 players competing this year, with the AIMS Games an ideal venue to showcase the mixed 6-a-side version of the game, adopted by Hockey New Zealand as part of its Small Sticks programme.
The 6-a-side format has exploded this year with 38 teams entered, alongside 18 boys' and 20 girls' teams in the 11-a-side ranks.
"Hockey New Zealand see the AIMS Games as a great opportunity for intermediate-aged hockey players to compete in a fun environment, using a game format that is appropriate to their level of development," HNZ's community hockey manager Jack Clayton said. "It's great to see 6-a-side as an option at AIMS games and to see so many schools taking it up as an option for their developing players. This format gives the players more touches on the ball and the smaller field size allows for their required running distance and passing skills to be matched with their age and stage. It also allows coaches and umpires to develop their skills with less players to manage and being able to get closer to the on field action. Sometimes it is difficult for smaller schools to get a full hockey team together so this format also allows for more participation from a more diverse range of schools."
All sporting codes will have record fields next week, with football attracting 1232 players from 88 teams, 888 competitors playing basketball and cross country harnessing 772 runners.
None are bigger than netball, however, with 1344 netballers from 112 teams making it one of New Zealand's largest netball tournaments at any level.
Netball New Zealand head of community netball Ruth Stanley loves the fact that small rural schools can compete alongside bigger city schools, while every competitor gets to enjoy a unique experience.
"We see this tournament as an important opportunity for this age group to have a positive sporting experience, participate in a tournament situation as well as be part of this huge festival-like experience with many other sporting codes," Stanley said. "Participating in school teams for this age group, rather than representative teams, allows as many children as possible to participate and experience netball in a positive and most importantly enjoyable environment to develop a life-long love of the game."
Other former sporting stars involved in this year's AIMS Games include swimmer Alison Fitch, who is managing the St Peter's School team, former Silver Fern Tania Dalton (managing Rosmini's basketball team) and champion cyclist Alison Shanks, who will be at the BMX track.
By having past and present sporting stars mix with the athletes of the future, former New Zealand hockey Olympian Miskimmin believes the tournament has got the recipe exactly right.
“The remarkable success of AIMS Games is testament to the importance it plays in the sporting calendar for young people," he said. "It is a fantastic opportunity for young people to come together and compete against each other in a fun and engaging way.”
Updated on 1st September 2016