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Dame Susan: still fighting for the underdog

WATCH: In a candid interview on Sky Sport, Dame Susan Devoy talks on her concern for rising sports stars, the state of NZ squash, and the spectre of racism. 

Dame Susan Devoy is proudly still “a little terrier who fights for the underdog”.

“I have been doing it all my life and that’s probably never going to change,” the New Zealand squash legend and former Race Relations Commissioner says.

Always frank and forthright, Devoy still isn’t afraid to speak her mind about the state of squash in New Zealand, the dilemma over the funding of our up-and-coming athletes, and the spectre of racism in this country. She opens up to veteran sports commentator Tony Johnson in a candid hour-long interview on the Sky Sport series The Pod.

One of New Zealand’s most successful athletes – a four-time World Open and eight-time British Open champion – Devoy now lives in Mt Maunganui with her husband and former coach, John Oakley. While she volunteers with homeless groups and runs a twice-weekly boot camp at her local squash club, Devoy is now looking for a job.

Her five-year term as the Race Relations Commissioner ended two years ago – a role she admits “took a hell of a lot of confidence away from me” with personal attacks and death threats.

She’s spent some time living in Australia after that, but has recently been helping Squash NZ conduct a review into its high performance tier.

“We’re at a bit of a cross-roads. We’ve got Paul [Coll] and Joelle [King], but like all similar sports we’re struggling a little bit,” she says.

Devoy’s early career was influenced by Egyptian squash icon and “game changer” Dardi El Bakary, who was brought to New Zealand as squash’s first professional coach.

“We need something like that in New Zealand again because the game has changed and it’s dominated by the Egyptians, ironically. We aren’t in a position to have a full-time coach here, but we could bring some experts to New Zealand, or send our coaches overseas to give our younger players the best opportunities to foot it with the rest of the world,” she says.

Devoy questions whether the division of funding for sport in New Zealand is fair – with little money going to help develop athletes on the verge of achieving success.

“I got money from the Sports Foundation at a young age and it was a punt. It was the difference between me only staying in New Zealand or being able to afford to go overseas. If I didn’t go overseas, I wouldn’t get any better,” she says.

“The Sports Foundation invested in people to get them to the top. These days if you aren’t an Olympic sport in New Zealand, you have diddly squat [chance] of getting anything.

“Most of the high performance funding squash gets goes to Joelle and Paul. There’s nothing there to develop the rest of our players.”

While Sport New Zealand want more children to participate in sport, because the numbers are dropping, high performance athletes who’ve “already made it” are receiving a lot of funding, Devoy says. “You might say we are just buying medals.

“There’s no easy answer to it, but I think they’re going to have a dearth of people coming through because we can’t afford it.”

It’s an issue very close to Devoy – one of her four sons, Julian Oakley, is a talented middle-distance runner trying to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. “He hasn’t had a cent from Athletics New Zealand,” she says. “And the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’ is closing very soon.”

Devoy also talks about her time as Race Relations Commissioner, a job that was “pretty polarising" and, at times, difficult.

“Some people had pigeon-holed me as a squash player or a sports jock. I’d been retired 20 years and I’d done a lot of other things that made me perfectly capable,” she says.  “We did a hell of a lot of good things on limited resources.”

And on racism: “We are a multicultural society, one of the most diverse countries in the world now, and yet we haven’t sorted out our own biculturalism. We have still got a lot of work to do… We will never eradicate or eliminate racism.”

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