New Zealand Law Society - Skeleton thrill-seeker’s home-town political challenge

Skeleton thrill-seeker’s home-town political challenge

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Ben Sandford
Ben Sandford

Sport and politics do mix for three-time Olympic skeleton racer Ben Sandford, whose latest challenge is for Labour in a head-to-head with National MP Todd McClay at September’s general election.

After 12 years competing on the skeleton racing circuit, with a medal in the world championships the highlight, Ben returned to Rotorua last June.

For four months he worked on finishing his masters degree in international sports law at Spain’s Instituto Superior de Derecho y Economia (ISDE) by correspondence, and in October joined his father Paul’s practice as a solicitor. His sister Samantha is also a solicitor with the firm.

Ben Christopher (Ben) Sandford
Entry to law
Graduated BA, LLB from Victoria Universityin 2002.
Masters in international sports law through ISDE in Spain. Admitted in 2002.
Solicitor at Sandford & Partners, Rotorua.
Speciality area
International sports law

He had headed overseas two months after being admitted in 2002 and, due to his sporting career, did not practice law until after returning to Rotorua last year.

Similar to bobsledding, skeleton racers lie on a small sled with blades and hurtle down an icy course at up to 130km/h.

“My uncle, Bruce Sandford, got me into it. He was world champion in 1992 in Calgary,” says Ben.

“He came back to New Zealand after that and asked me to go overseas with him and have a go. I was heading to Europe after finishing university and it sounded like a good opportunity. I loved it from first time I tried it.

No brakes

“It fits into that Kiwi mentality of getting out there and doing it … the challenge. It might look dangerous, but once you try it is pretty amazing. You want to keep going and doing more and more.

“It’s a unique sensation. You don’t have brakes and once on the sled you are locked in until the end of the run. It can be un-nerving when you first start skeleton because you are learning how to drive the sled. You don’t know the track that well and you can’t stop or slow down.”

Ben finished 10th at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, 11th at the 2010 Games in Vancouver and 20th in Sochi, Russia in 2014. His best placing was bronze at the 2012 world championships at Lake Placid, New York.

He retired from competition in 2014 to extend his involvement in the sport as an elected vice-president of the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation.

He is also a member of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) athlete committee and the New Zealand Olympic and Commonwealth Games athlete commission, looking after athletes’ legal interests.

Skeleton racing involves a lot of travel to compete and New Zealand – which has always had a presence in the sport - has only one athlete currently competing internationally.

Ben Sandford skeleton racing
Ben Sandford skeleton racing

A single man, Ben’s other main sporting interest is cricket. “One of the great things about being back in New Zealand is I can play cricket again for the local Rotorua team.”

Both Law and cricket are in his blood. His lawyer grandfather Ken Sandford – who died in 2005 aged 91 - was Crown Solicitor in Hamilton, was first chairman of the ACC and president of the New Zealand Cricket Council.

The infantry captain also wrote the popular book, Mark of the Lion, the story of Charles Upham VC and Bar.

Budding politician

Contrary to the perception of sportspeople, he has a strong interest in politics, and wants to make a difference.

“I’ve been interested in politics for a while – my introduction came through sport and being involved with international sporting bodies – and I became more and more concerned about what I saw was not happening back here in Rotorua.

“My main interests were here in Rotorua and in New Zealand seeing things were not necessarily changing for a lot of people. I was disillusioned with the way New Zealand was going.

“I’m standing for Labour in the electoral seat, not on the list – list MPs seem to drift around a bit. Todd McClay got 18,000 votes last time, Labour’s Tamati Coffey got over 11,000, which means I have to turn around a more than 7,000 vote majority.

Ben draws on his sporting prowess to mentor local children.

“I belong to a worldwide organisation called Big Brothers Big Sisters, a mentoring programme for youngsters.

“My mentee is a nine-year-old boy in Rotorua who is keen on sports so we meet up once a week for an hour or two and do some activity or play some sport. It’s a great organisation.

“I don’t play any music but take a bit of time to listen and like a variety. I like Fat Freddys Drop and I’m into Canadian band Bob Moses at the moment.

Well-read on inequality

Ben Sandford in front of the Olympic logo
Ben Sandford in front of the Olympic logo

“I read across the board but do not enjoy sports biographies. I like science, non-fiction and some psychology. I’ve just read Paul Beatty’s Man Booker Prize winner The Sellout – which is a good critique and satire of American society.

“I read books about inequality and how inequality effects society, which fits within my political sphere.

“I don’t watch much TV and prefer to go to the movies. I like documentary films such as When We Were Kings and The Eagle Huntress.

“I initially thought it would be good to be an environmental lawyer and save the world so I did a geography degree but quickly became disillusioned with that so did a resource management paper.

“A lot of it was about the Resource Management Act and doing any environmental law seemed a long way off. Seeing how small the environmental law niche was put me off. The majority of it seemed to be dealing with someone’s chimney being too high or deck too big, which was not what I thought environmental law was about.

“My alternative career at the moment is politics and if I am not elected it’s back to being a lawyer.

“My dinner guests wouldn’t be sportsmen, I’m around them all the time and need something different. Noam Chomsky, Angela Merkel (I can speak a bit of German to get through) and Barack Obama. It would be Thai green curry.

“I’m in the process of buying a second-hand car, probably a Mazda 3. Not too big but big enough to fit me in. It will be red – must be red – and will have my face plastered all over it.

“It’s election year.”

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