Remembering the Sydney Olympics medal success

Originally published in The Roar, 5 September 2016.

fter the Rio Olympics, there has been much discussion of why the Australian Team did not meet medal expectations.

Discussion highlighted Australia’s performance at the Sydney Olympics where Australia came fourth on the gold medal tally and won 58 medals. My interest in the history of Australian sport policy led me to reflect on the Olympic Athlete Program (OAP) which is often regarded as a critical cog in Australia’s success at Sydney Olympics.

After Sydney won the right to host Olympics in 1993, Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) President John Coates stated that the Games would only be regarded as successful by the Australian community if Australian athletes and teams had a successful Games. As with the Rio Olympics, the Australian Olympic Committee had the goal of finishing in the top five nations but with 60 medals and possibly 20 gold.

In response to Coates’ argument, the Keating Government announced the Olympic Athlete Program (OAP) to be managed by the Australian Sports Commission (ASC). The OAP would run for six years from 1 July 1994 and provided additional funding of $140 million. In addition, the AOC provided an additional $52 million.

Prior to OAP Program, high performance sport in Australia was already on an upward trajectory through increased government funding, expansion of Australian Institute of Sport and the establishment of state institutes and academies of sport.

Sports were classified into three groups based on their previous international success and potential for medals. Category one sports included basketball, canoeing, cycling, hockey, rowing, shooting, softball, swimming, triathlon, women’s water polo and sailing.

Category two sports were those with potential for success and these sports included archery, baseball, football and men’s water polo. This classification is very similar to what occurs through the current Winning Edge policy – supporting medal-winning sports.

The high performance planning process for most sports was dramatically improved through sports employing high performance managers and ASC and AOC regularly reviewing performance plans and targets.

Talent identification programs were established in conjunction with state institutes of sport.

Quality coaching was regarded as critical and several sports sought out the best overseas coaches – sailing’s Victor Kovalenko, gymnastics Peggy Liddick, women’s water polo Istvan Gorgenyi, archery’s Kik Sik Lee and athletics Alex Parnov. These coaches made a significant changes to their sport and this resulted in medal success.

– National training centres in conjunction with state institutes of sport were established throughout Australia for many category one and two sports.

– Improved sports science medicine coordination through the appointment of coordinators for category one sports.

– Funding for sports science and medicine was increased and this led to development of high tech bikes, body cooling vests and better use of altitude training.

The AIS with collaborators developed a test for erythropoietin (epo) that was used at Sydney Olympics.

In reflecting on the OAP Program, I think that it provided the Olympic sports with a strong direction and accountability and harnessed stakeholders. This was reflected in an improved culture of excellence and confidence on the international sporting stage.

Australian athletes and teams that competed at the Sydney Olympics would have competed knowing that they had a strong system and also nation behind them. In recent Olympics, British athletes have had with this ‘intangible’ advantage as a result of their strong system and investment.

So what may have happened in Australia since the Sydney Olympics where Australia’s medal performances have declined? Many of the ingredients of the OAP program are still in place including categorisation of sports, high performance planning and sports medicine and medicine services and research.

After the Sydney Olympics, there was great uncertainty about funding and this led to several OAP features such as intensive training centres and talent identification being downgraded. In addition, there was a brain drain of coaches and administrators from Australia.

Winning Edge, a ten-year plan, was introduced by the ASC after London Olympics to halt this decline and it is has many of the features of the OAP program but has placed more responsibility onto national sports organisations.

Can Winning Edge like the OAP program bring Australia back to the top five of medal tally? This may be difficult as there are many changes in international and Australian sport impacting on the Olympics.

Many leading non-Olympic Australian sports – AFL, NRL, A-League, rugby union, netball, and cricket have become more professional and have or are developing women’s elite leagues. This will have an impact on the future Olympic talent pool.

It is obvious that many Olympic competitor nations copied aspects of the OAP program and are increasing their funding to Olympic sports with Great Britain a shining example. There are now many countries that have top five and ten Olympic medal tally aspirations – more than before Sydney Olympics.

The Tokyo Olympics will be difficult for Australia as Japan, South Korea and China will be competing in their ‘backyard’.

Winning Edge is a plan that can make Australia very competitive at the Olympics but I think it needs to have features that make athletes and coaches feel that the plan gives them ‘an edge’. OAP program gave athletes an edge and confidence at the Sydney Olympics.

I would like to see Winning Edge have some of the following.
– United and cooperative stakeholders.
– Increased opportunities to international coaching expertise in Australia or overseas.
– Encouragement of international athletes to train with Australian athletes in training hubs (i.e. Olympic champion Alex Popov trained at AIS in 1990s)
– Greater encouragement of delisted AFL and rugby athletes to transfer Olympic sports (success has occurred with gymnasts to diving and aerial skiing)
– Long-term financial rewards for repeat Olympic medallists. Jared Tallent medalled at three Olympics to encourage longevity.
– Increased government school based talent identification programs. Only 38 per cent of Rio team came from government schools even though 65 per cent students attend.
– Increased investment in sports technology and athlete monitoring to ensure world class training environments and athlete specific training loads

Increased funding will definitely help but a committed and innovative long-term plan is essential. AIS took ten years to produce tangible Olympic results and OAP was six year plan. Winning Edge can work if it is agile and committed for ten years.

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