By Greg Blood. Originally published Clyde Street Blog, 15 May 2018.
In December 2012, the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), as we know it, changed when the Australian Sports Commission (ASC) under Chair John Wylie launched its Australia’s Winning Edge 2012-2022 strategy.
A major plank of the strategy was for the AIS to no longer directly manage 29 sports programs and their athletes. A key question raised through this decision was – what would happen to the sports science and medicine services and training facilities at the AIS in Canberra? In May 2018, it was reported that the AIS was reducing the number of sports science and medicine professionals in Canberra. I believe that this decision means that the end of the AIS as many in the sporting world know it.
It no longer resembles what the Fraser Government Minister, Bob Ellicott, argued for in Cabinet in 1980 and implemented by the inaugural AIS Director, Don Talbot, in 1981.
It has now changed from an elite sport training centre with the mantra of ‘athlete- centred, coach-driven’ to a centre where sports and their coaches and athletes are clients or customers to AIS facilities and services.
Why do I make this statement?
Well, in the previous AIS model (1981-2013), coaches were strong power brokers and drove the culture of excellence, collaboration and innovation. After all the success or failure of their AIS sports program depended on the assistance and commitment provided by a wide range of professional staff. It appears in the new model (post-2014) that elite coaches and athletes are further down the chain of influence. I have spoken to many people from sports that remained at the AIS in its new model as a client/customer and it their view that the AIS has lost a great deal of its culture – sports are individual clients not part of a collective effort of the AIS campus.
With the AIS in Canberra now taking this new direction, I would like to reflect on the numerous ways that it impacted on Australian sport for the period 1981 to 2013. It is worth noting these achievements are from an historical point of view but the new AIS model can be compared to these achievements.
- AIS through Don Talbot established a new high-performance culture for Australian sport – ‘athlete-centred, coach-driven’ and the importance of excellence in sport. Coaches were the main drivers of the AIS environment in Canberra not administrators. Talbot was a successful swimming coach and his approach was instilled into the inaugural coaches.
- AIS when established in 1981 provided the opportunity for elite Australian coaches in eight sports to be employed for the first time. Before the AIS, only coach educators were employed by the Rothmans National Sport Foundation.
- From day one, the AIS in Canberra was able to attract highly credentialed international coaches due to its programs, services and facilities and the ability to liaise closely with coaches from other sports. There have been numerous international coaches appointed but the standouts from my viewpoint have been Reinhold Batschi (rowing), Gennadi Touretski (swimming), Ki Sik Lee (archery), Heiko Salzwedel (road cycling), Ron Smith (football), Ju Ping Tian (gymnastics), Iryna Dvoskina (Para athletics) and John Uriarte (volleyball). Apologies to those many international coaches I have not listed.
- AIS attracted leading Australian coaches to its Canberra campus including Bill Swettenham (swimming), Adrian Hurley (basketball), Wilma Shakespear (netball), Warwick Forbes (gymnastics) and Ray Ruffels (tennis) to name a few.
- AIS has developed young coaches into leading Olympic and Australian coaches. Many of these coaches came through the Australian Coaching Council scholarship coach program that worked closely with AIS programs. These include Paul Thompson (rowing), Craig Hilliard (athletics), John Fowlie (swimming), Brent Vallance (athletics) and Phil Brown (basketball)
- AIS assisted many coaches into transitioning into high performance sport management. Notable examples include – netball coach Wilma Shakespear who became CEO of Queensland Academy of Sport and English Institute of Sport and men’s water polo coach Charles Turner became CEO NSW Institute of Sport.
- AIS in Canberra was responsible for developing numerous athletes from rural and regional areas. These athletes came from areas with limited coaching and facilities. Many of the most successful AIS swimmers came from these areas and include: Petria Thomas (Mullumbimby), Justin Norris (Newcastle), Belinda Hocking (Albury), Karen Phillips (Nowra), Adam Pine (Lismore), Donna Procter (Newcastle), Michele Pearson (Bundaberg), Linda McKenzie (Mackay). Other highly successful athletes developed include basketballer Lauren Jackson (Albury), Jared Tallent (Ballarat), Matt Dellavedova (Maryborough).
- Many AIS programs utilised what I call the ‘role model’ effect. In the early 1990’s Olympic gold medallist Alex Popov trained at the AIS and upcoming swimmers such as Michael Klim, Petria Thomas, Sarah Ryan and Matthew Dunn benefited from training alongside him. AIS in Canberra has a strong history of producing world class and Olympic medallist race walkers. There has been a continual line of race walkers from Kerry-Saxby-Junna, Simon Baker, Nick A ’Hern, Jane Saville, Nathan Deakes and Jared Tallent – all benefiting in having role models to follow.
- AIS offered its first scholarship to an athlete with a disability in 1988 – vision impaired athlete Russell Short. From the early 1990’s, AIS has assisted numerous Paralympic athletes on residential and camps-based scholarships.
- In December 1982, the AIS established a National Training Centre program and since this date thousands of Australian athletes and coaches have been able to utilise the AIS facilities and expertise in Canberra. As can be seen, it has never been just about the residential athletes based in Canberra.
- The AIS at the start of its operations understood the importance of athlete education and employment. In 1991, it established the national Lifeskills for Elite Athletes Program (LEAP) which morphed into ACE (Athlete Career and Education) which was delivered through the AIS in Canberra and state institutes of sport.
- AIS developed a world class training centre from small beginnings (National Indoor Sports Centre and National Athletics Stadium) to dedicated facilities for all AIS sports. It provided residential and visiting athletes with all the facilities in one place – accommodation, food services, specific sport training venues, sports medicine and sports science including biomechanics testing and altitude house. There is no place like it in Australia.
- In 2011, the AIS opened its European Training Centre in Varese Italy to provide a training and competition based for Australian athletes. The Centre was developed through AIS Canberra staff expertise.
- The AIS in Canberra has assisted athletes from developing countries particularly from the Pacific region particularly in the lead up to the Sydney Olympics.
- AIS became a world leader in applied sports science and medicine services and research. Notable examples of these services and research include:
- Heat and humidity – major research study in 1995 lead to the AIS establishing advice for training for and competing in Olympic and Paralympics environments that are usually held in these difficult conditions.
- Altitude – AIS has undertaken extensive research into the use of altitude training and acclimatisation and this led to it establishing an altitude house in 2007. This house has been used by many athletes including Jared Tallent – Olympic gold medallist and medallist at three successive games.
- Recovery – AIS is a world leader in recovery and sleep research and has developed protocols to assist athletes and coaches.
- Microtechnology – in 2003 the AIS worked with Cooperative Research Centre for Microtechnology and this has led to the extensive use of microsensors in sport that provide feedback to coaches and athletes on performance.
- EPO – in the lead up to the Sydney Olympics the AIS undertook a major worldwide project to develop a test for EPO. This test has unearthed many doping cheats and Australian athletes have had international medals upgraded as a result.
- Nutrition – AIS has undertaken extensive research into sports drinks, nutritional supplements and training and competition nutrition strategies. This information has led to best practice guidelines and been disseminated to Australian sports nutritionists supporting athletes. It has also assisted in developing international consensus statements on these areas. It developed a very comprehensive website that has informed the Australian sports community.
- Biomechanics and skill acquisition – AIS has undertaken extensive movement research into technical sports such as swimming, rowing, kayaking, cricket and athletics to name a few. In 2007, it built 50m swimming pool that facilitated extensive use of technology to understand swimming starting and stroke technique. After all swimming medals are frequently decided by hundredth of a second. It’s biomechanics testing facilities are regarded as the best and most comprehensive in Australia.
- Sports medicine and physical therapies professionals have undertaken extensive research into areas such as hamstrings, tendons, groin, knee and shoulder. This research has led to the AIS advice being sought by many leading Australian athletes with problematic injuries.
- Talent identification and development – the AIS introduced the use of talent identification in the early 1990’s. Firstly through a rowing project that led to Megan Still winning a gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics in the women’s pair. In recent years, it has developed a talent development framework for Australian sport system called FTEM (Foundations Talent Elite Mastery]
- Performance analysis, data analytics and skill acquisition – the AIS has been a leader in introducing these disciplines into the Australian high-performance sport environment. Many professional sports teams in Australia now utilise these tools after utilising AIS expertise.
- Performance psychology and strength and conditioning professionals have provided day to day individualised services to AIS residential and visiting athletes and led these services at national level.
- The numerous AIS sports located outside Canberra (i.e. cycling, hockey, diving, water polo, canoeing etc) have had access to its sports science/ medicine the services and research.
- The majority of AIS sports science/medicine staff have at times travelled with AIS, Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games and World Championship teams and often held leadership positions.
- Interestingly when the decision to significantly cut back AIS sports science services in Canberra, there was an outpouring of disappointment from many working in these sectors as these professionals have relied on the expertise and research of the AIS. Its research has been communicated to Australian practitioners through dissemination mechanisms such as:
- AIS Smart Talks – commenced in 2005 and shared information from AIS and visiting world experts to the Australian high-performance sport community. Nearly 400 talks have been undertaken and access provided by National Sport Information Centre/Clearinghouse for Sport.
- Workshops and conference presentations to athletes, coaches and scientist in Australian and overseas
- Articles published in sports and per-reviewed journals.
- AIS has attracted leading international researchers to its Canberra campus due to its international reputation.
- After the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Dr Allan Hahn perceived the need to increase the number of applied sports scientists in Australia. Many university graduates were entering the workforce with limited applied sport science skills. An AIS PhD program was established with Australian universities and this has subsquently led to state institutes, professional sports teams and national sports organisations being able to appoint scientists with strong applied sport knowledge and skills and the ability to undertake targeted research.
- AIS sports medicine and physical therapies since their establishment have provided professional training opportunities for sports doctors and physiotherapists. Similar opportunities were provided in nutrition, physiology, biomechanics, psychology and strength and conditioning.
- In 1989, the AIS established National Standards Laboratory Scheme (NSLS) which established national protocols for testing athletes so that athlete testing throughout Australia was based on calibrated and reliable tests.
- One of the first major decisions by Don Talbot was to establish an information centre to assist coaches and sports science and medicine professionals to have access to latest research. The centre went on to become that National Sport Information Centre and it has for over 30 years assisted those employed in Australian sport sector and has been the envy of many leading sport countries.
Hopefully, this article is a useful snapshot of the many achievements of the AIS in the period 1981 to 2013.
These achievements should not be lessened or forgotten in the new AIS model. In many ways, decision makers should be reflecting on how these achievements came about and were influential in improving the Australian high-performance system. It was not always due to extra funding but committed and passionate people striving to make the ‘athlete-centred coach -driven’ environment excel. I hope the new model is driven by athletes and coaches.
Dr David Martin, a highly regarded long time AIS physiologist and now working as the Director, Performance Research and Development at Philadelphia 76ers, recently made the following comments regarding the new AIS model:
One of the main fears of AIS staff is collaboration and cross-pollination will be lost when jobs are reallocated to individual sports rather than working together at the institute. When you start getting a team of experts working together, the sophistication you can working with a team of athletes is amazing … it’s really quite contagious.
Perhaps the Australian Institute of Sport should change its name to something like the Sport Australia Training Centre or National Sports Training Centre of Australia. Many organisations change their name when they no longer represent their original model.
The AIS changed its logo in 2014 to represent the new model.