By Greg Blood.
I have recently reflected on the fact that the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) has had several long-term leaders that have made significant contributions to their professional discipline and to Australian sport. Professor Louise Burke is one of them.
This article will outline from my perspective the reasons why AIS Nutrition lead by Professor Louise Burke OAM has made a significant contribution to the AIS and Australian sport. My reflections are based on my position as librarian assisting AIS Nutrition staff for nearly 30 years and observing how they have impacted on Australian and international sport.
In the early period of the AIS, there were three physiologists – Dr Dick Telford AM, late Doug Tumilty and Dr Allan Hahn OAM. They had limited time to assist with nutrition advice and research as they were servicing athletes from ten sports in Canberra for the period 1981 to 1990. However, I distinctly remember Dr Telford’s research interest in the importance of vitamins and minerals and he published several papers. The appointment of dietitian Vicki Deakin in the mid 1980’s allowed the AIS to provide more dietary counselling to AIS athletes and the area was renamed Applied Physiology and Nutrition.
The Australian Government’s Next Step sport policy announcement in 1989 provided $230 million over four years and this funding provided the AIS with additional financial resources. The AIS subsequently employed Dr Burke in 1990 and established the AIS Nutrition Dept. This additional funding also allowed my workplace, the AIS Information Centre to become the world-renowned National Sport Information Centre (now Clearinghouse for Sport). Before taking up the appointment, Dr Burke had been a private sports dietitian in Melbourne and had recently completed a PhD at Deakin University titled ‘Dietary intake and food use of groups of elite Australian male athletes’.
I will now document and reflect on AIS Nutrition’s distinct activities and achievements 1981-2018 from a leadership, commitment, and innovation viewpoint. I have restricted my reflections to this period as the 2012 AIS Winning Strategy ceased AIS scholarships in 2013 and over the next few years AIS Nutrition services were diminished. In 2020, national sports organisations high performance programs and state institute/academies of sport have responsibility for nutrition services. The AIS has appointed Dr Gary Slater as the National Lead for Performance Nutrition to help co-ordinate the effort of sports dietitians working in high performance sport in Australia. Professor Burke in 2020 holds the position of Chief of Nutrition Strategy but no longer manages a Department.
Athlete and Team Advice and Services
A critical service provided by AIS Nutrition has been individual and team counselling and advice. This service became more feasible and wide ranging as AIS Nutrition staffing levels were increased during the 1990’s, largely due to the additional funding from the Olympic and Paralympic Athlete Programs and sponsorship. AIS athletes in Canberra were given individual counselling in terms of eating patterns, nutrition deficiencies, weight management, recovery and competition diets. Services also included teaching athletes how to cook. I remember many stories of AIS Nutrition staff inviting AIS athletes into their Canberra homes for cooking lessons as well as supermarket shopping. Whilst these athletes had daily access to AIS Dining Hall it was important that they had the ability to prepare nutritious meals post their AIS scholarships. The production of a series AIS cookbooks greatly helped this process.
AIS Nutrition staff were allocated to AIS Canberra sports and camps-based sports and this allowed them to develop extensive expertise in nutritional needs of particular sports. Interstate AIS sports such as hockey, diving, squash, cricket etc were assisted with contracted local experienced sports dietitians. One outcome of this specialisation by AIS dietitians was the development of sport specific fact sheets and articles for AIS and other Australian athletes.
Another early role for AIS Nutrition was developing suitable menus for the AIS Dining Hall in Canberra after it was established in 1985. This important service was resourced with a dedicated AIS Nutrition staff member. The book ‘Cooking for champions: a guide to healthy large quantity cooking for athletes and other healthy people‘(1997) was an outcome of designing meals for the AIS Dinning Hall.
AIS Nutrition staff would frequently accompany AIS teams to major competitions. I distinctly remember stories of Dr Burke and Helena Bryant, AIS Swimming administrator undertaking supermarket shopping and cooking meals for AIS athletes whilst they attended major swimming competitions in Australia. In many ways, this activity highlighted to me the way that the AIS endeavoured to optimise the performances of its athletes – little things mattered. It should be remembered that in this period, many hotels and motels did not offer meals to meet specific athlete competition and training needs.
Dr Burke and other AIS sports dietitians soon became part of many travelling Australian sporting teams. In fact, Dr Burke was Head Dietitian on Australian Summer Olympic teams from 1996 to 2012. This role has carried on to other AIS Nutrition alumni, Drs Greg Cox and Gary Slater. Meanwhile, Dr Liz Broad and Gary Slater led the way with Paralympic teams, and Siobhan Crawshay has headed teams for Winter Olympics and Paralympic teams
AIS Nutrition Sponsorship
For many working at the AIS in the early days, its profile in the Australian community was limited and at times controversial. This was in part due to its location in Canberra and limited early sporting success. In 1986, Dr Telford worked with Kellogg’s to develop the Sustain breakfast cereal. Besides bringing much needed revenue to the AIS, the Sustain television advertisement brought Robert de Castella, 1983 World Marathon Champion and 1983 Australian of the Year and Telford into lounge rooms of Australians. The success to this sponsorship led to Telford and AIS dietitian Vicki Deakin working with Goodman Fielders to develop the Gold Medal bread in 1986. Again, the AIS received royalties and wide-ranging publicity.
After Dr Burke joined the AIS, the next development was working with Berrivale in 1993 to develop the sports drink ‘Isosport’. The drink was formulated to enhance performance and improve athlete’s recovery after activity. Energy drinks were becoming more important due to the Olympics, Paralympics and many world sporting events commonly being held in hot and humid summer conditions.
The next major commercial partnership was with international food company Nestlé in 1999. The partnership with Nestlé targeted areas of education and nutrition. The partnership led to publishing the thirty page booklet “The Wining Diet’, three cookbooks – Survival of the Fittest (1999), Survival from the Fittest (2001) and Survival around the World (2004) and funded the Nestle Fellow, a recently qualified dietitian employed with AIS Nutrition for a year. The cookbooks were extremely popular with athletes and the public as there was limited information in this area of sports nutrition. To me this was highly successful partnership until the disbanding on AIS Nutrition in 2018.
In 2004, a partnership with a major international sports drinks company Gatorade was launched and this included the funding of a Gatorade Sports Nutrition Fellowship and the supply of Gatorade products to AIS athletes. This partnership had the objective of ensuring athletes at the AIS and Australian athletes would be able to optimise their hydration strategies in the lead up to the extremely hot Olympics – Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008.
The final major commercial partnership was with Lion, which involved work around a higher protein milk, The Complete Dairy.
By AIS Nutrition working with significant commercial food and sports drinks companies it was able to assist in developing and promoting products to benefit to athletes and the general community as well providing additional financial resources for its education and research activities. It should be noted that from time to time there has been criticism of AIS Nutrition working with commercial companies but I believe the benefits have greatly outweighed any criticism.
Of all the AIS sports medicine and science programs, AIS Nutrition has taken upon itself to have a strong education role in the Australian sporting community. This component of its activities increased over time due to additional AIS funding and commercial revenue.
Educational activities included:
- Lectures to AIS and national athletes and teams ; visiting sports camps to the AIS ; sport conferences/seminars etc
- Production of educational resources including:
- Books by Dr Louise Burke – The complete guide to food for sports performance : a guide to peak nutrition for your sport.. (First edition 1992) and Clinical sports nutrition with Vicki Deakin. (First edition published 1994.)
- Videos – Winning Diet video series (1995)
- Fact Sheets of various aspects of sports nutrition (2000)
- Submission of articles to popular sports specific journals
The establishment of an AIS website in the late 1990’s made it more efficient for AIS Nutrition to distribute its educational resources to the Australian community rather than distributing booklets and factsheets. I worked in the area that assisted AIS programs with its websites and I remember Dr Burke and Dr Michelle Minehan quickly grasping the opportunities the internet offered for education.
An issue that still exists today but was very evident in the late 1990’s was the misuse of sports supplements by athletes. The advent of the internet resulted in athletes being exposed to many sports supplements and their supposed benefits. In 2000, AIS Nutrition established a Supplements Program website which had the objective of providing information on the scientific evaluations and doping regulations related to many supplements in the market place.
Interestingly in 2014, as a result of the Essendon AFL and Cronulla NRL supplements controversies, Dr Burke and Dr David Hughes, AIS Chief Medical Officer developed AIS Supplements Framework for Australian sport.
Research has always been an important facet of the AIS – it is listed in the 1981 AIS Objectives:
To conduct, commission or join in research designed to assist in the pursuit of excellence in sport and activities related to sport.
Don Talbot, the inaugural AIS Director (1981-1983), perceived that research would be important if Australia was to improve its international sporting performances.
In 1983 when I employed by the AIS, I was immediately confronted with the thirst for the latest information and research from AIS sports scientists, sports medicine professionals and coaches. In the early period (1981-1990) of the AIS, there was limited research undertaken due to limited staffing and the need to provide day to day services to athletes. Even though there was limited research undertaken, staff still managed to produce the applied journal Sports Science & Medicine Quarterly (later to become Excel). As previously highlighted, increased Australian Government funding in the early 1990’s allowed the research effort to considerably expand.
During my years as a librarian, I spent numerous hours helping AIS Nutrition staff with literature searches for research projects covering creatine, muscle glycogen, high fat diets, amino acids, carbohydrate loading etc. I recently did a search of PubMed and found that Dr Burke had authored/co-authored over 240 peer-reviewed articles in PubMed over the last 30 years. Many other AIS Nutrition staff have undertaken research projects and published articles during their time at the AIS but Dr Burke stands out due to her longevity and passion for complex applied research.
Many AIS Nutrition research projects have been undertaken in partnership with the AIS Sports Medicine or Physiology. In addition, many have involved academic staff at Deakin University, RMIT, University of Melbourne, Victoria University and Australian Catholic University. It is apparent to me that many universities were very willing to work with AIS Nutrition due to its research reputation and access to high performance athletes.
After I retired from the National Sport Information Centre (now known as Clearinghouse for Sport), I was appointed to the AIS Ethics Committee and this gave me the opportunity to see first hand the early part of the research process in detail. In recent years, I have observed several important AIS Nutrition projects:
- Development of a special slushie to assist Australian athletes to cope with intense heat during 2008 Beijing Olympics.
- Research into the optimum use of beetroot juice by Australian athletes at the 2012 London Olympics.
- Research into the combination of use of high and low carbohydrates diets. Olympic gold medallist Jared Tallent has stated this research was as important for his preparation.
One of the criticisms often directed at AIS sports science and medicine staff over the years has been that they are too concerned with peer reviewed publishing. My arguments for the need for peer-reviewed publishing of AIS research include:
- the critical requirement for the evaluation of AIS research by peers in Australia and overseas.
- contribution to the body knowledge on exercise and nutrition.
The later point is important as AIS Nutrition staff rely on externally published knowledge and research to develop suitable dietary practices for AIS and Australian athletes. You must be willing to share to receive !
One of the hallmarks of the AIS prior to Winning Edge was the importance of professional development for AIS sports science and medicine staff and opportunities for new sports science and medicine graduates to obtain experience in working with high performance scientists, athletes, and coaches.
From the start of the AIS, sports science and medicine staff were encouraged to present and attend major international conferences. I still remember Dr Telford bringing back to the AIS Information Centre numerous audio cassettes from his attendance at the prestigious American College of Sports Medicine Annual Meeting. Dr Burke’s frequent presentations at conferences and research led to her being appointed Fellow of American College of Sports Medicine, Sports Medicine Australia and Sports Dietitians Australia (SDA). Other AIS Nutrition staff – Dr Liz Broad and Dr Greg Cox have been made SDA Fellows due to their extensive contribution.
As previously highlighted, AIS Nutrition through its sponsorship with Nestlé and Gatorade was able to appoint recently graduated dietitians as Fellows. These Fellows gained the opportunity to work with high performance athletes, coaches and other highly experienced dietitians and assist with research projects. Many of the early Fellows have been employed by the AIS, state institutes of sport or professional sports teams. Some early names that come to mind include – Mareeta Grundy (1992), Prue Heeley (1993), Liz Broad (1994), Greg Cox (1995), Gary Slater (1996), Natasha Porter (1997) and Michelle Minehan (1998). The discontinuation of this program due to Winning Edge and subsequent changes in AIS resource allocations will I think impact on the development of high calibre sport dietitians in Australia.
Besides offering work experience opportunities, AIS Nutrition since the early 1990’s hosted Sports Dietitians Australia (SDA) Accredited Sports Dietitian 4-day course and staff provided many of the lectures. In more recent times, Sports Dietitians Australia has taken on more responsibility in education and professional development but it was AIS Nutrition that got the ball rolling with its expertise and commitment to professional development.
Another contribution is that several former AIS Nutrition staff now work in the university sector involved in teaching student dietitians and undertaking sport nutrition research.
Finally, many AIS sport science and medicine staff have an international presence through courses and scientific journals. Dr Burke played a major role in establishing the International Olympic Committee Diploma in Sports Nutrition in 2003 and for many years on the Editorial Board of the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism.
From my viewpoint, AIS Nutrition has played a significant role in the development of high performance sport in Australia since 1990 through:.
- Significant research that has assisted the performances of Australian athletes.
- Establishing research projects and networks with Australian and overseas universities to maximise the research effort for Australian athletes.
- Education of Australian athletes and the wider community in many areas of sport nutrition.
- Development of essential resources such AIS Supplements Framework to ensure ethical and safe use of supplements by Australian athletes.
- Developing applied sports dietitians for the Australian high-performance system.
- Assisting in the development of the AIS profile and reputation in Australian and international sport.
I frequently read these days that leaders should only hold a position for several years and then move on to allow new blood and ideas. Some of the AIS most successful leaders – administrators, sport scientists, sports medicine professionals and coaches have held their positions for many years and I believe that this allowed them to build on the foundations of their sport or discipline in a systematic, efficient and innovative way. Professor Burke to me is a great example of how leadership longevity can make a significant difference and contribution. Too often today I see the ‘wheel recreated’ in sport not built upon due to frequent turnover of leaders.
Whilst this paper has focussed on the leadership of Professor Burke, I would like to recognise those sports dietitians that have held permanent positions with AIS Nutrition over the years that have greatly contributed to many of the achievements I have listed – Dr Vicki Deakin, Dr Greg Cox, Dr Gary Slater, Dr Michelle Minehan, Dr Liz Broad, Dr Ben Desbrow, Ruth Crawford, Liz Williams, Nikki Cummings, Sophie Modulon, Vinni Dang, Greg Shaw, Nikki Jeacocke (Shaw), Michelle Cort, Jo Mirtschin, Bronwen Lundy, Christine Dziedzic, Bronwen Charlesson, Beccy Hall, Bek Alcock, Louise Capling, Louise Cato, Adam Zemski, Steve Gurr, Liv Warnes, Nick Broad, Lesley Irvine, Kelly Stewart, Siobhan Crawshay, Alicia Edge, Clare Wood, Andrea Braakhuis, Alisa Nana, Julia Bone, and Margot Rogers. Many of these sports dietitians now lead sports nutrition practice within Australia and internationally. Many others have been important contributors – Dr Meg Ross, Iona Halliday, Dr Matt Hoon, Wei Chung, Ida Heikura, Lynne Mercer, Marilyn Dickson, Gail Cox, Tracey Protas, Mary Kay Martin, Felicity Lemke and Hannah Every-Hall. Apologies for those AIS Nutrition people I have omitted.
In 2002 Dr Burke was appointed Visiting Professor of Sports Nutrition, Faculty of Health and Behavioural Sciences, Deakin University. In 2014, she was appointed the Chair in Sports Nutrition, Mary MacKillop Institute for Health Research Australian Catholic University. Additional information on Professor Burke’s career and recognition. Thanks to Dr Burke in helping me to list those who have contributed to AIS Nutrition since 1990.
In future months, I will endeavour to document the contributions of other AIS programs.