Vale Peter Bowman – ‘Unsung’ Pioneer AIS Administrator

By Greg Blood

With the recent death of Peter Bowman, the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) lost one of its founding staff. I have great memories of Bowman’s 20 years at the AIS and this includes the first time I met him – my interview in early 1983 for the librarian position at the AIS Information Centre.

Bowman was one of the first appointments – he was the Senior Administrator and Company Secretary to the AIS Board and worked very closely with Don Talbot AO OBE, the inaugural AIS Director, to get the AIS up and running quickly. Bowman brought great experience to the position as a former Taxation and Treasury official and long involvement in athletics as a Randwick-Botany club sprinter and hurdler in the 1960s, coach and ACT athletics administrator.

Bowman’s background in the Australian Government to me was critical in the early days of establishing the AIS as many government bureaucratic obstacles needed to be hastily overcome. Whilst the National Indoor Sports (NISC) was built to house the AIS, it was not designed as a training facility. But Bowman and the coaches had to make NSIC work for tennis, gymnastics, weightlifting, basketball and netball programs.  Another significant obstacle was that NISC was managed by the National Capital Development Commission and the AIS was often not considered to be its most important client.

In 1981, there were 153 athletes from eight sports. There was no swimming pool in Bruce, so athletes and coaches had to travel to a pool in Deakin twice a day. Athletes were housed at the Australian National University and the Canberra College of Advanced Education or younger athletes billeted around Canberra. Work or study opportunities needed to be found quickly for athletes. In the first year of the AIS, Bowman had an administrative staff of just seven to make AIS operate as effectively as it could. It would be remiss not to mention Joan Faull who greatly assisted Bowman in managing the many issues arising around accommodation, education and work for AIS athletes during this period.

There was distinct lack of resources – the first AIS annual report states that it only received $1m from the Australian Government. Bowman and Talbot used their influence, experience and community connections to overcome this major drawback. In interviewing, Bowman on the 30th anniversary of the AIS, he told me that basketball only had two basketballs for the men’s and women’s teams. He sought assistance from the Canberra Cannons and local clubs to ensure each player had access to a basketball for training. Other AIS sports encountered similar difficulties. Besides inadequate funding, Bowman had to manage the aspirations and vested interests of national and state sports organisations who were not always supportive of the AIS.

These were heady days and Bowman needed to frequently by-pass bureaucratic obstacles to allow coaches to quickly get their programs underway.

Reflecting on the early days, Talbot and Bowman made the following statements in 2006:

Talbot “We were winging it. Basically, my job was to stampede things along, get them up and running,” and “lots of noise, fights, banging tables at midnight” over funding with the minister in charge, Robert Ellicott. A top man.

Bowman ““pretty desperate stuff … made more desperate by pressure from politicians and, of course, the media to start winning medals, world championships from day one”. It has never stopped.”

Note – Bowman frequently attended the meetings that Talbot that had with Bob Ellicott, Minister for Home Affairs (that managed the Australian Government’s involvement in sport). Whilst Ellicott was enormously supportive of the AIS, other Departments were not so willing to assist with its rapid establishment.

Peter Bowman (left) and Don Talbot (right) – this photo was framed and located in entrance of National Sport Information Centre for many years. I liked to remind visitors of their critical role in establishing the AIS in 1981.

Bowman held the Senior Administrator / Company Secretary position until 1984 when Paul Brettell was appointed AIS General Manager. Bowman was then moved to the position of Assistant General Manager of Sports which he held until 1987. This position allowed Bowman to directly assist 34 coaches, 300 athletes covering 15 sports. It was during this period that the AIS expanded its approach to assisting Australian sport through the expanded National Training Centre Program and supporting satellite coaches.

The perceived poor Australian results at the 1987 World Track and Field Championships led Bowman being appointed the Co-ordinator of AIS Track and Field. Bowman was in heaven – managing a sport that he was truly passionate about. He frequently told everyone that track and field was ‘the banner sport” of the AIS and had signage mounted in its offices. Bowman was charged with implementing John Landy’s review of AIS Athletics.  Recommendations implemented by Bowman included appointment of coaches in each capital city, expanded assistance to Olympic athletes not at the AIS in Canberra, National Coaching Information Program managed by late Jack Pross and better access to training facilities and sports science medicine. From my role as a senior librarian at the National Sport Information Centre, I worked closely with Bowman and Pross to ensure leading Australian coaches had access to relevant and up to date coaching information.

One of the best notable outcomes of this new approach was that Cathy Freeman’s early career was supported by AIS Athletics.

In late 1993, Bowman was appointed high performance manager for Athletics Australia whilst it was undergoing organisational change. Besides AIS Athletics, during the 1990’s he was also tasked with overseeing AIS Swimming. I reflect back that this period of AIS Swimming spring boarded the careers of Michael Klim, Petria Thomas, Sarah Ryan, Justin Norris and many others to international success.

He retired as Manager of AIS Athletics and Swimming soon after the Sydney 2000 Olympics and moved to Kiama where he continued his active role in sport. I would like to mention two special colleagues of Bowman at the AIS – Carol Grant and Helena Bryant. They provided tremendous administrative support whilst Bowman was managing AIS Athletics and Swimming.

Bowman was the AIS representative on the Illawarra Academy of Sport Board from 1995 to his death. From 1998 to 2012, he was President of the Australian Track and Field Coaches Association.

Interestingly Bowman fell into local government politics when elected as a councillor on Kiama Council in 2008. He told me he put his name on the ticket of a friend and was greatly surprised to be elected.  He did not seek re-election in 2012 but did receive a computer and email address as a benefit. This allowed me to send him information frequently as he had a thirst for what was happening at the AIS and Australian sport.

Bowman was not afraid to stand his ground in the face of authority or bureaucracy. His attendance and statements at the Senate Drugs in Sport Inquiry did not go down well with some of the Senators. He occasionally publicly criticised Athletics Australia over its high-performance direction. In researching this obituary, Roy Masters reported in 1993 that he was head butted by an Australian athletics promoter at an event in Birmingham when denied access to a VIP area. John Quinn, a decentralised athletics coach in Tasmania in the early 1990’s, recently summed up Bowman’s approach and advice “don’t worry about the bloody wood ducks, do whatever you have to do”.

I recently read an article where Bowman stated that his greatest thrill in sport was “watching from the stands in Atlanta and seeing Louise McPaul-Curry’s last javelin throw to win the silver medal. I was so excited I drenched myself and everyone else with the beer I had in my hand at the time.”

Bowman was recognised in 2000 with the Australian Sports Medal and in 2007 awarded Athletics Australia Life Membership. In February 2020, Illawarra Academy of Sport awarded him Life Membership for 25 years Board service.

Bowman was a very colourful, engaging and witty person – he livened up the AIS particularly during the early period where there was a great deal of stress and high expectation. With coaches and athletes always in tracksuits, I remember in the early years Bowman being smartly dressed – wearing colourful shirts and frequently black leather pants. He often seemed to be reliving his youth at the AIS.  How could you not with lots of aspiring coaches and athletes to help achieve their goals in sport and life.

Bowman to me was one of the people at the AIS that made the place very special and enjoyable to work at. His passion for the AIS and Australian sport meant that he overcame many obstacles along his journey in sport. To me this is one of the lessons I learnt at the AIS – if you strongly believe in something do not give up.

Finally, Bowman’s death also reminded me that the early AIS coaches, administrators and sports science/medicine professionals laid the road for current high performance professionals. In the 1980’s, there was no Australian road map for high performance sport. They undoubtably made mistakes along the way but they provided the foundations that propelled Australia into becoming a significant international sporting force since 1990’s.

Tributes from AIS Coaches and Athletes

Bowman’s death has many early AIS coaches reflecting on Bowman and a common theme is his significant impact in helping them establish their programs. One coach said he was “loved, respected and trusted by all.” That is a wonderful endorsement in the tough and rumble world of high-performance sport.

Long time AIS athletics scholarship holder Simon Baker said “Peter was a strategic thinker for sport, especially athletics. A keen sense of humour and wit.  He was a key for athletics developing the combination of AIS resources and SIS/SAS arrangements that led to great success in Sydney.”

Two long time and early AIS coaches provided me with reflections of Bowman.

Craig Hilliard, AIS Senior Coach 1982-2013, AA Senior Coach 2014, AA Head Coach 2015-

Peter was my first point of contact both in arranging my initial interview appointment and on my arrival in at the AIS to commence employment. It seems like yesterday so vivid are the memories. First impressions are countless and Peter exuded a warmth and excitement that filled you immediately with a sense of belonging. His support of me was immense and was a major part of my growth and AIS coaching journey and was certainly a major reason why I remained so long. Peter’s drive and determination never wavered no matter what the challenge and there were many. Despite his love of all sports and even when he finally transitioned to High Performance manager of both Track and Field and Swimming, he unashamedly promoted the ‘Banner Sport’ – it was the only ‘true’ Olympic sport in Peter’s eyes.

Peter was a creative thinker and visionary who always supported the coaches and athletes and made the impossible seem easy. Loyalty was a major quality. Constantly at logger heads with the “wood ducks” he so affectionately called the administrators, he even had three china ducks positioned on the wall in his office, which I am sure was not lost on any administrator who dared venture up to the offices at the track.

He took great pride in how the athletes and staff coaches should present themselves and was in many ways a walking fashion statement – often referred to as Mr Gucci! The annual quest to have the best sport tracksuit on campus was an ongoing challenge and pet project of Peter’s which in my opinion always succeeded!

It is only when you have time to reflect on Peter’s time at the AIS do you realise the full impact of his achievements and how he managed to navigate the ever changing political sporting landscape to our advantage. This was no truer than following his retirement after the Sydney Olympic Games. We had lost an integral part of the AIS sporting folklore, someone who had impacted the lives of so many people. Most importantly it was never about Peter – he ensured it was about the coaches and athletes and their quest to be the best and for them to receive the appropriate accolades.

Interstate coaches and guests loved coming to Canberra for meetings as Peter would always ensure an infamous working gourmet BBQ was foremost on the agenda and many a problem was solved or a cunning plan formulated that would not necessarily reach fruition until many months and in some cases years later.

We have lost a great friend and AIS icon whose memory and legacy will be long lasting, none more so than when a small number of the original staff/coaches’ meet for our annual coaches’ Xmas degustation. I will ensure a place is always set for Peter.

RIP mate.

Patrick Hunt, AIS Men’s Basketball Coach 1981-1993, Basketball Australia Manager of National Player and Coach Development 1993-2008

In his own unique way Peter was a remarkable man meant for those incredible times for sport in Australia. 

He was such an inspiration with his positive approach, unrelenting style, unequivocal loyalty, insistent support for coaches and athletes, wicked sense of humour and above all his “fair dinkumness”.

My life and I am sure the lives of us all have been enriched by having Pete be a part. 

One of a kind and a tremendous mate who will be sadly missed and always fondly remembered. 

Condolences to his wife Pam and Family. 

RIP Peter Bowman

Obituary by Brian Roe, Athletics Australia

There is information on the programs that Bowman managed at –

AIS Athletics Alumni website

AIS Swimming Alumni website

2 responses to “Vale Peter Bowman – ‘Unsung’ Pioneer AIS Administrator”

  1. Over the many years of my time at the AIS, I always found Peter to be a person who would find a solution to any problem that was raised to him. Great admiration and respect! RIP Peter.

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