Vale Don Talbot AO OBE – reflecting on his contribution to the Australian Institute of Sport and high performance sport

by Greg Blood

You will see many wonderful and deserving tributes on the late Don Talbot’s swimming coaching career but I would like to focus on his contribution to high performance sport in Australia, particularly the development of the Australian Institute of Sport.

Many will know that John Bloomfield’s 1973 report The Role, Scope and Development of Recreation in Australia recommended the establishment of a national institute of sport. The defeat of the Whitlam Government in 1975 put on hold its establishment. The Australian team’s failure to win a gold medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics and third position on the 1978 Edmonton Commonwealth Games medal table led to the Fraser Government in January 1980 announcing the establishment of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in Canberra.

One of the best decisions ever made in relation to the Australian sport system was the appointment in mid 1980 of Don Talbot as the inaugural AIS Director. He was originally going to be appointed Head Swimming Coach but Bob Ellicott Minister responsible for sport decided he was the right person to lead the AIS with Kevan Gosper as Chairman.

Talbot came with an impressive swimming coaching CV firstly in Australia and then Canada but limited administrative experience. In many ways, Rob De Castella, the fourth AIS Director, has a similar background – great understanding of high performance sport but limited administrative experience.

Whilst the Fraser Government decided on establishing the AIS, it had no firm ideas on how it would work. Talbot’s experience working as a swimming coach in Canada and the United States gave him a clear concept of how it should operate particularly in relation to coaches, facilities and sports science.

I was recently reading Greg Hartung’s January 1981 newspaper article that highlighted some of the significant issues that Talbot faced from day one. These included the AIS was a “bold experiment”,  “guaranteed funding for only four years”, “expectation of gold medals” and “only for elite sports people”.

Talbot in an 2011 talk at the AIS indicated the Fraser Government only wanted four sports but he argued that eight to eleven sports were needed to make it successful. He worked very closely with Bob Ellicott to ensure eight sports lined up on day one – 26 January 1981.

Another major issue for Talbot was the lack of training facilities and allied staff. When it opened in 1981, there was the National Athletics Stadium (now Canberra Stadium) and National Indoor Sport Centre (now AIS Arena) – both were managed by federal government agency the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC). The AIS was a hirer not the owner of these facilities – this was the cause of great friction during Talbot’s time as NCDC hired the facilities regularly to non AIS events to raise revenue. At the AIS campus site in Bruce, there were no swimming pool, dedicated netball, basketball and tennis courts, gymnastics centre, football fields or accommodation,

Talbot’s immediate task was to lobby the Fraser Government to ensure first class training facilities were constructed for the eight AIS sports. This was not an easy task to get the Fraser Government to loosen its purse strings during the early 1980’s recession. Talbot spent many late night hours in Bob Ellicott’s Parliament House office arguing the case. He successfully argued the case and additional facilities were planned and constructed.

Besides dealing with politicians and government bureaucrats, several national sports organisations and leading coaches were not supportive of the AIS. They were concerned about losing control on their sport and athletes. Talbot and senior staff constantly promoted the benefits of the AIS to the fledgling high performance system in Australia. You have to remember its existence was not assured – it was a “bold experiment” and “four years government funding”.

The other significant contribution for me was Talbot in establishing the high performance culture of the AIS. Talbot’s philosophy was “athlete centred, coach driven”. In many ways, the coaches were kings at the AIS – everyone worked to meet their coaching and training requirements. This provided enormous strain at times with coaches competing for limited resources. But you earned respect from coaches if you endeavoured to understand and meet their needs.

In discussing the priorities of early sport scientists, Talbot stated that they were there to meet the demands of coaches and their research ambitions were to be secondary. So, in the early days, there was a great deal of routine sport science testing and little research. This changed as coaches and sport scientists developed good working relationships and coaches perceived the benefits of research.

An important lesson that Talbot taught me and many others was commitment to a vision. Talbot’s frequent response to an idea was to say NO but if you continually refined the idea and prosecuted it, he would most likely agree to the idea. This was a test of your commitment.

Talbot resigned from the AIS in September 1983 several months after the election of the Hawke Government. I believe that Talbot was tired of battling the government bureaucracy and ministerial changes – after Ellicott’s departure in February 1981 there were three minister’s for sport and he was unsure whether the John Brown,  Hawke Government Minister for Sport was truly invested in the AIS as it had proposed the establishment of the Australian Sports Commission. It should be noted that the Hawke Government was very supportive of the AIS and expanded the number of sports programs.

Talbot came back to Australia in 1989 after stint in Canada and his efforts as Head Coach of Australian Swimming during the 1990’s led to Australia to being the second ranked nation at 2000 Sydney Olympics and first ranked at 2001 World Championships. During, this period, he witnessed the strong support that the AIS provided to Australian Swimming particularly coaches such as Gennadi Touretski, Jim Fowlie, Barry Prime and sports science/medicine staff including David Pyne, Louise Burke, Bruce Mason, Julian Jones and Peter Blanch.

In summary, I believe that the appointment of Talbot, a highly successful international coach with experience in Australian sport, resulted in a strong foundation being laid for the AIS. For the first time, Talbot set the direction and culture for high performance sport in Australia. He was very willing to argue with politicians and government bureaucrats about funding for high performance sport.

There have been too few high performance coaches that have led Australian high performance sport organisations. Two notable exceptions in Australian sport have been Wilma Shakespear (Queensland Academy of Sport) and Charles Turner (NSW Institute of Sport) – both AIS coaches. Maybe there should be more?

Finally, Talbot in his talk as part of the AIS during its 30th anniversary told how he was enormously proud of what the AIS had achieved and there was a tear in his eye.


I owed my position as Librarian at the AIS in March 1983 to Talbot. The interview panel preferred another candidate but Talbot interviewed me as the final arbiter and decided I have the necessary passion and drive to be appointed. Talbot was involved in interviewing all appointments in the early days. It was my dream job and led to nearly 30 years at the AIS.

Its been a sad year for many of the early AIS pioneers as early this year Peter Bowman, Talbot’s right hand man passed away. They are back together reminiscing on those early days.

Obituaries on Don Talbot

Australian Institute of Sport

Swimming Australia

Australian Olympic Committee

Commonwealth Games Australia

Sport Australia Hall of Fame

Ian Hanson – Swimming World

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: