Australian Institute of Sport – a national ‘living’ icon

Reflections by Ron Harvey CVO AM – 3rd Director of the AIS (1987-1989)

With the passing of Don Talbot this year, I am the oldest living AIS Director and I thought it worthwhile to reflect on the AIS with its 40th anniversary on Australia Day.

For over 40 years, I held senior Federal Government positions including Principal Private Secretary to Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser (1982-1983) and Australian Consul General in the United States (2001 to 2004). I have a long involvement in basketball including Chair of the Canberra Cannons, National Basketball League and Australian Basketball Federation.  I was appointed to the Australian Olympic Committee Board (1993-2013 including Vice President 2001-2013) and Football Federation of Australia Board (2004-2007). My biography.

The Beginnings     

The journey of the AIS starts at 1972 when Gough Whitlam won the Federal election and during ALP election campaign ‘It’s Time’ many sporting personalities became involved with the hope that the Federal Government would recognise sport as being of some importance. Previously Federal Governments had scrimmaged around the edges in things like national fitness and ‘Life. Be in it’ but had not taken the value of international sport seriously.

After winning office, Whitlam appointed Frank Stewart as the Minister of Recreation and Tourism which covered sport. I met Frank Stewart in the late 1960’s and he was a dedicated member of Parliament who in World War II served with the Second Australian Imperial Force in Papua New Guinea, played rugby league for Canterbury Bankstown and was considered an excellent tennis player. In the army, he held the boxing heavyweight title for his unit. He was well suited to tackle sport issues and did not waste any time with initially improving grants to national sports organisations and increased financial support for Olympic and Commonwealth Games teams.

Perhaps Stewart’s most important decision was to request Professor John Bloomfield to review the Australian sport system. Bloomfield was an outstanding sport academic with national and international experience and in his report he recommended that a national institute of sport be established. This recommendation led to an Australian Sports Institute Study Group led by Dr Allan Coles to examine similar institutes and sport systems around the world.  The defeat of the Whitlam Government in 1975 led to the Bloomfield and Coles reports being put on the shelf to collect dust.

Fraser Era

In 1976, Prime Minister Malcom Fraser found himself at the Olympic Games in Montreal and this was his first exposure to elite international sport.  Fraser was a Victorian and his sport experience was primarily an inter-suburban Australian football competition in Melbourne. Fraser quickly discovered that Australia was viewed positively by the international sporting community. At the Montreal Olympics, Australia failed miserably with not one gold medal and many Australian athletes expressed their disappointment to Fraser about the lack of Federal Government support. Fraser returned to Australia and realised that sport played an important component of the character of a nation within and outside Australia. It was how the rest of the world often viewed Australia.

Fraser delegated to Bob Ellicott, Minister for Home Affairs who was acknowledged accomplishing difficult tasks, to re visit Bloomfield’s report. It was no easy task to establish the AIS as many Treasury bureaucrats were not interested in building a ‘concrete jungle for sport’ in Canberra and the States led by Western Australia did not want the money being spent in the nation’s capital. Fraser and Ellicott won those early battles and announced the establishment of the AIS on 25 January 1980.

Don Talbot, a successful swimming coach in Australia and Canada, was appointed the first AIS Director. Talbot was an interesting personality and could be somewhat abrasive at times but he was a high achiever. Early on Talbot gathered around him a core group – administrator Peter Bowman, accountant John Scarano and personnel manager Joan Faull and they were to be a formidable team in the early days of the AIS. One story I remember is that the National Capital Development Commission responsible for managing the construction and management of AIS facilities prepared a five-year plan for the AIS but Talbot sent them away to develop a one-year plan as he was aware of the need to establish it quickly.

Another important Fraser appointment was Kevan Gosper, an Olympic hurdler and successful businessman, as the inaugural Chair of the AIS.  Gosper along with Deputy Chair Bloomfield had an excellent understanding of most aspects of elite international sport.

From my perspective, Fraser had the vision but Ellicott was the driving force to make the AIS a national icon in Canberra to match existing national institutions such as Australian War Memorial, National Gallery and National Library. They both wanted a sporting icon in Canberra and that it was to be a ‘living’ national icon.

After the AIS was opened on Australia Day in 1981, Treasury bureaucrats continually fought against funding the AIS and argued that the Federal Government was not in the business of building swimming pools, stadiums and residences for athletes.

Talbot not only played a significant role in the development of facilities but he with Gosper and Bloomfield developed the philosophy of the AIS. To put it briefly, it was to be a pathway for Australian athletes to reach their maximum potential and represent Australia in the international area.

This philosophy had four thrusts and more importantly that still needs to be recognised today.

First, talent identification is critical and it is important talented athletes are given opportunities to reach their potential.  There is still a great deal of debate whether the Federal Government should fund both grass roots and elite sport.  But unless you have role models and heroes then you do not have strong grass roots. Unless you have grass roots you do not develop role models and heroes. I strongly believe that talent identification is the bind between the two and holds the sporting system together.

Second, after identifying talent, it is important to expose talent to the best coaches. This is where the AIS had its strength and it attracted some of the best coaches in Australia and the world. I would like to acknowledge some of the early coaches that I interreacted with as AIS Director (1987-1989) – Bill Sweetenham and Terry Gathercole (swimming), Warwick Forbes and Ju Ping Tian (gymnastics), Wilma Shakespear (netball), Ray Ruffels (tennis), Charles Turner (water polo), Richard Aggiss and Brian Glencross (hockey), Charlie Walsh (cycling), Adrian Hurley and Patrick Hunt (basketball), Geoff Hunt and Heather McKay (squash) and Reinhold Batschi (rowing).   An important point to highlight is that these coaches were contracted to the AIS and not the national sports organisation. This was important as they removed these coaches from the inevitable internal politics within national sports organisations and allowed them to focus on both short- and long-term development. Sadly, today the AIS no longer contracts coaches.

Third, it is critical for athletes to be exposed to regular international competition. AIS coaches were funded to take athletes to Europe and the United States. In my sport of basketball, the regular AIS tours to the United States and Europe played a critical role developing athletes of the like of Luc Longley, Mark Bradtke, Sandy Brondello and Lauren Jackson. To me the ultimate recognition of the importance of this thrust was the establishment of a training facility in Italy. My concern today is whether national sports organisations can now be relied upon to provide the necessary funding for athletes to train and compete overseas particularly highly talented junior athletes.

Fourth, sports science and medicine services and research are essential and the AIS became acknowledged as a world leader.  Early AIS pioneers were Dr Dick Telford and Dr Allan Hahn (physiology), Dr Bruce Mason (biomechanics), Dr Peter Fricker and Craig Purdam (sports medicine) and Dr Jeff Bond (psychology).  I believe that the recent decision to delegate this function to national sports organisation and the state institutes is not a wise decision. I believe that the centralisation of coaches and sports scientists creates a critical mass of national and international expertise that assist in developing high level standards throughout the country.

During his time as Prime Minister, one of Fraser’s crowning achievements was the establishment of the AIS. He was immensely proud of the AIS and told Prince Phillip so at an equestrian event at the AIS in 1982. He also recognised the importance of international sport by relocating his office to Brisbane during 1982 Commonwealth Games and attended as many events as possible to late in the night.

Hawke Era

When Fraser lost office in March 1983, the AIS was extremely fortunate that Bob Hawke and his sports minister John Brown were onside with the development of the AIS.  I believe this strong political and financial support continued for the next 20 years.  Even sports minister Graham Richardson convinced Paul Keating of the importance of funding elite sport and of course John Howard’s government generously supported the hosting of the Sydney Olympics and Paralympics.

Dr John Cheffers was appointed by Brown to replace Talbot after his resignation in early 1983. At the time of Cheffers appointment, the AIS had limited profile in the sporting community outside of Canberra.  Cheffers regardless of his administrative indiscretions, to me greatly improved the reach of the AIS outside Canberra by in his words “lowering the drawbridge”.  Whilst Talbot was proudly elitist, Cheffers understood the need for community support. The AIS established sports programs outside Canberra – hockey (Perth), and squash and diving (Brisbane) and established a satellite coach program. In my time as AIS Director (1987-1989), more AIS sports programs were established outside Canberra – cricket and track cycling (Adelaide), canoeing (Gold Coast) and rugby union in several cities.

Another major development in this period was sport minister Brown revamping the AIS Board with members with a strong involvement in sport. These members included John Coates, Peter Montgomery, Herb Elliott, Michael Wenden, Lindsay Fox, Roy Masters and Ted Harris.  To me these were heavy hitters in sport with a strong passion and influence. I think today that there are many national sports organisations boards that do not have members with real passion and understanding of sport and influence.

After I was appointed as the AIS Director, sportd minister Brown decided to disband the AIS as a statutory authority and to make it a program of the Australian Sports Commission (ASC), today known as Sport Australia. Brown was frustrated with dealing with two government sport boards and their separate budgets. ASC legislation was upgraded and it stated that the AIS was the major program of the ASC and the AIS Director was still left as a Cabinet decision. 

Many regarded the merger as a retrograde step. In retrospective, I believe that there were not enough safeguards in the legislation to guarantee a satisfactory level of funding for the AIS with the ASC budget.

Greg Hartung, the inaugural ASC General Manager and I worked together to stabilise the administration of ASC and AIS. At this time, the AIS was confronted by the Senate Inquiry into Drugs in Sport.  In the end, the Inquiry achieved the good result of establishing the Australian Sports Drug Agency but from my perspective it did not prove anything of substance. The Inquiry leaked like a sieve and tarnished the reputations of some incredibly good coaches and sports scientists and sports medicine professionals.

I decided to leave the AIS in July 1989 after difficulties in my relationship with the sports minister. I strongly believe that statutory appointed CEO’s are responsible to their Board and Parliament and not the minister.

Today’s Reflections

As I look at the AIS today, I consider the four thrusts that I highlighted have been dissipated somewhat.  I believe that the AIS international reputation that it held in the 1990’s and early 2000’s has declined. To regain its reputation, I believe it requires a Prime Minister with some vision, sports minister with some dedication and ASC Board having a strong knowledge of sport and knowing how important elite international sport it is to the character of our nation. These were critical components of the early days of the AIS.

I do not agree that with a common suggestion that the AIS should return to a standalone organisation. However, I think that the AIS budget should be publicly detailed in the ASC appropriation in the Federal budget or a ministerial direction tabled in Parliament. This change would ensure that everyone including the Cabinet would know what the real financial commitment to the AIS is. In recent times, there is no way of knowing the actual budget of the AIS.

Recent and past government ministerial decisions highlight to me the importance that directions by sport ministers to the ASC Board should be tabled in Parliament.  

I am a centralist at heart and believe the experience around the world is that you have a central organisation which sets high standards in coaching and sports science/medicine.  This high standard will permeate outside the AIS like it did in the early period for state institutes and academies.  To me the move towards decentralisation has lowered elite international sports standards in Australia.

I see many of the current AIS leaders live outside Canberra and I believe that this does not help the AIS setting standards.  I go back to my first impression of the AIS – a visit to the AIS Dining Hall highlighted the daily interaction of elite and developing athletes, coaches, sports scientists and administrators. This interaction greatly assisted in developing culture, standards and innovation.

Finally, Australia is a very strong chance to host the 2032 Olympics and Paralympics in South East Queensland and a centralised AIS in Canberra will provide a pivotal role as it did for Australian athletes and coaches at the highly successful Sydney 2000 Games.

The original AIS logo should be reintroduced to demonstrate that the AIS campus in Canberra has returned its original business of  developing world class athletes.

I would like to thank Greg Blood for his assistance in preparing this article – he helped remind me of specific facts and dates. 

3 responses to “Australian Institute of Sport – a national ‘living’ icon”

  1. Thanks Greg for putting this together,

    I was an athlete in 1981, we were known as the Guinee pigs which set the platform for the generations to come.
    The staff were amazing, the cream of Australia. Dedicated and inspiring people who taught you to stand alone and to perform alone or within a team under pressure.. This new support structure was developing and improving year by year. We were thrown in the deep end and learnt how to swim but to swim with style. I was a netballer not a swimmer. Best growth as a player whilst here in Canberra.
    Returning 5 years later i became one of those coaches, working with the youth of Australia. After 14 years of being in an amazing environment and which inspired me every day to go to work. I was living my dream. I was giving back the knowledge that was given to me whilst still learning as a coach. Best time of my life. The original logo of the AIS was internationally known. I don’t know why they lost it? Everyone want s to change things when they start new jobs and to loose what Australia had was sad to see.
    Thank you everyone who has ever helped me along my journey as a player and as an International coach.
    Sue Hawkins.

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