Further reflections on the Australian Institute of Sport – a national ‘living’ icon.

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

My recent article AIS – a national living icon and recent reflections by early AIS staff and athletes made me look back to Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s  comments  when he opened the AIS in 1981- 

“Coaches and athletes working together through this institute, will, I am certain, produce great things for Australia and carry Australia’s name high.”

Recently on ABC’s Sporty AIS 40th Anniversary program several significant inaugural staff reflected on their time at the AIS.

Wilma Shakespear, the inaugural AIS Netball Head Coach and foundation Director of Queensland Academy of Sport and English Institute of Sport said that:

“Now you see the AIS has become more the manager of the high-performance program across Australia rather than the delivery part” and “It was rather concerning to drive past the AIS. Oh, because it was empty. Like when I left it was still a very thriving place full of athletes, full of coaches, full of scientists and very focussed on what they were doing.  It really made me shiver to think what has happened here. We have lost our way again.”

Dick Telford, the inaugural Head of AIS Physiology and then AIS Distance Running Coach said:

“It was a great chance to work at world pace and to understand what that was I loved that you could share information and question each other with coaches and support staff”.  and “The heart of the Institute of Sport beats in Canberra. It was born in Canberra.”

Petria Thomas, an AIS swimmer (1993-2004) who won eight Olympic medals including three gold in the Canberra Times  said:

“The AIS was really the only option for me, it was probably the best decision I ever made to come here, to see if I could reach my potential,”

“You come to an environment where everyone is striving for excellence and it’s pretty infectious actually.

“Back in the day when all the sport programs were here, there was a cohort of athletes and coaches, it was quite a busy campus. Everyone was working to be the best they could be, both staff and athletes, as well as the support staff that were here as well.

“There’s no way I would have achieved those heights had I not been here.”

Robert de Castella, an early scholarship athlete, world marathon champion and AIS Director from 1990 to 1995 said that during his time the AIS created “a synergy of culture between sports“. He lamented that:

It’s continued to fall apart, it’s essentially a consultancy, there are no athletes on scholarship, there are no coaches employed here.”

To me these reflections highlight that the AIS has moved away from Malcom Fraser’s objective of coaches and athletes working together through the Institute.

I have had many past AIS athletes, coaches and administrators contact me since my article to highlight that the AIS in Canberra was a critical hub for coaches, athletes, sport scientists, sport medicine practitioners and administrators working collaboratively.

For coaches, the AIS was an integral part of their development and the ability of share their experiences and learnings to assist their sport and the Australian sport system. This transfer of knowledge occurred through regular formal meetings between AIS coaches, observing other sports practices and philosophies and informal contact. Wilma Shakespear in her interview highlighted how interaction with AIS athletics coaches led to her understand how to improve the speed of her players.

AIS coaches played a significant role in working with state and regional coaches. To be an AIS program in a team sport you had to demonstrate an underpinning program. In my sport, basketball set up an extensive network of talent ID and coach development – driven by the AIS in Canberra.  The important point to remember is that AIS coaches drove standards throughout Australia in their sports.

The current AIS management might argue that there are six sports (eight programs) currently based at the AIS in Canberra and there are about 50 athletes (36 COE and NBA Academy basketballers) living in the AIS Residences.  To me, this small cohort of athletes and coaches is not as effective as it was in the AIS Canberra’s heyday. Gone has the interaction between Australia’s top coaches and some of the best world leading sport scientists and sports medicine practitioners. Gone is the relationship between the mature elite athlete and the up-and-coming champion. Gone is the pressure on the administrators to be relevant to what is being achieved.

World champion AIS gymnast Philippe Rizzo highlighted the importance of living and training with athletes from other sports. He said:

“Everyone had the same goal, striving to be the best in the world. It was amazing to have athletes from all different sports, it was good to get other people’s perspectives on how they trained and all that. It was a really supportive environment, if someone did well we would do something special in the dining hall and things like that. We’d watch it on TV, it was special.

Sports managed by national sports organisations located at the AIS these days operate as silos and therefore interaction and collaboration are between athletes, coaches and other staff are limited.

The AIS has distributed the delivery of coaching programs to national sports organisations and state institutes/academies. The National High Performance Sport Strategy 2014 is banking on great cooperation between the AIS, national sports organisations and state institutes/academies. In my experience over many years and in many matters, I have found that this type of strategy rarely is successful. In a federal system each state has different priorities.  Recent example is COVID-19 where states set up their own quarantine protocols.

The question is to be asked – are these organisations capable of delivering world class athletes in all the sports they are involved with ? Inevitably state institutes/academies have responsibility for their states and different priorities. National sports organisations may not always consider long term talent development as a priority particularly if funding is based on medal performances. In my time as President of Basketball Australia, I had to strongly argue that the organisation needed to send a development team to an overseas competition but this was opposed by several board members who prioritised dubious administrative policies. The travel to the competition proceeded and many of the players on the tour went on to represent the Opals and it was an important part of their development. The Opals have become the jewel in Basketball Australia’s crown.

Another change has been that AIS sports science research in traditional areas has moved to universities. My question is what access do these universities have to the best elite and young athletes in Australia? Many significant AIS research projects in heat, altitude and nutrition were done with AIS athletes training in Canberra and other states with the support of AIS coaches. I am not sure if research for developing international elite athletes is the core business of universities – it was the core business of the AIS.  Universities these days have many competing priorities and are now under severe financial stress due to COVID-19.

For many years, AIS sports science and medical practitioners in Canberra set the research agenda and standards for state institutes/academies and universities because of its intimate daily involvement with coaches and athletes. I see that this is still being done by AIS sports medicine’s excellent program led by Dr David Hughes but I am concerned about physiology, nutrition, human movement and psychology services. These are still critical components of athlete development.

The AIS in recent times has highlighted the importance of technological research – data mining and equipment technology. But it is important to remember that it is the coaches that drive a sport forward. The mantra “athlete centred coach driven is still: critical in elite international sport.

Every sport has different priorities and challenges – the AIS is there to provide the pathway for elite athletes to reach their full potential but also to provide guidance and understanding how this can be achieved. Some sports will require full time AIS residential scholarships for developing athletes with the aim that they represent Australia on the international sporting arena. Other sports will require part time residential camps to prepare their national teams for international competitions. Other sports may require specialised AIS programs for developing individual athletes where they have a limited number of international standard athletes. This may be difficult for state institutes that have state not national priorities for a sport.  No matter what program the AIS provides for a sport the four thrusts of the AIS should be maintained – talent identification, world class coaching, exposure to international competition and provision of first-class science and medicine support and research.

I am concerned at the current arrangement whereby the Australian Government funding is provided to national sports organisations for elite development but is then taken back by the AIS when they use it facilities and services. This is a sleight of hand. The AIS facilities and services in Canberra should be fully funded by the Australian Government.

It is great to read that the AIS in recent times has undertaken some refurbishment of facilities in Canberra – the Reinhold Batschi Rowing Training Centre and AIS Basketball/Netball Training Hall.  However, the Gymnastics Hall and AIS Residences opened in 1983 and 1985 respectively need to be urgently replaced if the AIS can be a viable national training centre.

Finally, I reflect on Malcolm Fraser’s 1986 visit to Nelson Mandela in a Cape Town prison.  Mandela first question was “tell me Mr Fraser, is Don Bradman alive?”. Mandela had huge respect for Don Bradman for the stance that he took on racism. Four years later, Fraser presented Mandela with a bat with an inscription from Bradman: “to Nelson Mandela. In recognition of a great unfinished innings – Don Bradman”. Mandela understood the importance of sport in the world by stating:

“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers”.

Sport will play an important role in post COVID-19 in helping to unite the world and Australia can assist by Brisbane and South East Queensland hosting a successful 2032 Summer Olympics and Paralympics.

The ASC and AIS must look at how the AIS campus in Canberra will play a critical role in developing coaches and athletes for 2032 Summer Olympics and Paralympics and other significant international sporting events. We must get back to a philosophy of coaches, athletes and sports scientists from different sports working more closely together with the outcome of driving their sport to be a major player in international sport.

In conclusion, the AIS in Canberra in its first 20 years AIS built a strong and critical foundation for the Australian high-performance sport and this was critical in the lead up to the successful Sydney Olympics and Paralympics. To me, the AIS in Canberra has been severely weakened during the last ten years due to several facilities being allowed to decline and misguided policies of outsourcing to national sports organisations, state institutes/academies and universities.

Australian sport needs to return to benchmarks and vision set for the ‘best ever” Sydney Olympics and Paralympics for the 2032 successful South East Queensland Games. The AIS was an integral part of these benchmarks and vision through the Olympic and Paralympic Athlete Programs funded by the Australian Government.  The AIS will need to be at the forefront of the development and management of a similar program for the 2032 Games.

The 2032 Games will be nationally and internationally seen as a success through professionally managed events and highly successful Australian Olympic and Paralympic teams.

The vision of Frank Stewart, John Bloomfield, Malcolm Fraser and Bob Ellicott in my mind has been diluted as the AIS has lost its “hands on” leadership approach. A ‘living’ national icon.

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

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