By Greg Blood
With the upcoming Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, it is worthwhile examining the contribution of the Australian Government through the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) to Australian Olympic and Paralympic team preparation from 2016 to 2021.
These teams have also been supported by Australian Olympic Committee, Paralympics Australia, state institute/academies of sport, national sports organisations (NSOs) and sponsors but the Australian Government over this five-year period has been the significant financier in the preparation of these teams.
Historically, the Australian Government funding to Australian Olympic teams started in 1920 and for Australian Paralympic teams in 1992. Up until 1980 Olympics, funding was directed at assisting the sending of teams. The establishment of the AIS in 1981 led to the Australian Government’s investment in athlete preparation in terms of coaching, competition access, training facilities and sports science and medicine. The Australian Government’s support since 1981 through the AIS and NSOs high performance funding has led to greatly improved Olympic and Paralympic results with the highwater marks being the 2000 Olympics (58 medals) / Paralympics (149 medals) and 2004 Olympics (50 medals) / Paralympics (101 medals). Since 2004, Australia’s medal success and ranking has fallen. The AIS Winning Edge policy in 2012 attempted to revert this trend but in 2017 it was reported that this policy had been consigned to history.
The information below has been sourced through published sources – AIS website, Sport Australia annual reports, NSO investment allocations, media releases and media reports. It should be noted that the AIS is a division of Sport Australia but is the primary decision maker regarding high performance funding and services.
Allocations to NSOs
2016-17 – $94,861,400 (a)
2017-18 – $103,208,994 (a)
2018-19 – $121,801,147 (a)
2019-20 – $120,758,489 (Olympic summer sports $101,744,865 ; Paralympic $19,013,624)
2020-21 – $129,637,045 (Olympic summer sports $111,493,945 ; Paralympic $18,143,100) (b)
(a) Public breakdown by Olympic and Paralympic sports not publicly available for period ; (b) 2020-21 listed due to the Games postponed to 2021.
This AIS funding does not include substantial AIS operational (staffing, programs, facilities) funding which is not included in annual reports. This omission from annual reports makes it publicly difficult to determine the “real” AIS contribution to high performance.
During the period 2016 to 2021, the following high performance funding announcements were announced:
- 13 December 2017 – additional $10 million as part of a targeted drive towards the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.
- 3 April 2019 – new funding commitment of more than $54million over the next two years to the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), announced in 2019/20 Federal Budget.
- 14 June 2020 – Federal Government’s $54.5 million investment in high performance sport included 50.6m allocated over two years. The funding enabled the AIS to maintain baseline support for NSOs and $3.9m directed towards supporting technology and innovation through key sporting infrastructure.
- 28 October 2020 – AIS provided NSOs and athletes with greater certainty further into the future. It committed in advance more than $115 million to Olympic, Paralympic and Commonwealth Games sports for the 2021-22 financial year.
- 12 May 2021 – $132.8 million for Australia’s high-performance sport programs each financial year 2021-22 to 2023-2024 and $3.5 million in Federal Budget for the Australian Paralympic Team to the Tokyo Paralympics.
High Performance System
In November 2019, the state institute and academies of sport approved the National High Performance Sports Strategy 2024 that was led by the AIS. It would be good to have a review of this strategy after the Games in light of Australia hosting the 2032 Olympics and Paralympics.
Training Centre Development
Australian Government through AIS have funded several high performance training centre facility and technology developments throughout Australia:
- October 2020 – Small NSO Infrastructure Grant program that is a targeted investment initiative to support small NSO projects improve physical, organisational or technology infrastructure designed to support high performance programs – $2.5m
- 27 January 2021 – rowing’s Reinhold Batschi Men’s National Training Centre in Canberra – $1.7m upgrade.
- May 2021 – Geoff Henke Olympic Winter Training Centre opened in Brisbane costing$6.5 million with the AIS/Sport Australia investing – $4.5 million.
- 25 June 2021 – new state-of-the-art change room and recovery facility for Hockeyroos at Perth Hockey Stadium – $600,000
AIS Facilities – Canberra Campus & European Training Centre
The future of the AIS Canberra campus has been discussed in the media during the last five years due to the AIS no longer operating scholarship sports programs since Winning Edge in 2012. Several Olympic and Paralympic athletes have used the AIS as their daily training environment since 2016 including men’s gymnastics, several Paralympic swimmers and track and field athletes, several Olympic track and field athletes, men’s rowing, and volleyball. Basketball Australia’s Centre of Excellence is based at the AIS but this is a development program.
Olympic and Paralympic athletes have regularly visited on training camps. For instance, in March 2020, Australian Swimming Women’s 100m freestyle and relay squads were in camp for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. In March 2020, the Australian women’s water polo team spent three months in Canberra after COVID-19 disrupted their travel plans in March 2020.
The AIS campus has been an important training hub for many Olympic and Paralympic athletes due to Canberra’s limited COVID-19 exposure and restrictions.
The Canberra Times reported that Sport Australia was granted $2 million to develop a blueprint for AIS redevelopment to be delivered by June 30 2019. Besides the AIS Arena being shut down due to be no longer “fit for purpose”, the Australian Government still has not determined what it intends regarding future redevelopment at the AIS Canberra campus.
European Training Centre located in Varese, Italy was closed after the outbreak of COVID-19 in Europe in early 2020 and is now anticipated to re-open in early 2022.
AIS Combat Centre
This was established in 2013 by the AIS in Canberra to provide high performance support to boxing, judo, taekwondo, wrestling, fencing and karate. In January 2021, Combat Institute of Australia was established after the AIS decided to no longer directly manage high performance programs for combat sports. Combat Institute of Australia is funded by Boxing Australia, Judo Australia and Australian Taekwondo. I will be closely watching the results of these three sports in Tokyo. My concern about this change is that in high performance sport it often takes ten years to have impact after a change of direction.
Psychological Support Services
Athlete wellbeing and psychological services have been at the forefront of AIS initiatives since 2016 Olympics and Paralympics. These initiatives include:
- January 2018 – AIS established the Athlete Wellbeing and Engagement Division that focussed on “holistic athlete development, including life skills to negotiate the high performance environment, professional development in career and education and activities to assist community engagement and integration”.
- March 2019 – AIS launched the Mental Health Referral Network (MHRN) that provided almost 1,000 AIS-funded athletes with access to 27 AIS-endorsed psychologists and mental health practitioners located across the country.
- March 2019 – The AIS launched Gold Medal Ready to assist Australian athletes deliver their best performance under pressure at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and beyond. Australian Olympic champions, known as the Gold Medal Alumni, shared their experiences with athletes and coaches. The Gold Medal Alumni comprises athletes with a collective 80 Olympic Games appearances and 48 gold medals. However, there were media reports about several NSOs not supportive of this program.
This is often an area where there is limited published information due to the need to maintain a competitive sporting advantage. However, the AIS has announced several initiatives particularly concerning Paralympic sports:
- Wheelchair tennis – AIS engineers customised wheelchairs to make them more agile while also ensuring they maintain the ultimate balance. This design work has benefited quad tennis players Dylan Alcott and Heath Davidson.
- Wheelchair track athletes – AIS has developed gloves to assist wheelchair racers.
- Wheelchair basketball – three members of the Australia men’s Paralympic basketball wheelchair team, the Rollers, have been supplied with customised carbon-fibre seats to increase their speed, agility and support.
Sport Australia Annual Report 2019/20 reported that “Utilising cutting edge rapid build technology, AIS engineers built and delivered more than 300 individualised pieces of equipment to para and able athletes. Delivered complete Swimming Analysis tool based on video machine learning that generates 1,250 data points per lap per athlete for all athletes in the pool real-time.”
Ongoing work is continuing in the Athlete Management System that was developed prior to 2016 and assists with the athlete availability area.
Sports Science / Medicine
Winning Edge greatly diminished the AIS physiological, nutrition, psychology, biomechanics and soft tissue massage services and onsite research. However, four projects/services that may assist athletes in Tokyo include –
Professor Louise Burke’s (recently departed the AIS) ongoing research with the Australian Catholic University’s Mary McKillip Institute into high fat, low carb diets which have been popular with any athletes. Research has shown this diet that can actually impair the performance of elite athletes.
AIS Tokyo Heat Project is part of AIS REST Hub which provides the high performance sport network with a range of resources and information across the areas of recovery, environment, sleep, and travel. This Project will assist Australian athletes and staff prepare for potentially be the hottest modern Olympics and Paralympics on record. This continues the work started by Professors Dick Telford, Alan Hahn and Louise Burke in the 1990’s and Shona Halson with recovery and sleep in the 2000’s.
Athlete Performance Health has worked 14 sports and the state institutes/academies of sport to reduce injuries. It was reported that there has been an 85 per cent reduction in injuries in Triathlon Australia’s HP program.
AIS Sports Medicine has greatly assisted the sport sector and in particular high performance sport in the development of world class COVID-19 resources – return to play, COVID-19 plans, sports trainer guidelines etc. Dr David Hughes, the AIS Chief Medical Officer has played a critical role in the organisation of medical services at Tokyo Olympics in his role of AOC Medical Director.
With the diminishing of resources and expertise in several AIS sports sciences areas – physiology, nutrition, biomechanics and performance psychology, the AIS has established professional networks in biomechanics/skill acquisition, performance nutrition, performance psychology, sports medicine, physical therapies, physiology and strength & conditioning.
High Performance Development
The AIS operates several programs that aim to improve high performance capacity in the long term and these may have had limited impact on current Olympic and Paralympic teams. These programs include:
- Performance Pathways – in December 2020 it was announced that $35m over two years would be allocated to NSOs to help sports identify and develop Australia’s talented athletes of the future.
- Athlete Accelerate Program – supporting female athletes who are pursuing career options in sport.
- Elevate Coach Program – a bespoke blend of face-to-face and online support and development to Performance Pathway coaches.
- Talent Program – a leadership programs for high performance women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine (STEMM)
- National Coaching Taskforce – to develop a national high performance coach development program.
The funding and programs above indicate that Australian Olympic and Paralympic teams for Tokyo have been provided abundant and wide-ranging support in their preparation by the AIS. The question that will be asked after the Games was this funding support sufficient and were the numerous athlete support programs and services effective.
Since Rio, a significant AIS resources have been devoted to athlete wellbeing and resilience. Will Tokyo be a test of the resilience of our athletes in the COVID-19 era?
Whilst Winning Edge program was “officially” dropped after the Rio Olympics and Paralympics, there are still the AIS categorisation principles that funding to NSOs is based on their ability to win medals – individuals or teams and the AIS is no longer directly involved in the provision of sport high performance program (ie AIS scholarship programs). I will closely be looking at the performances of the highly funded NSOs – swimming, sailing, athletics, cycling, rowing, hockey, basketball and canoeing based on this funding model and the ability of NSOs to manage high performance programs.
At this point in time, it is difficult to determine the impact of COVID-19 on Australian and other nations performances at the Olympics and Paralympics. Many Australian athletes and teams have had limited access to international competitions since late 2019 so that may be a factor in the heat of competition. But many leading Olympic and Paralympic nations have been more severely impact by COVID-19 than Australia.
Gracenote in April 2021 with many provisos predicted that Australia at Olympics would win 40 medals – 12 gold, 13 silver, 15 bronze and finish 7th on the medal table. This position may have improved after the Australian Swimming Trials.
Australian Government’s funding of high performance sport should never be reviewed in terms of Olympic and Paralympic medals and performances. I think international success outside these significant world sporting events is just as important as promoting Australia’s international sporting reputation. At the time of writing, Ash Barty and Dylan Alcott won Wimbledon titles, five golfers had international success, cyclist Ben O’Connor won a stage of Tour de France and two track athletes – Stewart McSweyn and Nicol McDermott broke national records at IAAF Diamond League Meetings.
After the Tokyo Games, it will be an ideal time to review AIS funding principles and programs as Australia needs to develop a plan similar to the Olympic and Paralympic Athlete Program (1994-2000) as Brisbane and South East Queensland hosts the 2032 Games. The 2000 plan spread the funding to NSOs more broadly as it was viewed that all Olympic sports should have the ability to “shine” at a home Games. As a result, 20 sports won Olympic medals and 10 sports won Paralympic medals in Sydney.
I still remember John Coates dictum that a home Olympics and Paralympics will only be viewed as successful by the host country if it does well on the medal tally. Canadians still view poorly the 1976 Montreal Olympics as they only won 11 medals – and not a gold medal.
Finally, Ash Barty in her media conference after winning the Wimbledon Women’s Singles title highlighted the importance of sport in Australia and the need to have a strong sport pathway and funding from participation, athlete development and high performance . She stated:
Australians have such a rich history in sport. Being able to be a very small part of that is something I always dreamt of, to try and create a legacy, a path for young girls and boys to believe in dreams. Learning my lessons along the way has been one of the best parts of my journey.
This article that does cover the Australian Government’s funding to Sport Integrity Australian (formerly Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority) with supports doping education and testing in Australia. This government organisation has also received more funding and provided greater scope since Rio.