By Greg Blood
2021 was another difficult year for athletes, coaches and administrators. It is worthwhile documenting how Australian sport managed the many obstacles thrown up by COVID and the achievements of Australian athletes and teams. A major change during 2021 has been Sport Integrity Australia taking charge of major integrity issues that have beset several national sports organisations.
Another year where COVID impacted sport at elite and community levels. The COVID outbreak in Sydney in June 2021 led to state border closes and the introduction of COVID restrictions. Sport in NSW, Victoria and ACT was particularly impacted. This led to major winter competitions – AFL, NRL, National Netball League being forced to play matches in empty stadiums or creating hubs in states with no COVID community infections. This led to COVID free states enjoying an abundance of matches and significant events being held outside their traditional cities – AFL Grand Final held in Perth and NRL Grand Final in Brisbane for the first time.
Community sport in COVID infected states had no competitions during the winter season. Community sport will require significant financial support for it to reach pre COVID participation levels. This financial support could be built around increasing sport participation in the lead up to the 2032 Olympics and Paralympics.
2022 will still have to deal with the impact of COVID even though state barriers will have come down and international travel loosened. Several states will require that elite athletes will need to be vaccinated – this will lead to some unvaccinated elite athletes to be cut by clubs. At the time of writing, Novak Djokovic’s participation at the 2022 Australian Tennis Open is problematic due to his vaccination status being unknown. Major sports Australian competitions will still have to be flexible in their schedules as COVID cases can send athletes and teams in isolation for short periods.
Who would be a sports administrator in the COVID era – frequent changes to competitions and likelihood of decreased income.
Brisbane 2032 Olympics and Paralympics
On 21 July 2021, Brisbane was announced as the successful bid by the International Olympic Committee for the 2032 Games. It was chosen under a new selection format and decided over ten years from commencement – previously it was announced seven years out. The Australian Government strongly supported the bid particularly through the 50-50 funding agreement for Games infrastructure. The Australian Government will play an important role in containing infrastructure costs. The Organising Committee Board of 22 members – each with their own objectives could make the next ten years an interesting time.
When Sydney won the rights to host the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the Australian Government implemented a six year $140 million high performance funding plan known as the Olympic and Paralympic Preparation Program. This long-term plan significantly improved high-performance planning and led to Australia’s best results at the Summer Olympics and Paralympics.
What was missing in the lead up to Sydney was a participation plan to capitalise on increased interest in sport. I look forward to seeing Australian and State Government’s plans and funding for high performance and participation in the lead up to 2032.
Finally, it appears that several national sports organisations might move their operations to Brisbane in the lead up to 2032. It makes sense that cycling move from Adelaide to Brisbane where our track cyclists can train on the Olympic track. I’m not sure many other sports will have the ability to train at their 2032 competition venues.
International Sporting Performances
COVID led to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics being held in 2021 with no spectators and strict COVID protocols for all teams. Surprisingly both Games were generally unscathed from COVID infections and in Australia they were a welcome daily distraction from lockdowns in NSW, Victoria and the ACT.
At the Tokyo Olympics, the Australian team rebounded from disappointing results in London and Rio. The team finished fifth on the medal table with 46 medals – 17 gold, 7 silver and 22 bronze. It was the third best medal haul after Sydney 2000 (58 medals) and Athens 2004 (50) and 17 gold equalled Athens 2004 record. It was definitely a water led resurgence – swimming (21 medals), rowing (4), canoeing (3), sailing (2), diving (1) and surfing (1). Sports that faced some scrutiny for poor outcomes due to the high level of funding were cycling and triathlon. Special mention must go to swimmer Emma McKeon who won five gold and three bronze medals, canoeist Jess Fox finally winning gold at her third Olympics and the Boomers led by Patty Mills finally winning a medal – bronze.
At the Tokyo Paralympics, Australia maintained the medal levels that go back to Beijing 2008. It won 80 medals – 21 gold, 29 silver and 30 bronze and finished eighth on the medal table. Australian Paralympic teams – Steelers and Rollers appeared to suffer from not having international competition for 18 months. My highlight was Madison de Rozario in her fourth Paralympics finally winning gold – her close marathon victory was thrilling to watch.
Australian Olympic and Paralympic team management deserve a great deal of thanks in ensuring athletes and officials were able to represent Australia on the world stage in a safe and healthy manner.
Outside the Olympics and Paralympics, notable Australian sporting performances included Ash Barty’s Wimbledon Women’s Singles, Oscar Piastri’s Formula 2 World Championship, Remy Gardner’s Moto2 World Championship, Minjee Lee’s The Evian Championship, Dylan Alcott’s Golden Slam and George Kambosos Jr’s Lightweight World Boxing Title.
There will be leadership changes at the Australian Sports Commission (ASC) and Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in 2022. Josephine Sukkar became the first woman to become ASC Chair after replacing John Wylie who held the position for eight years. Acting ASC CEO Robert Dalton announced he was departing the position at end of the year after two years and AIS Director Peter Conde will depart in January 2022. These departures remind me of the ASC and AIS in 1990 and 2000 when both senior sport positions became vacant. Let’s hope the positions are filled by the calibre of Jim Ferguson/Rob De Castella in 1990 and Mark Peters/Michael Scott in 2001.
National sports organisations (NSO) CEO changes during 2021 include – Athletics Australian (Darren Gocher to Peter Bromley), Baseball Australia (Cam Vale to Glenn Williams), Basketball Australia (Jerril Rechter to Matt Scriven), Boxing Australia (Josh O’Brien to Dinah Glykidis), Hockey Australia (Matt Favier to David Pyles), Softball Australia (David Pyles to Rosie Williams), Swimming Australia (Alex Baumann to Eugenie Buckley) and Paralympics Australia (Lynne Anderson to Catherine Clark). I maintain a list of CEO changes since 2000.
Future of the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra
Despite the Australian Government providing $2 million funding into a plan to redevelop the AIS site in Canberra, there is still no announcement regarding its redevelopment and future role. After Brisbane won the right to host the 2032 Olympics and Paralympics, former ASC/AIS leaders John Wylie and Matt Favier backed the move of the AIS to south-east Queensland. Interestingly there was no call to move the AIS to Sydney after Australia won the right to host Sydney Olympics in 1993. From my viewpoint, the AIS in Canberra is still the best national training centre in Australia as it has a range of facilities and services in one location – variety of indoor and outdoor training facilities, accommodation and sports science and medicine services. I might be biased as I worked there for nearly 30 years.
The newly established Sport Integrity Australia (SIA) will be in for a busy time in 2022 as it will be investigating several major sport integrity issues raised in 2020 and 2021. SIA reviews commenced in 2021 include –
- Football – investigation of complaints process for Football Australia
- Swimming – investigation of complaints process for Swimming Australia
- Gymnastics – independent review of the Women’s Artistic Gymnastics Program at the Western Australian Institute of Sport (WAIS)
- Hockey – an independent complaint handling process in relation to specific allegations arising from the Hockey Australia Women’s High Performance Program
For public confidence, it is good to see that serious allegations are now being investigated by an independant organisation outside the NSO.
There were the usual number of doping violations managed by Sport Integrity Australia. Court of Arbitration agreed to maintain the 2 year sanction imposed on Shayna Jack following an appeal by Sport Integrity Australia regarding the length of the sanction.
With many stadiums empty or partly filled during 2021, broadcasting revenue played a critical role in keeping major Australian national sports competitions viable. An emerging issue is that live sport is now broadcast across a range of free to air television networks, pay TV and ever-growing streaming services. This raises several issues for consumers – constant changes in where their preferred sports is broadcast and the cost of being a subscriber to several streaming services. Is sport viewing becoming the domain of the wealthy ?
Current coverage of sport includes – Foxtel/Kayo (AFL, NRL, cricket, basketball), Paramount (A-League), Optus (English Premier League & UEFA Champions League), beIN Sports (La Liga, Bundesliga and Serie A, international rugby, ATP Tennis, WTA Tennis and EPL), Stan Sport (rugby union) and Amazon Prime (Australian swimming trials). Sports like Athletics Australia broadcast their national championships through their Youtube channel.
Women’s sport in Australia was impacted by COVID with many national competitions compacted and operating in hubs. Shining lights were our many Olympic and Paralympic medallists and the Matildas fourth place at the Tokyo Olympics. The hosting of FIBA Women World Cup in 2022 and FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2023 should provide a boost to women’s sport in Australia.
Sport and human rights are increasingly becoming linked. There were overtures by several Australian politicians for a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics due to China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims. Recently the Australia Government decided to undertake a “diplomatic” not athlete boycott of the Games. The fall of the Afghanistan Government in August led to several prominent Australians including Craig Foster, Kurt Fearnley and Zali Steggall advocating for the rescue of many Afghan female athletes and their resettlement in Australia. The Australian Government was able to rescue many Afghan athletes.
There have been several notable retirements in 2021 – Jared Tallent retired after winning medals at three Olympics including gold in London 2012, several 300 hundred AFL game players put away their boots – Shaun Burgoyne (407 AFL games), Eddie Betts (350), Nathan Jones (302) and Mark Murphy (300) and one of rugby league’s greatest players Cameron Smith (422 NRL games) announced his retirement at the beginning of the 2021 NRL season. Ellie Cole after winning 17 Paralympic medals including six gold in four Games announced the end of her Paralympic career. Dylan Alcott who has captivated the nation with his achievements on and off the tennis court announced the 2022 Australian Tennis Open would be his last tournament.
Many notable Australian sports people died in 2021. Those that were members of the Sport Australia Hall of Fame – Harry Gallagher, John Konrads, Meg Wilson, Bob Fulton, Wayne Reid, Les Martyn, Norm Provan and Alan Davidson Other notable deaths included Frank Arok, Russell Ebert, Ashley Mallett, Rick Mitchell, Tommy Raudonikis and Kathleen Partridge
Looking Forward to 2022 Major Sporting Events
2022 will see many major sporting events reactivated now that the world lives with COVID. International events to look forward are –
- Winter Olympics Beijing, 4-20 February
- Winter Paralympics Beijing, 4-13 March
- Australian Formula 1 Melbourne, 7-10 April
- Commonwealth Games Birmingham, 28 July – 8 August
- World Road Cycling Championships, Wollongong 18 – 25 September
- FIBA Women’s World Cup Sydney – 23 Sept – 3 Oct
- FIFA Men’s World Cup Qatar, 21 November – 18 December
World Championships/World Cups return in many Olympic sports – Athletics, Canoeing, Diving, Gymnastics, Hockey Swimming, Rowing, Water Polo etc.
Whilst it has been a difficult year particularly those living in States with lock downs, sport broadcasts have played an important role in providing some relief and distraction – Olympic and Paralympic broadcast viewing statistics in Australia are a testament. The achievements of our Olympians and Paralympians – whether through medals or inspiring performances again brought a sense of national pride and achievement. Community sport in NSW, Victoria and ACT has again suffered and it will be important that measures are put into place to help participants in these states return to sport.
My 2020 Reflections on Australian Sport article.