Vale Professor John Bloomfield AO – Gentle Giant of the Australian Sport System

By Greg Blood

Professor John Bloomfield AO was one of the main architects and drivers of the modern Australian sport system. Bob Ellicott, the Minister for Sport responsible for establishing the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), gave enormous credit to Bloomfield for his strategy and development of sports and recreation reports in the lead up to the AIS.

In recent years, through my work in assisting Greg Hartung organise his papers for the National Library and writing articles on the development of the Australian sport system, I have been frequently reminded of the significant contribution of Bloomfield. This reflection will primarily focus on his contribution to the development of sport in Australia and the Australian Institute of Sport where I have detailed knowledge.

Bloomfield was the foundation Professor of Human Movement at University of Western Australia, a role that he held from 1974 to 1997. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, he had leadership roles with Australian Sports Medicine Federation, Australian Sports Council, Australian Sports Science Council and Western Australian Institute of Sport Advisory Board.

In 1968, after completing a PhD at University of Oregon, Bloomfield was appointed Head of Physical Education Dept at University of Western Australia. In 1971, he was elected President of the Australian Sports Medicine Federation (ASMF) (now Sports Medicine Australia) and it was through this role that he commenced his work in developing a modern Australian sport system. Bloomfield and Ken Fitch, ASMF Secretary, began to liaise with the Whitlam Labor Opposition regarding the role of sport and recreation in Australia.

The election of the Whitlam Government in December 1972 led to the first Minister for Sport, Frank Stewart. One of the first tasks undertaken by Stewart was to commission Bloomfield in February 1973 to develop a plan on the future role of the Australian Government in recreation. Interestingly sport was regarded as a component of recreation whereas today they are distinct areas and sport receiving the majority of funding and attention.

Bloomfield only had ten weeks to review research and undertake interviews, so the plan was a brief outline of future development. The published report Role and Scope and Development of Recreation in Australia (available online through the Clearinghouse for Sport) became known as the Bloomfield Report.  In presenting the report to Parliament, Minister Stewart stated:

“Organised sport, largely amateur sport, is another vital target area we are aiming at and the Bloomfield report paints a realistic picture of our enormous needs and makes positive recommendations for their fulfilment. Sport offers the most fundamentally democratic social order one could imagine; it ignores inherited prestige and offers an equal chance for all. It can be the most marvellous leveller in a healthy, democratic community.

The Bloomfield report sets out a number of recommendations we will have to adopt if we are to lift sport out of its under-privileged status. This, like our recreational program, will cost money, but not nearly as much as our social security or health programs. I feel it is time Australia joined the ranks of those numerous developed countries which realised some time ago that a two-way relationship can successfully operate between sport and the state. Sport and recreation can repay in the form of regeneration what the state gives in material support.”

Significant recommendations related to sport were the ‘professionalisation’ of sporting organisations, programs to develop coaching, sports science and medicine, sports management and talent identification, community sport facilities and the establishment of a National Institute of Sport. Minister Stewart followed up the national institute of sport recommendation by establishing a Study Group led by Dr Allan Coles. Unfortunately, the Coles Report sat on the shelves after the defeat of the Whitlam Government at the end of 1975.

In 1974, Bloomfield was appointed to the inaugural Australian Sports Council, another Whitlam Government initiative but resigned in early 1975. The Council started work on recommendations from the Bloomfield Report.

In 1980, Bloomfield was appointed the Deputy Chair of the newly established Australian Institute of Sport which was officially opened on 26 January 1981. Bloomfield played an important role in the Board due to his significant experience in physical education and sports science and medicine.

The resignation of inaugural AIS Chair Kevan Gosper in 1985 led to Bloomfield being appointed Chair. Under Bloomfield’s Chair, the AIS continued to develop even though there was regular criticism from some sporting quarters regarding its role and funding.  Cycling, cricket, rugby union and sprint canoeing AIS programs were established and sports science and medicine services furthered developed. However, during Bloomfield’s time as Chair, he had to manage several major issues:

  • Allegations of financial mismanagement by AIS Director Dr John Cheffers that led to extensive media coverage and the eventual resignation of Cheffers in 1986.
  • Minister John Brown’s decision to amalgamate the AIS and the Australian Sports Commission (ASC) in 1987 led a messy period for staff working at the AIS and ASC with two Chairs – Bloomfield and Ted Harris.
  • 1988 Senate Inquiry in doping in Australian sport which included doping allegations relating to track and field and weightlifting at the AIS.  This was an extremely difficult time for many working at the AIS but Bloomfield was very supportive and spent considerable time away from Perth living in the AIS residences.

My personal involvement with Bloomfield came in the early 2000’s when he embarked on researching the development of the Australian sport system. This led to the book – Australia’s Sporting Success: The Inside Story published in 2003. In this book, Bloomfield provides extensive detail on how the Australian sport system was transformed in the period 1972 to 2000 and led to historic Australian results at the Sydney Olympics and Paralympics.

Whilst a sport scientist not a historian, Bloomfield produced a book worthy of any historian and I constantly use it as part of my research into the development of Australian sport. Anyone working in the Australian sport system should make sure that they read this book – as I frequently say, ‘you need to know the past to move forward’. In frequent discussions with Bloomfield, he frequently talked about the role of ‘currency lads and lasses’ from the early 1800’s in the Australian sporting culture. The Australian athlete character trait of overcoming odds.

After the book was published, I kept in contact with John and his wife Noeline until a few years ago. I found John very warm and highly engaged in sport. John was different to the many Australian sport leaders that I have met – he was tall and imposing but had a gentle and considerate nature – that’s why I refer to him as the ‘Gentle Giant of the Australian Sport System’. Several years ago, I wrote Bloomfield’s Wikipedia article to ensure that his career in sport and human movement was recognised and permanently documented.

Important national recognition of Bloomfield’s achievements include:

  • Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1982 in recognition of service to sports medicine.
  • Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 2020 for distinguished service to higher education in the field of sports science, and to professional sporting organisations.
  • Sport Australia Hall of Fame – General Member Sports Science in 2007
AIS Chair Prof John Bloomfied, Inaugural AIS Chair Kevan Gosper, Minister John Brown, Former Minister Bob Ellicott at awarding AIS Life Memberships to Gosper and Ellicott in November 1986 . Bloomfied was awarded AIS Life Membership in 1989.

I look forward to reading about reflections on his contribution to sports science and medicine particularly through the University of Western Australia and the development of sport in Western Australia.

Published obituaries

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