It’s Time for National Sports Organisations to Invest in Their History – Before It’s Too Late

By Greg Blood

National sports organisations (NSOs) need to lift their game in managing their information and other resources that tell the story of their sport and athletes in Australia. 

In recent years, NSOs have established virtual halls of fame and promoted significant historical events to recognise their development in Australia. These initiatives help to raise their profile of their sport within the Australian community. What most have failed to do is manage their history in terms of printed and digital documents, images, video, audio recordings and important memorabilia (clothing, equipment and trophies). These are often in unnamed boxes in a storeroom, on unnamed digital devices (CD-ROM’s, USB sticks etc) or sometimes in a garage of a former board or staff member.

NSOs generally rely on enthusiastic professional and amateur historians to research and tell their story. But NSO sports’ story can only be truly told by these historians if they have managed their physical and digital collections for them to access.

My perspective to this issue comes from working as a librarian at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) and Australian Sports Commission (ASC) for nearly 30 years and providing advice and assistance to NSOs regarding their collections. An outcome of this advice was the Clearinghouse for Sport establishing the Australian Sport Archive that digitally manages critical and AIS/ASC and NSO resources – annual reports and significant reviews. Since retiring, I have assisted Paralympics Australia and Commonwealth Games Australia in this area. The Clearinghouse also maintains an archive of printed and audiovisual resources published by the AIS and ASC since 1981.  

What has prompted me to reflect on this issue? Recently, it was widely publicised that football’s Anzac ‘Soccer Ashes’ trophy was found after being missing 69 years. It was found in the garage of relatives of the former Australian Soccer Football Association chair Sydney Storey. Lost trophies and documents in the past were not unusual as sport administration prior to 1980’s was generally managed by volunteer sport administrators.

A limited number of NSOs and several major AFL, rugby league and horse racing clubs have established sports museums that are generally managed by committed volunteers. For instance, the National Rugby League established a museum at its Moore Park headquarters in Sydney but disappointingly it has closed to the public. It highlights that NSOs can start the process of managing historical resources but often lose interest most likely due the resources required to manage them.  Interestingly, Rugby Australia has plans for an Australian Rugby Museum as part of its successful 2027 World Cup bid. I watch with interest its development or non-development.

As previously stated, since the 1980’s NSOs have moved from the kitchen table to professional operations with numerous employed staff mainly due to Australian Government investment in sport.

This professionalisation has not been reflected in the management of resources of historical value. Often these resources are in unnamed boxes in a storeroom, not catalogued/listed, maintained in poor climatic conditions and sometimes discarded as part of an office clean up. This coupled with the frequent turnover of NSO staff has led to loss of corporate knowledge and resources of historic value.

The management of these historic resources does not need to be expensive or onerous if an information management plan is developed, followed and use made of external organisations and passionate ‘retired’ volunteers.

There have been several good NSO initiatives of what can be be undertaken –

  • Peter Hamilton, a voluntary  Athletics Australia statistician, has digitised Almanacs since 1952 and Corporate Documents (minutes and annual reports) since 1899. These can be accessed through Athletics Australia website but are currently maintained on Hamilton’s personal website.
  • Paralympics Australia commenced its History Project under the guidance of Tony Naar, a senior manager. This Project endeavoured to organise printed publications, images and videos collected by the organisation. These resources have become critical in the written history of Australian Paralympic movement and projects such as Wikipedia athlete articles and Paralympic Stories website . The History Project  was regarded as significant development and was awarded a Australian Research Council Linkage Grant in 2014. The information collected and managed has recently been able to assist Paralympics Australia with its Pin Project. The departure of Tony Naar in 2020 has led to this Project having no direction and demise of volunteer assistance.
  • Commonwealth Games Australia under David Culbert started a process of organising and digitising its collection.  With Culbert and other staff departures this project has stalled but hopefully will be reactivated in the near future.

Several of the above mentioned projects have been interrupted by the impact of COVID in terms of staffing and finances.

NSOs can utilise external organisations and consultants with the management of their historical resources. National sports museums such Australian Sports Museum, Australian National Maritime Museum and Bradman Museum and International Cricket Hall of Fame will accept and display significant historical resources but do not have the resources to manage extensive NSO collections.

National Library of Australia has a mandate to manage significant collections. In 2020, I assisted Greg Hartung in depositing his extensive collection to the Library and the collection covered the activities of the Confederation of Australian Sport and Paralympics Australia. The Library also provides access to the Australian Olympic Committee documents from 1965 to 1991.

National Library of Australia could also be approached for assistance in organising oral histories of prominent people in a sport. The Australian Sports Commission and Paralympics Australia provided funding in the past to record oral histories of significant people in Australian sport and Australian Paralympic movement.

In the 1990’s, I assisted Kevyn Webb’s family to have his significant rowing collection to be made available through the Australian National Maritime Museum Library. This collection can now easily access by visiting the Library.

Historical Resources Plan

NSOs should develop an information management plan for the their important historical resources. This plan should include –

  1. Type of historical resources to be critically managed. Not all resources may need to be retained or managed.  Critical documents would include – annual reports, board minutes, policy documents, media releases, records and results of major competitions in Australia and overseas, images, videos, websites, uniforms, event programs and trophies.
  2. Procedures for the management of identified historical resources. This process includes the listing of physical and digital resources and the optimum storage of these resources. An Excel spreadsheet or an Access database could be utilised.  Physical resources that need to be digitised should be identified. Digitisation could be undertaken in-house by a volunteer or sent to an external company.
  3. Establishing a Heritage and History Committee to provide expertise to the NSO in the management of historical resources.
  4. Identification of external organisations and individuals that may help with the management of historical resources.
    • Clearinghouse for Sport at the Australian Sports Commission – print and digital resources
    • National Library of Australia – print and digital resources
    • National Film and Sound Archive – video or sound resources owned by the organisation of national significance
    • National sports museums – memorabilia (trophies, clothing, equipment) of national significance
  1. Identification NSO staff responsible for the management of historical resources and suitable volunteers and historians that can assist in managing resources.
  2. Accessibility and promotion It is important that the NSOs historical resources are accessible to historians and others interested in telling the stories of a sport. This may be through NSO digital or physical access or access through external organisations.

NSOs have a responsibility for managing their historical resources that tell the story of its sport development in Australia. Their story goes well beyond hall of fame or significant sporting events. They cannot rely totally on other organisations to manage their history.

Every NSO has a rich source of committed and interested volunteers in their sport and they should be harnessed in managing their historical resources and telling their story. But this needs a information management plan, committed NSO staff and a long-term commitment from the NSO.

Further information

The following resources or programs may assist NSOs with the management of their historical resources.

  1. Edgar Crook from the Australian Sports Commission in 2020 published Preserving Australian Sport History – a guide for sport organisations.  This guide provides sports organisations with a starting point on identifying and managing sport heritage items. Topics covered include identification, selection, registration of items, management, preservation, records management, dispersal, disposal, and financial assistance. It also lists organisations that may provide advice in preservation.
  2. The Community Heritage Grants (CHG) program managed by the National Library of Australia provides grants of up to $15,000 to community organisations to assist with the preservation of locally owned, but nationally significant collections of materials that are publicly accessible including artefacts, letters, diaries, maps, photographs, and audio visual material. Previous sporting organisation recipients have included Australian Rugby Union, National Rugby League and Tennis Australia. Applications are usually open from March to May each year, please check the website for more information about future opportunities.
  3. Sports Museum Network of Australia and New Zealand has members involved on managing historical resources.
  4. Australian Society for Sports History has members that research sports played in Australia.
  5. List of sports museums and halls of fame in Australia – sports museums and virtual halls of fame in Australia.

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