Can we finally have the future of the AIS in Canberra settled?

By Greg Blood

The Albanese government has announced an independent review to determine the future of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in Canberra. Since Australia’s Winning Edge 2012-2022, the AIS in Canberra has been in limbo – that’s ten years.

The review apparently will be finished by the end of the year. It is being undertaken at the same time the Albanese government reviews the national sports plan and the Australian Sports Commission Act 1989. All these reviews need to be completed as soon as possible so that national sports organisations can have a definite plan in the lead up to Brisbane 2032 Olympics and Paralympics. The Hawke and Howard governments both supported the Olympic Athlete Program and the AIS, and this led to a very successful Sydney 2000 Olympics and Paralympics.

Impact of Winning Edge Strategy

The Australia’s Winning Edge 2012-2022 strategy was led by Australian Sports Commission (ASC) Chair John Wylie and AIS Director Matt Favier with the approval of Minister for Sport Kate Lundy. This strategy put the future of the AIS in Canberra under the microscope and in doubt as it led to the cessation of AIS sports scholarship programs in 2013.  At the time, there were eight sports based in Canberra – athletics, basketball (men & women), football (men), gymnastics, netball, rowing, swimming and volleyball and several camps-based sports programs – rugby union (men), winter sports, Australian football, rugby league, triathlon and water polo (women) utilising AIS facilities and services in Canberra. This mix of residential and camps-based sports led to the AIS having a critical mass of sports science and medicine experts in Canberra to service sports and undertake research. The environment more importantly promoted day to day communication across sports particularly AIS and visiting coaches.

The Australia’s Winning Edge 2012-2022 strategy led to several sports – athletics, football (men & women), gymnastics, netball and swimming all but abandoning the AIS in Canberra. As a result, the AIS reduced the critical mass of expertise on site particularly in sports sciences – physiology, nutrition, biomechanics and psychology. It also reduced the interaction between sports which was one of the great strengths of the AIS.

Basketball, volleyball and men’s rowing remain in Canberra and utilise AIS facilities. Basketball is a shining example of a national sport organisation understanding the benefits of bringing together its best youth in one location. Whilst not receiving the same services in the days it was an AIS program, it has expanded and is now one of the NBA’s Global Academies and increased the number of talented athletes in the daily training environment.

The AIS argue that it is still relevant as a national training centre and many sports continue to visit due to its broad range of facilities – accommodation, sports training facilities and sports medicine services. The AIS in the early 1980’s expanded from the original eight residential programs to have national sports organisations use it facilities for training camps. I witnessed how these camps benefitted from AIS facilities and staff expertise and again allowed these sports to meet with other sports.

Interestingly the architects of Australia’s Winning Edge 2012-2022John Wylie and Matt Favier – have supported a move of the AIS to South East Queensland. Was their heart ever in the AIS in Canberra?

The independent review of the future of the AIS in Canberra should consider its future in terms of a mix of residential and camps-based sports.   This mix should lead to a more efficient use of resources at the AIS in Canberra and improve information sharing between sports.

Why Canberra?

When Fraser government was deciding where to set up the AIS in the late 1970’s, Sport Minister Bob Ellicott faced opposition about its location in Canberra – either it was elitist or existing facilities in major cities should be used. Ellicott argued that the AIS needed to be in Canberra so asto give it a national character’. In establishing the AIS in Canberra, there was early recognition that the states would establish their own institute of sport. South Australia was first off the mark in 1982 and the last two were New South Wales and Northern Territory in 1996. The other advantage for the Fraser government in deciding Canberra was that at the time the federal government owned the land and his meant the AIS could be quickly established. It still owns the land the AIS is located on.

Development of AIS Facilities in Canberra

Due to Australia’s Winning Edge 2012-2022, AIS facilities in Canberra have been allowed to decline and, in many cases, are no longer state of the art – gymnastics training hall is a notable example. The history of sports training facility development at the AIS highlights the regular renewal up until 2007. Timeline of development:

  • 1981:  National Indoor Sports Centre (now AIS Arena) established as inaugural training and administration centre.
  • 1983:  Gymnastics training hall, indoor and outdoor tennis courts, and swimming complex completed.
  • 1984:  Frank Stewart Training Centre for netball, basketball and weightlifting completed.
  • 1985: Athletics training track for 1985 World Cup completed
  • 1985: Sports science and sports medicine, residences and administration buildings completed.
  • 2003:  Archery Centre and AIS Rowing Centre extension opened.  
  • 2006: Aquatics Training and Recovery Centre including 50 metre high-tech performance training pool completed.
  • 2007: AIS hub redevelopment including a 110-metre indoor running track (with jumping pit), new physiology laboratories, altitude house and an enhanced strength and conditioning gymnasium.
  • 2007: New AIS Athlete Residences opened.

The early AIS development was funded by the Fraser Coalition government (1980-1983) / Hawke Labor government (1983-1996) and post 2000 by Howard Coalition government (1996-2007). Since 2008, neither Labor nor Coalition governments have made significant investments in terms of renewal. The ASC / AIS have invested in several reviews and plans, but nothing has been implemented by the Australian Government. There was a small victory for ACT residents with the Albanese government agreeing to refurbish the AIS Arena, but this is not used as a training facility. The original AIS residences completed in 1985 are not longer fit for purpose particularly for athletes with a disability.

Since the establishment dedicated sports training facilities by the mid 1980’s, the AIS has not required Canberra Stadium (originally the National Athletics Stadium) and AIS Arena. These major spectator facilities by are now used by Canberra’s national sports teams and other events. In recent years, there have been discussions between the AIS and ACT government about the later taking over these facilities. These major sports facilities should not be connected to the future of the AIS as national training centre.

What is the Case for Future of the AIS in Canberra?

  • AIS is a national institution like Australian War Memorial, National Library of Australia, National Museum of Australia and National Galley of Australia, Questacon (National Science Centre).
  • AIS is in close view of the Australian Government – its principal funder and supporter.
  • Future development can be in stages – as early 1980’s and post 2000 developments occurred.
  • Australian Government owns the land – any construction outside Canberra is under the guidance of local and state governments which could be problematic.
  • Continue to be a state-of-the-art national training centre with a comprehensive range of sports facilities and services.
  • AIS could subsidise the use of its facilities to encourage use for designated sports. Particularly for national sports organisations that determine its location and environment is suitable for a residential program.
  • Develop innovative facilities – expanded altitude house (recently announced), acrobatics training and research centre (gymnastics, skateboarding, surfing, diving, athletics and other sports that use acrobatic movements). – i made that suggestion to the Coalition.
  • Paralympic training and research hub with facilities to meet their specific requirements particularly accommodation.
  • Promote the AIS as national centre for team sports. Football Australia wants a national training centres for its teams, but the AIS has all the facilities required for national team training camp including well maintained turf and synthetic training facilities. How often do the Socceroos and Olyroos hold a training camp in Australia ?
  • Why is South East Queensland more deserving than any other state? After all, the AIS did not move to Sydney in lead up to Sydney Olympics. A move to South East Queensland most likely be more disruptive in every decreasing period leading up to Brisbane 2032. South East Queensland needs to focus of the construction of the many facilities required for Brisbane 2032.

The aim of many national sports organisations appears to develop their own national training centre. This is an admirable objective but how many can afford to manage these centres on an annual basis particularly when many rely on federal and state government funding. In the post COVID era, many national sports organisations are struggling financially due to COVID debt, increased costs due to inflation and every increasing competition and training costs. AIS in Canberra offers a more cost-effective solution and it ensures that sport has a national cultural presence in Canberra and in front of federal politicians.

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