An inferiority complex about Australia and sport is something uniquely South African (and perhaps Kiwi, too). In the light of a team that yesterday won its third successive Cricket World Cup, to go along with its multitude of other sporting triumphs, this article analyses why the Australians are so good at sport. Perhaps we can learn from them?
Prior to the 1968 Olympic Games, with a few notable exceptions such as American gridiron football, baseball and basketball, and rugby league in
By 1980 a proposed blueprint for future success had been accepted; the government committed to provide long term funding to establish a national centre of excellence - the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) – to be built in the nation's capital,
In the first four year cycle between 1980 and 1984, government provided the AIS with the equivalent of about R500 million (in current terms). This produced a steep increase in the number of Olympic medals won from 5 and 9 in 1976 and 1980 respectively to 24 at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. By 1996 funding increased to about R2.0 billion per 4 year cycle, reaching closer to about R3.0 billion prior to the 2000 Sydney Olympics at which Australian athletes won 58 medals, their largest haul. Interestingly there has been a linear relationship between the amount of money spent each year by Australian sport and the number of medals won in Olympic competition. The wisdom in the words of a former CEO of the AIS, Olympic marathoner Deek de Castella has been proven: “Money in equals medals out”.
In brief, the Australian model is based on the following foundations:
1. Adequate financial resources.
There has been a progressive increase in the level of funding for elite sport in
2. Enthusiastic government support.
Since 1987 the AIS has merged with the government appointed Australian Sports Commission with the result that a common vision for Australian sport can be followed. Accountability is also maximized by this close relationship.
3. Athletic scholarship programmes.
The AIS offers scholarships to about 700 athletes in 35 different sports each year. Scholarship athletes have the opportunity to live and train at identified sporting campuses whilst in contact with coaching staff, medical personnel and sports scientists for up to 6 months at a time. These programmes are integrated nationally to insure that knowledge is shared across all sporting disciplines wherever located in the national structure.
4. Progressive expansion of physical resources
Whereas the work of the AIS was initially focused exclusively in
In addition, each state has its own Institute of Sport at which expertise comparable to that originally found only at the AIS in Canberra can be provided to athletes training either at the centre of specialization in that state or as individual scholarship athletes.
5. Development of world-leading scientific and coaching expertise (intellectual capitol)
The AIS currently employs 75 official coaches in the supported sports. These coaches are distributed across
The key point not often fully understood is that the financial support for Australian sport by the Australian government has not simply improved the sporting and training facilities available for Australian athletes and allowed athletes and coaches to devote themselves fully to their sports. More importantly, it has allowed the development of a rich intellectual capitol, available for all future Australian athletes, coaches, scientists and medical personnel.
This intellectual capitol grows exponentially with each passing year and is never lost since it is part of an integrated whole that has become a national sporting treasure. Nor can this treasure be suddenly lost or indeed replicated overnight by other countries that have lacked the sporting foresight of the Australian government of the late 1970’s.
The special case of Australian cricket (section written by Prof Tim Noakes of the UCT Research Unit for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine)
Whilst Australians appreciate Olympic sporting success, the national sport remains cricket. In part this is historical and the result of the continuing hold that one man, Sir Donald Bradman, has on the national sporting psyche.
Bradman, the greatest cricketer of all time by some margin, came to prominence at a critical time in Australian history when the nation was financially strapped as a result of the First World War and the Depression and at the financial mercy of the
In this period of great national misery, almost the sole ray of hope was Bradman’s consistency in repeatedly scoring centuries seemingly every time he went to bat and his ability to inspire Australian cricketing victories over the distrusted English.
Two crucial visions that Australian cricket shares with those of the AIS are (i) the development of intellectual capitol and (ii) the retention within the system of the expertise of former players. Thus Australian cricket currently employs two full time research scientists to insure that its science remains ahead of that of its competitors. Those scientists are currently working with more than 10 doctoral students in various Australian Universities. The retention of the expertise of former players explains why, for example, Shane Warne did not have to learn the art of spin bowling from scratch. Rather his brilliance owes at least something to that lineage of world-class Australian wrist spinners – Clarrie Grimmett and Bill O’Reilly in the 1920’s and 30’s and Richie Benaud in the 1950’s and 60’s – who laid the foundation for Warne’s success over the entire course of the 20th century.
Finally there is the perception that Australian cricketers never give up – an ingrained attitude that antedates the influence even of Sir Don Bradman. There are clearly important lessons for South African cricket in this example.