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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Why are Australians so good at sport?

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 Britain and Australia, sport was essentially an amateur activity. This was especially true in Olympic competition which was open only to amateur athletes. But especially one country, the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) sought to professionalize the support they ga
ve to their amateur athletes and so to improve their performance especially in Olympic competition. Through a combination of early talent identification, intensive coaching and training of the most talented athletes in a system that provided those talented athletes with optimum medical, technical and scientific support and into which a nationally co-ordinated doping programme was integrated, the GDR became, with the USA, the dominant force in Olympic competition between 1972 and 1988. This despite the 15-fold disparity in the respective population size of those two nations.

Australia was one nation that suffered as a result of the GDR success. Thus at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games, Australian athletes won only 5 medals of which none was gold. Since the Australian national identity is based, in part, on a belief of superior athleticism – the bronzed Aussie battler overcoming all athletic obstacles in a hostile world – this was a threat too perilous to ignore. A state of national emergency was declared and the nation's top sporting administrators convened to plan a way forward.

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, Canberra, close to the seat of government. There the nation's best coaches and athletes representing those identified sports at which Australians might reasonably be expected to become future world leaders, would be housed. They would be provided with the medical, scientific and technological support necessary to insure that they became the best in the world. A nationwide sporting talent identification program was initiated so that most Australian school children are now screened for sporting talent whilst still at school. The mission of the AIS became to provide a “world class training environment to support AIS athletes and coaches”.

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 Australia since the first grant was made in 1980. Funding for the 2002 to 2005 cycle showed a further increase even from amounts given prior to the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games and will approach R3.3 billion for that 4 year period. In part this is a response to the serious challenge that, as discussed subsequently, will be posed by the Chinese at their 2008 Beijing Games.

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 Canberra and covered only 8 sports, in the past 25 years there has been a progressive expansion of expertise to all the Australian states and to many more sports. Thus there are currently 35 sports for which athletes can receive scholarships and centres of specialization now exist in most of the major Australian cities including Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne, Perth and the Gold Coast. These compliment the work done by the AIS in Canberra.

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 Australia. In addition, there has been a concerted effort over the past 20 years to improve the quality of the medical, scientific and technological support given to scholarship athletes. As a result, the international standing of Australian sports medicine and sports science has risen dramatically especially in the past decade. Many would consider that currently Australian sports physicians, physiotherapists and exercise scientists are amongst the very best in the world. They are also in demand around the world with a least 40 recently re-locating to England, the next country that has begun to follow the Australian model.

More difficult to measure is the effect that this financial support has had on the quality of Australian coaching in the 35 sports currently supported by the AIS. But it seems reasonable to assume that the international success of Australian sport must indicate that their coaches are also at least equal to the very best in most other countries.

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 United Kingdom. There was also the memory of the Battle of Gallipoli at which, according to the Australian interpretation, the Aussie troops were sent to their death by an indifferent English commander.

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. With the exception of a few aberrant periods, Australians have always been at or close to the top of international cricket, most especially in the past 15 years. Yet Australian cricket is not a core feature of the AIS programme and has developed its own systems for success.

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.


Unknown said...

Dude, ANYONE can be good at sport. You're just being over stereotypical. Let me guess, you think Australians are good at sports because YOU'RE Australian??

Wow, how patriotic.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...


You're being very ignorant. Firstly, we're not Australian, as you will clearly see if you bother to read the site properly. In fact, I'm from South Africa, so if I apply your small-minded view of the world, I would have written a piece that makes fun of Australians, because we in SA have a huge rivalry with Australia.

Secondly, if you actually do the research, you'll discover that for the last 20 years, Australia has been the best performing team in the world at the Olympic Games, relative to the size of the country. They also won two rugby world championships, dominate world cricket, and produce far more world class athletes than any other nations given their small size.

So yes, ANYONE can be good at sport. But NO-ONE is as good as Australia.

So please, take the time to think before you blurt out statements that show you up as ignorant.