The decision by Gymnastics Australia to reverse its decision to leave the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) despite the facilities being “out-of-date and decaying” is an opportunity to rethink the future of the AIS.
We currently have a parliamentary inquiry into challenges facing our national institutions and the role they play in our national story, including the National Library, the National Museum of Australia, National Gallery and the National Film and Sound Archive but we have heard barely a whisper about the future of the Australian Institute of Sport. In fact the portfolio Department, Health and Ageing, has not put in a submission, nor has the inquiry formally considered this iconic national institution. This is despite the fact the AIS is facing many of the infrastructure and funding challenges of the other national institutions and that it also has an important role in our national story.
The election of the Whitlam Government in 1972 heralded rapid change to many areas of Australian society and this included a rethink of sports policy. Not long after its election in 1972, Labor commissioned Professor John Bloomfield to report on the status of recreation in Australia and make recommendations as to its future. This report titled Recreation in Australia: It’s Role, Scope and Development was pivotal to the modernisation and development of sport in Australia, laying the groundwork for the successes in the decades to follow. Amongst its many recommendations, the report led to the creation of what became the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS).
The creation of the institute gained particular momentum after the lacklustre performance of the Australian Olympic team at the 1976 Montreal games. Following this, considerable pressure was placed on the Fraser Government to address the failings in the Australian sports system and in January 1981 Prime Minister Fraser officially opened the AIS and welcomed the 152 athletes who had been offered training places in eight sports. Their motivation was to develop an institution that could nurture Australian talent and inspire ordinary people and leverage off the economies of scale that could come from bringing athletes, coaches and sports technical experts together.
The creation of the Australian Sports Commission in 1985, and then the formal merging of the AIS and the ASC in 1989 with the passing of the Australian Sports Commission Act 1989 had the effect of linking the AIS to the aims and funding of the ASC.
Fast forward to 2010 and the then government published the Australian Sport: The Pathway to Success report, which included its responses to the recommendations by the Independent Sports Panel, The Future of Sport in Australia, otherwise known as the “Crawford Report”.
Recommendation 4.1 from the Crawford report stated that: “National sporting organisations should have primary responsibility for development of their own high-performance programs with assistance from the Australian Sports Commission as appropriate on a case-by-case basis”. This change coupled with the Government declining to support a further proposal which would have separated the AIS from the ASC has led to the decline in the facilities, role and status of the AIS.
Moving key responsibilities from the AIS to the NSO’s has been a fundamental change and has decentralised and devolved the functions of elite and high-performance sports that had utilised the AIS. This change is in many ways the antithesis of both the Coles and Bloomfield reports. Allowing both the infrastructure and the intellectual capital of the AIS to deteriorate to the point where a sell-off or closure of facilities appears inevitable, seems to be unwritten Government policy, and one that appears explicitly linked to the general undermining of national institutions in the nation’s capital. In fact, this is simply another example of this Government’s decentralisation agenda.
Robert De Castella, quoted in The Canberra Times, sums it up succinctly: “You can’t have seven state institutes or academies providing the same quality of service of one national peak organisation. You can’t afford it for a start, let alone the culture that has been decimated.” De Castella, the marathon champion and former AIS Director also rightly said that the decline of the AIS was “devastating for all of the young kids and I don’t know where all of our next generation of athletes, coaches, sports medicos and physios and scientists are going to come from.”
While the Gymnastics Australia program has reversed its decision to leave the AIS – more a consequence of a lack of viable alternatives – this is likely to only be a temporary reprieve if the ageing gymnastics facilities are not refurbished and upgraded.
Similar risks affect other programs: the Victorian government has made a $126 million election commitment to refurbish and expand the State Basketball Centre, potentially risking the loss of the AIS basketball program in the future.
The ongoing decline and loss of expertise is also highlighted by the loss of over 35 sports science and medicine experts from the AIS in this year alone, and over 70 lost in the past five years under this government.
I cannot imagine that the decline of what was once our premier sports and coaching facility was the intention of the various reports into Australian sports funding. Therefore we need to ask ourselves, how do we reverse this decline before we lose this facility for future generations of Australians?
It is time to revisit the recommendation from the Crawford report, namely “… Specifically, the Australian Institute of Sport should be separated from the Australian Sports Commission …”
We need to reconstitute the AIS as a separate, standalone organisation, taken out of the control of the ASC, appropriately funded and consisting of the best coaches and sports scientists that the country can offer.
A revitalised AIS should also again offer scholarships to students, with the National Sports Organisations recognising that the facilities of the new AIS will be world class and funding their athletes to attend accordingly. With the core campus located in Canberra, it would also be ideally placed to partner with the NSW and ACT Governments to provide regional pathways for sporting success.
The opportunities for such an institution go beyond our borders. Just as education has become a valuable export commodity for Australia, so too could our sports coaching and sports science skills.
Additionally, offering scholarships to the AIS to countries in our region provides a way for Australia to extend its reach, using sporting diplomacy to extend a hand of friendship to countries in our region.
The decision by Gymnastics Australia is a welcome one as it keeps open pathways for gymnasts across our capital region but it’s time for the Government to set out a vision for the future of the AIS.
I’ll leave the final word on the future of the AIS to Professor Bloomfield from his 1972 report:
“The establishment of a national institute for Australia would give the stability which is needed in the development of any national recreation system. The majority of European countries began without such organisations, but within a short period of time found it absolutely necessary to develop them in order to co-ordinate sport and recreation programs, services and research. Such institutes now exist in almost every eastern and western European country.”
David Smith is the Labor Senator for the ACT and the Labor candidate for the new Seat of Bean.