Sport

The Australian Institute of Sport has long produced our Olympic hopefuls. Is the model still fit for purpose, or is an overhaul overdue? By Kieran Pender.

Inside the AIS

AIS sprinter turned bobsledder Sarah Blizzard watches “motion capture” footage taken to allow close analysis of her movement.
Credit: AIS

On a smoky Canberra afternoon in the height of summer, I head through Alisa Camplin Place – which honours Australia’s second Winter Olympics gold medallist – to the Australian Institute of Sport’s high-performance centre. Located amid bushland to the north of the national capital, this sprawling campus has been central to Australia’s Olympic efforts since it was opened by then prime minister Malcolm Fraser on January 26, 1981. With all eyes now on Tokyo 2020, AIS performance services manager Julian Jones has offered a guided tour.

It may be synonymous with sporting success but the AIS was born of failure. Australia returned from the 1976 Montreal Olympics without a single gold medal, languishing below Trinidad and Tobago and just above Iran and Mongolia in 32nd spot on the medal tally. “We have hit rock bottom,” one journalist declared. Such was the accompanying furore that Fraser and one of his senior ministers, Bob Ellicott, poured money into the creation of a national sports institute.

Almost four decades since the AIS’s Australia Day inauguration, Jones is an apt guide. He was an early scholarship holder, as a weightlifter, and has spent most of his subsequent career at the AIS. It shows, as he effortlessly navigates the labyrinthine complex.

The AIS was once a permanent hub for athletes, but today only a few disciplines remain with residential programs – the rest, almost 20 different sports, visit on a camp basis. Former Australian Olympic Committee media tsar Mike Tancred described the modern AIS as a “ghost town”, but on this particular January day it is a hive of activity. The tour begins in what Jones describes as a “mini-hospital”, populated by doctors and allied health professionals, before we head to a workshop where technicians create bespoke equipment, particularly for para-athletes. “We build anything we can’t get commercially,” he says, pointing to a 3D printer. Next door is a giant hangar, with more than 20 rowing machines set out; the smoke has forced Australia’s rowers indoors. Nearby is a 200-metre running track, with cameras fitted along it to monitor movement. “Anyone that runs, jumps or throws is tested here,” Jones explains.

The AIS hosts 175 camps each year, across Olympic and Paralympic disciplines. Athletes come to make use of the sports science with a whole building for medical testing, including a dedicated blood laboratory, Australia’s largest recovery facility (at the time of the tour, judokas are in the specialist pool) and technological enhancements to orthodox training. The primary swimming pool has force-plates and is lined with cameras, while there are five multipurpose football fields and an indoor beach volleyball court.

In a vast gym, athletes from different sports mingle. There is nothing high-tech here, just manual machines. “This is not a fitness industry gym,” Jones laughs. On the wall, in large type, are words to inspire Australia’s current and future Olympians: “strength”, “speed”, “agility”, “endurance”, “flexibility” and “focus”.

 

Patrick Hunt is now a man of the world, but the AIS’s Bruce campus will always be home. In his mid-60s, with greying hair and a raconteur’s flair for storytelling, Hunt is president of the global association for basketball coaches and chairs the technical commission for FIBA, the game’s governing body. Over a cappuccino, Hunt recounts his recent globetrotting.

Four decades ago, as coach of the local Canberra Cannons, Hunt was less accustomed to jetsetting. But in 1981 he was asked by the AIS’s inaugural basketball coach, Adrian Hurley, to help identify players for the program. Once selection was complete, the team gathered for their first session. “There was Adrian, 21 athletes and no basketballs,” Hunt says, laughing. He was promptly appointed Hurley’s assistant, and has been affiliated with the AIS basketball program – now the Basketball Australia Centre of Excellence – since.

Hunt and Hurley – and coaches from the other foundational sports at the AIS – had a blank canvas. “It was a new frontier,” he says. A spirit of collaboration pervaded the new campus. “Coaches from the different sports would meet regularly to learn from each other.” The basketball program co-opted the weightlifting coach, Jones’s father, to develop a strength regime for the basketballers.

“The early days were pioneering,” Hunt remembers. The basketball program brought in high schoolers and put them through an elite training system, with the hope of fast-tracking development. “At first we were the coach, the mum and dad, the schoolteacher, the guidance counsellor, the physio, the nutritionist, everything,” he continues. “We had to be multiskilled.”

As the AIS grew throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Hunt recalls a feeling of urgency. “Everyone was committed to getting Australia back on the Olympic stage,” he says. “But in the early days, we were worried that the government might pull the plug on the whole thing. Everyone was impatient.”

In 2020, the program established by Hunt and Hurley is still standing. The women’s national team has won three Olympic silver and two bronze medals, while the men are being tipped to win their first Olympic medal in Tokyo. The centre is now considered so highly by international observers that it was chosen by America’s National Basketball Association as the sole host of its global academy. “I am proud,” admits Hunt. “Not just because we have developed world-class athletes, but because we have moulded good people who have contributed to society.”

 

After the highs of the 2000s, when Australia finished within the top six on the medal tally at all three Summer Olympics, the 2010s have been a decade of flux for the AIS. The Winning Edge strategy of 2012 decentralised funding and enabled sports to create their own high-performance centres. This “destructively” sidelined the AIS, according to its founder Ellicott. While Winning Edge was scrapped following the 2016 Olympics – where Australia finished 10th, the nation’s worst performance since 1992 – significant reform of the AIS has continued under new boss Peter Conde. On taking the role three years ago, Conde told the ABC: “I’ve got no doubt that the AIS needs to evolve.”

Following internal restructuring in 2018, stability has returned. “We are not expecting any major reform until at least Paris [the 2024 Olympics],” says Jones. Yet it remains unclear what role the AIS and its expansive Canberra campus will play in the future of Australian sport. After four decades of use, the facilities are beginning to show their age. “The gymnastics hall is coming to the end of its life,” says Jones, watching as young gymnasts fling themselves around the cavernous space. “There’s only so much we can do without knocking it down and starting again, because there is asbestos in the roof.”

Reform, whether to facilities or programs, is not cheap. “High-performance funding has been relatively stuck,” says Conde. “In real terms, since 2004, our funding has not even kept pace with inflation,” adds Jones. Efficiency dividends only go so far. “You just can’t be more efficient with people,” he continues.

Conde is upbeat. “I think we have the direction correct,” says the former competitive sailor. “We can’t get there overnight.” But elsewhere there are concerns that the government has left the AIS on autopilot, without much thought or funding for the future. Sport Australia’s Sport 2030 plan committed to “achieving sporting excellence” but was scant on details.

 

At the AIS study hall, such abstract questions do not distract basketball scholarship holders Hunter Clarke and Blake Jones. They are too busy getting on with their ambitions of representing the country. “It’s full-on, all the time,” says Jones. “Every session you take off is a session lost – you can never get that back.”

Fulfilling such dreams is gruelling. “On Mondays, we do schoolwork and weight sessions,” explains 18-year-old Clarke. “Tuesday is school and team practice. Wednesday is a half-day of school and then weights, skills and a game. Thursday is a lighter schedule. Friday we do weights in the morning, school, study and then team practice. Saturday we do more weights and practice, then we have Sunday off.” There is rarely a moment to rest. “If we have free periods during school, we do individual training or see medical staff,” adds Jones.

The AIS has consistently developed a steady stream of Australian basketballers ready to play in the NBA and WNBA, the sport’s respective pinnacles. This provides much inspiration for the next generation. “It shows you the path,” says Jones. “If you do the right things, you can get there too.” There are currently a dozen Australians playing in the NBA, an all-time high. Clarke and Jones smile recalling a recent visit from Patty Mills, an AIS alumnus now with the San Antonio Spurs.

But while professional clubs offer the best career opportunities, national team duties at the Olympics remain the top goal. “I’d rather play in a league with no reputation and no money, and play for Australia, than play in the NBA and never wear the green and gold,” says Clarke. “Playing for your country is the pinnacle,” agrees Jones. “Nothing beats that.”

Such sentiment is admirable, and – in basketball at least – the AIS is going from strength to strength. But storm clouds loom on the horizon. If Australian athletes again underperform at the Olympics, a broader reckoning may be required. In the decades since Montreal, a wider national conversation about the significance of high-performance sport and our collective willingness to pay for it has been elusive. “Funding levels have to be commensurate with expectations,” says Hunt.

At the time of establishment, the AIS model was groundbreaking. But Australia’s investment and innovation has long since been emulated elsewhere; Sport Australia admits that our competitors have now “surpassed” us. If Australians want to remain world-beaters, the AIS – the nerve centre of our Olympic success for 39 years – will need more than just a fresh coat of paint.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 22, 2020 as "Inside the AIS".

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Kieran Pender
is a London-based freelance writer.

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