WILL CANBERRA LOSE THE SHRINKING AUSTRALIAN INSTITUTE OF SPORT FOR GOOD?
The Canberra Times, 9 June 2017
One-hundred-and-eighty athletes represented Australia at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Not one of them returned with a gold medal. It was the first time in 40 years Australia had failed to top the world in a single sporting contest.
Even before the Olympics ended, athletes were blaming the government. When prime minister Malcolm Fraser visited the Montreal Olympic village, team members told him "they were unable to keep up with the rest of the world because of poor facilities, a shortage of qualified coaches and inadequate administration". As our Olympians returned, the front page of The Canberra Times bemoaned "Short-sighted sport attitudes".
From humiliation on the world stage, a national institution was born. The Australian Institute of Sport opened its doors in 1981. Among the athletes that benefited from its elite sporting preparation are Petria Thomas, Anna Meares and Michael Milton. When Australia ranked fourth on the medal tally in the Sydney Olympics, many felt the institute deserved a share of the credit.
Yet the institute now faces a crisis of neglect. Over the past decade, the number of Canberra-based staff fell from 173 to 140. The number of athletes in residence dropped from 237 to 140.
AIS director Matt Favier and his team are not to blame for this trend. Under the "winning edge" strategy, several sporting bodies chose to move their operations to other parts of Australia. Some use the institute for elite camps. But an increasing number of sports avoid Canberra altogether. Next out the door is men's soccer, with Football Federation Australia's centre of excellence due to leave Canberra later this year.
On the bright side, a few sports – including triathlon and rowing – are either recommitting to Canberra or modestly increasing their engagement with the institute. It's also pleasing to see a closer relationship between the ACT Academy of Sport and the AIS. But local partnerships can only serve as gap-filler. The institute's long-term future depends on retaining its national status.
Like many Canberrans, I visit the AIS regularly. My sons take their swimming lessons in its pool. In March, I took my netball-playing son to watch the Canberra Giants defeat the Adelaide Thunderbirds at the AIS Arena. As a member of the ACT Veterans Athletics Club, I recently ran a 10-kilometre race on the athletics track (the race winner lapped me four times!).
Yet when I look at the overall visitor numbers, I can't help but think that my love for the institute doesn't seem to be replicated across the nation. Since 2007, annual visitor numbers have dropped from 123,900 to 113,700. As fast as the Australian population is growing, visitor numbers to the institute seem to be shrinking. More than one critic has described it as a "ghost town". My fear today is the AIS may one day experience its own "Montreal moment".
I don't pretend to have all the answers on how to restore the Australian Institute of Sport to its former glory. The decline in Canberra-based staff, residential athletes and visitors took place under both sides of politics. It would be a mistake to micromanage how particular sports choose to manage their elite athletes. A residential model might not be the best fit for some sportspeople, particularly those with young children.
But I believe the time has come for a serious debate about the institute's future. If we let current trends drift along, then, in a decade, people in the rest of Australia may start asking why their taxes fund a facility that's primarily used to support the Canberra community. We're well short of that point today, which is why this is the right moment to have that conversation.
Last month, the Turnbull government announced it was developing a "national sports plan". But the institute seems to be only a minor part of that discussion.
Renewing the AIS isn't necessarily about money. It may entail encouraging sports such as squash and volleyball to shift to Canberra. It might involve using the facilities to join up athletes in related sports (such as basketball and volleyball, or baseball and cricket) for short, focused skills camps. Or it could mean expanding the institute's role in training the next generation of sports coaches.
As the federal member whose electorate holds the institute, I enjoy joking to my parliamentary colleagues that, if we held an electorate-level Olympics, my seat of Fenner would top the medal tally. But like any elite athlete, maintaining form for the institute can never be taken for granted.
That's why I'm keen to hear your ideas for reinvigorating the institute. Drop me an email, and let's start the conversation about how to make sure the Australian Institute of Sport keeps bringing home gold for Australia.