What’s been Australia’s winning edge at the Tokyo Olympics, and can it power us to Brisbane 2032?
Updated: Oct 8, 2021
Marc Portus, Praxis Performance Group
The Tokyo Olympics have finished and what a stunning performance it has been by Australian athletes, on and off the field. Was this just good timing, good luck, good management, a pre-planned cycle of peaking talent, or has there been something more systematic going on? The Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) says it’s the result of hard work and good preparation. Sounds simple! It’s probably a combination of all the above, and each sports’ story is a little different, and each athletes’ journey is unique, but they all operate within the Australian sporting ecosystem. It’s worth examining what’s happened in the last decade from a systems perspective, because a lot of change has taken place.
Australian sport overhaul
In 2012 the Australian federal government, through the Australian Sports Commission, introduced an overhaul of the sporting system – the “Australia’s Winning Edge” strategy. In essence it was the decentralisation of the Australian sporting system, restructuring the centralised nature of high-performance sport around the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in Canberra. Much of its inspiration was drawn from the UK Sport system that led to the success of Great Britain in the Olympics of London 2012 and Rio 2016.
There were several premises to the strategy which directly affected sports, athletes, coaches, and the state-based institutes of sport. Athletes were no longer receiving AIS scholarships and coaches were no longer employed by the AIS. Instead, the athletes and coaches were “handed” over to their respective sporting body, or state institute of sport, to continue their scholarship and/or employment. Support for non-Olympic sports was significantly reduced or cut completely. The strategy was headlined by performance targets for the sporting system, such as finishing number one at the Commonwealth Games and in the top five at the Olympics and Paralympics (figure 1). Targeted sports were to be more accountable for their strategy, planning, budgeting and operations, a role the AIS was tasked with overseeing.
Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020
Considering the upheaval, and not surprisingly, results weren’t overly impressive at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Such drastic systemic change is unlikely to provide a short-term positive result, the sporting system was seriously perturbed and still finding its way. Australia finished 10th with eight gold medals. The decentralisation of the system was completed shortly after the 2016 Rio Olympic games where most sport scientists at the AIS were removed from its employment. Around the same time the “Winning Edge” strategy was ‘abandoned’, mostly due to the continued backlash from sports and the AOC, but the system principles remained the same. “Winning Edge” by stealth if you like!
Come the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and a successful campaign completed, Australia has finished sixth on the medal table. The best ever position has been fourth, in Sydney 2000 (16 gold medals) and then again at Athens 2004 (17 gold medals). In Tokyo Australia won 17 gold medals, equaling the Athens gold medal tally record.
Benefits of the decentralised system
So, can the Tokyo success be attributed to the newly decentralised sporting system? Yes, but there are plenty of hurdles ahead (pun intended).
One positive has been the increased accountability on the sports themselves. Once past the pinnacles of the Sydney and Athens games, the Australian sporting system was in gradual decline. One general feature was a ‘learned helplessness’ in sports. If the AIS or a State Institute of Sport wasn’t going to introduce or fund an innovation, innovation more than likely didn’t happen. Australia’s sporting system had become lazy and complacent. Declining funding certainly didn’t help either. After all Olympic sports, on the most part, are not commercially driven sports like cricket and the football codes, they need tax-payer support to compete on the international stage.
A little bit of theory
Theoretically, getting more local autonomy in a vast and complex system provides for a more effective, responsive, and agile approach to the overall system. It helps the system self-organise and adapt to the nuances and demands of its various local environments. Through locally based but big picture aligned leadership, the system develops a range of specific, relevant, and immediate responses. This is a theoretical organisation model proposed by Stafford Beer in the 1980’s termed the Viable Systems Model (VSM). After years of turbulence during the 2016 Rio cycle, perhaps elements of VSM were at play in a decentralised sporting system that had settled in the 2020 Tokyo cycle. Sports were more accountable and were more invested in their journey. However, it is more likely the need to change Australia’s sporting system was practically and ideologically driven, rather than being inspired by the VSM organisational theory.
Where to with the AIS
The downside to all this has been the dramatic impact on the AIS in Canberra. With tired and ageing infrastructure its future is endlessly debated by bureaucrats, sporting stakeholders and governments. Critics say it has lost its way and has turned into a bureaucratic machine that coordinates workshops and pumps out media releases. This is probably a little harsh, there are still some notable experts there (for example Dr David Hughes, the Medical Director for the Tokyo 2020 Australian Olympic team), but it’s a far cry from its glory days where it was a hotbed of innovation, inspiration and collaboration between athletes, coaches, doctors, and sport scientists. Many in the industry say the 1990’s was where the AIS was at its peak. It was well funded in preparation for Sydney 2000 and people were inspired to be there. It was Australia’s international point of difference, something revered by competing sporting systems worldwide. Australia’s best performances at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics, finishing fourth at both, supports the notion.
Brisbane 2032 – an opportunity of a lifetime
With the Olympics now locked in for Brisbane 2032, an inspiring new system can be created by harnessing the benefits of the newly wired decentralised sporting system. Australia’s system is now more contemporary and in line with other high performing national systems such as the USA, Great Britain, and New Zealand. However, the risk is Australia won’t keep pace by relying on a decentralised model alone, our sporting economy is not large like the UK and the USA, and our federated structure precludes a more streamlined system like those in New Zealand and England. Australia could go next level with a regeneration of the AIS to get it back to that world class innovator it once was, where it takes risks, it drives the system wide innovations, while the sports absorb the outputs, benefiting administrators, athletes, coaches, and their support staff. But it would be expensive.
Could the AIS and the Queensland Academy of Sport (QAS) merge?
Given the state of the AIS Canberra campus and the widening gap between current facilities and what now represents world class, perhaps the time has come to sell off the Canberra site to a university, the ACT government, or property developers. With Brisbane 2032 now the key event in our longer-term sporting system strategy, the new AIS could be a joint initiative of the federal and Queensland state governments where the AIS and QAS merge. This would allow more funding for a world class Olympic sporting venue that doubles as a centre of excellence for sports administration, athlete wellbeing and training, coaching, sports technology, science, and sports medicine. Olympic sports could base their administrative hubs there and a commercial dimension could help ensure the longer term sustainability of the venture, avoiding the dreaded Olympic venue ‘white elephant’ syndrome that has plagued so many other host cities. Providing direct benefits to local communities through common infrastructure for leisure and active community pursuits would create tens of thousands of jobs over a long period to time, plus the benefits of fostering a healthier more active society.
More than just elite sport
Southeast Queensland has always been a popular venue for athletes to domicile for its all-year round training friendly climate. The region is well supplied with industry and academic institutions and state capital Brisbane will continue its ' Australia's new world class city' mantra and journey. This all provides ample opportunity for athletes who choose to be based there, to pursue their studies and careers in parallel with their athletic endeavours. There would be a lot of upsides. Australia doesn’t have the critical mass of our biggest Olympic competitors, but it can build a smarter sporting system to support world class events, develop our sports people, deliver our best Olympic results, facilitate more active communities, and derive longer term economic benefits through a strategic Brisbane 2032 approach.
This particular idea may not fly, but one thing is for sure, it is now time to think outside the box.