History and successes

The AIS - An Icon for Excellence in Sport by Matthew Eggins

From: Excellence : the Australian Institute of Sport. Canberra, Australian Sports Commission, 1998 (updated Jan 2002)

The race for excellence has no finish line. In Australia, the race starts at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS).

While the catalyst for an institute of sport was Australia's performance at the Montreal Olympic Games in 1976 (one silver medal and four bronze medals) moves had been made three years earlier to adopt a more professional approach to elite sport. In 1973 Professor John Bloomfield was commissioned by the government to prepare a sports plan. His report, The Role, Scope and Development of Recreation in Australia (1) , was based on studies of sports institutes in Europe and their success in developing elite athletes. Bloomfield suggested to the federal government that it should establish a national institute of sport similar to those operating in European countries.

Towards the end of 1974 the Minister for Tourism and Recreation, Frank Stewart, appointed a study group (chaired by Dr Allan Coles) to report on the feasibility of such an institute in Australia. The Coles Report was released in 1975 and recommended the establishment of a sports institute. (2)

The latter half of the seventies was a difficult period for Australian sport, indeed a difficult time for a sports-proud nation. The idea of setting up an institute remained just that, and the momentum of Munich (eight gold, seven silver and two bronze) had not carried through to Montreal (Australia finished 32nd overall). The new decade brought no respite either as the Australian Olympic Federation (now the AOC) ignored the government's request to boycott the Moscow Olympics in protest at the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. An uneasiness existed between sport and government. The climate for the establishment of a sports institute was not favourable.

The Bloomfield and Coles reports, however, were not lost on Bob Ellicott, the Minister for Home Affairs and Environment. Buoyed by the concept of a national sports institute during a trip to China and keen to bridge the gap between government and sport, in 1980 Ellicott and his staff offered the Coles Report as a model plan for Australia. The plan would allow our athletes to train and develop in Australia rather than be forced overseas.

Ellicott's vision was well received and on Australia Day, 26 January 1981, the AIS was officially opened by Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser. Renowned swim coach, Don Talbot was appointed as the Institute's first Director.

The mission was clear and desperately needed to put the brakes on our ailing international sporting reputation - develop elite sport in Australia by providing facilities and funding to sporting organisations and potential elite athletes.

On the strength of Australia's performance at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles - AIS athletes won seven of the 12 swimming medals, gymnastics recorded a best-ever performance and three track and field athletes finished in the top six in their events - Sport Minister John Brown announced four more AIS sports; squash and diving, to be located in Brisbane, and rowing and water polo in Canberra. The AIS investment was beginning to pay dividends and this was reflected in the 1985-86 federal budget which gave the Institute a 60% funding increase.

The Institute was initially based in Canberra with eight sports: basketball, gymnastics, netball, soccer, swimming, tennis, track and field and weightlifting. While some of the original sports, for example basketball and netball, have remained in Canberra others, such as tennis, have relocated to Melbourne, or in the case of weightlifting have ceased to be an Institute program.

These days the AIS offers assistance to athletes through a network of coaches on campuses in Brisbane, the Gold Coast, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth and through a number of regional centres. Scholarships are offered to elite athletes in 35 disciplines with rugby league, triathlon and Winter sports for athletes with a disability among the recent inclusions.

Approximately 700 athletes now receive scholarships from the Institute each year. These athletes receive top level coaching; access to equipment, sport science and medicine facilities; accommodation, meals and travel; and assistance with education and career planning. Of the 800 athletes who applied for a place in the Institute's first year of operation, 152 were successful.

The athletes' accommodation and site buildings of today are also a far cry from January 1981. Australia's elite used to be housed in residential colleges at nearby tertiary institutions, and the training facilities were so few that at one stage five different sports were sharing the indoor sports centre.

Today, the 65 hectare AIS site located in the Canberra suburb of Bruce is also a symbol of excellence. There are two arenas, an indoor swimming centre, a gymnastics hall, soccer and hockey fields, multi-purpose indoor training facilities and a sport science building incorporating the famous AIS biomechanics dome. The Institute's world class facilities and services are also used by touring international teams and overseas athletes, national, state and regional sporting organisations and visitors from within and outside the ACT.

As Kevan Gosper (Chairman of the first AIS Board) remarked during the Institute's 15th anniversary celebrations in 1996, the Canberra headquarters is 'a shrine of excellence. It is one of Australia's more successful ventures in education and research. You have to have an icon for excellence in sport, and that is the AIS'. (3)

Like any government agency, this 'icon for excellence in sport', must be administered effectively and be accountable. Through successive Directors (Don Talbot 1981-83, John Cheffers 1984-86, Ron Harvey 1987-89, Robert de Castella 1990-95, John Boultbee 1995 -2001 and Michael Scott (2001-2005), Prof. Peter Fricker (2005-present) the AIS has been a dynamic organisation - reviewing programs, evaluating performance, changing strategies, and at times responding to public comment and controversy. The central mission, however, has remained constant: to provide young Australians with the opportunity to develop their ultimate sporting potential. In the words of marathon champion and former AIS Director, Rob de Castella, the AIS is 'a program from the public purse so it needs a high degree of accountability, but when you get 500 athletes and 70 coaches together and you have very strong personalities ... it's a recipe for sensation.' (4)

In 1985, shortly after the Institute started 'spreading tentacles' (hockey had been set up in Perth in 1984), AIS sports underwent an assessment amid concerns that the individual sports such as track and field (athletics) and weightlifting were not performing as well as the AIS team sports (eg rowing and hockey). AIS track and field athletes were unable to obtain the same success as the swimmers in Los Angeles - a point further highlighted by a weak showing in the World Cup athletics held at the AIS in October 1985.

At the same time questions were being asked by the AIS Board (and in the media) on the direction in which the Institute was heading. Towards the end of 1985 amid growing concerns as to how the Institute was distributing its funds, Sport Minister John Brown ordered an inquiry. Cabinet had already decided to alter the status of the AIS from a private company to a statutory authority to ensure there would be more scrutiny by the Minister and greater accountability to Parliament.

The AIS Board became more involved in the day-to-day running of the Institute and advocated an approach focused on developing a select band of elite athletes. By the end of 1986, Prime Minister Bob Hawke had announced that an AIS cricket program, assisted by the Australian Cricket Board, would be based in Adelaide.

In August 1987 the government formalised their decision to rationalise federal assistance to Australian sport and the AIS merged with the Australian Sports Commission (ASC), which was to be the agency responsible for general sports participation as well as high performance sport.

These days the AIS maintains its elite athlete focus within the ASC and sits alongside two other administrative groups - Business operations and the Sport Development Group.   Bouyed by the performances of the AIS athletes past and present at the 2000 Olympics (321 current/former scholarship holders won seven gold, 11 silver and 13 bronze medals), the Institute has continued to expand with the addition of several more sports including women's soccer, triathlon, Winter sports for athletes with disabilities, sailing and rugby league.

Elite coaches and athletes not only have world class facilities at their fingertips but have access to specialist programs and the Commission's extensive resources.

The AIS also prides itself on preparing athletes for life away from the sporting arena. The Athlete Career and Education (ACE) program ensures that our elite athletes are equipped with skills that will benefit them when their sporting days are over. While at the AIS, in some cases before they are household names, athletes are sought for after dinner speaking engagements, promotional functions and the like. ACE advisers arrange for them to receive training in public speaking, media presentation, career planning and time management.

Apart from training, eating, sleeping, studying and working, athletes can often be seen entering the sport science/sports medicine building to consult with the sport psychologists or sport nutritionists, receive a massage or perhaps undergo some testing in the biomechanics dome. The relationship which develops between the athlete and their support staff can never be underestimated for in the heat of international competition familiarity with those around you is crucial for individual and team morale.

Behind every elite athlete is a coach, and the AIS employs around 75 coaches. From head coaches to assistant coaches and scholarship coaches they are a tight-knit group united in their goal - to help athletes realise their potential. Ask any sports administrator and they will tell you that elite sport should be coach-driven.

Visitors to the AIS campus can now get an insight into 'a day in the life of an elite athlete' thanks to the athlete-guided tours and the interactive exhibition Sportex. Within minutes one can be hearing firsthand about life as an AIS athlete or soaking up the atmosphere of the AIS Arena.

One of the most commonly-asked questions on these tours is, 'Do you have time to do anything else other than train?' Any successful athlete will tell you that balance in one's life is a key ingredient to performing in competition. AIS athletes are, expected to pursue a course of study and/or work, perhaps in one of the Commission's programs or in the outside workforce, at the same time as they maintain their rigorous training schedule. Some are employed with Australia's leading companies through the Olympic Job Opportunities Program where the company benefits through its association with the athlete who in turn, acquires career skills and receives an income while being allowed time off to train and compete.

Another commonly-asked question refers to preparation: 'How much training do you have to do?' Athletes don't have a heavy training schedule every week. There are recovery periods where the intensity may be reduced, and tapering or winding down towards a forthcoming event such as an Olympic Games or a world championships. For elite athletes, training intensity is designed around major events; it is imperative that they arrive for competition feeling fresh and not having overtrained.

For youngsters eager to pursue their sporting dreams a burning question is, 'How are athletes selected for the AIS?' There are several routes into the AIS. Scholarships are advertised each July in the national press and individuals can apply. More usually though, talented athletes are identified by national sporting organisations, or spotted by AIS coaches at national championships, or have completed AIS Intensive Training Centre programs.

For young Australians who show potential to go to the top of their sport, the AIS experience is a truly unique one. More than just a sport environment, the AIS - with its spirit and support network - is a family; Where else, for example, would you find elite netball and soccer players interacting with and supporting elite boxers and gymnasts - and all in an arena where specialist advice on any number of subjects is no more than a home straight away. At the welcome home for the AIS Atlanta Olympians, athletes could not have been more generous in their appreciation of the AIS coaches and training squads, the house parents, their own parents, the massage therapists, the sport psychologists, the sport scientists, the administrative staff, the chefs and even those athletes who had preceded them at the Institute, for their inspiration and direction. So many to thank, for the AIS family is a large one.

A timeline of AIS events is also available.

References

  1. John Bloomfield, The Role, Scope and Development of Recreation in Australia. Canberra: Department of Tourism and Recreation, 1974.
  2. Allan Coles, Report of the Australian Sports Institute Study Group. Canberra: Department of Tourism and Recreation, 1975.
  3. 'Government cash laid foundations, The Race for Excellence: 15 years at the AIS'. The Weekend Australian 27-28 January 1996.
  4. 'It's had its moments, The Race for Excellence: 15 years at the AIS'. The Weekend Australian 27-28 January 1996.

Other Resources

Two books on the history of the Australian Institute of Sport are:

Quest for Excellence : the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra by Daly, J.A.
Canberra Australian Government Publishing Service 1991 xi, 234 p. :ISBN: 0644136723
(Detailed coverage of the first 10 years of the AIS)

Excellence: the Australian Institute of Sport .
Canberra, A.C.T. Australian Sports Commission 1998
129 p. ISBN: 064226340X

These books can be borrowed on inter-library loan from the National Sport Information Centre

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