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The Australian Institute of Sport

CANBERRA, Australia – Under a cool antipodean winter sky, the Australian Institute of Sport looms large on its sprawling 65-hectare campus just outside Canberra, the island continent’s capital. For a Canadian visitor, the AIS is more than an athletic training and research complex that genuinely embodies the hackneyed phrase "world-class." It is also a brick-and-mortar nemesis of Canadian sports administrators, something that athletes and critics see as exactly the sort of centralized, sophisticated, athlete-centred facility Canadian sport desperately needs.

But while the grass may seem greener on the other side of the international dateline, AIS is not quite the paradis athlétique it’s made out to be by Canadian observers. AIS is a success on many levels, which might just teach Canadians something, but Canada can also learn from AIS’s troubles, which receive little coverage outside Australia.

The Canadian problem

A half-dozen government reports into the funding of high-level amateur sport in Canada have identified the same obstacles over and over again: Too much government money flows to bureaucrats, not enough to athletes. For example, Sport Canada, now part of the Heritage portfolio, has a $48.6 million budget for 1994–95; of that, only $7.2 million goes directly to athletes, and fully $2.5 million of the total budget is allocated to keeping Place R. Tait McKenzie, better known as the Canadian Sport and Fitness Administration Centre, up and running.

A glorified office building in suburban Ottawa, Place McKenzie is home to some 70 “sport and active-living organizations,” from archery to yachting. The Centre’s telephone directory lists nearly 550 names, of whom virtually none are athletes, trainers, or coaches. Ask a Canadian sport official to point out Canada’s greatest achievement in sport infrastructure, and you’ll likely be shown the McKenzie building. Ask an Australian administrator and you’ll be given an hour-long tour of the AIS complex.

The Aussie psyche made concrete

Sport is more of an obsession than a pastime for Australians. An embarrassing standing at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, where Australia won no gold medals, was seen by one Melbourne sportswriter as evidence of “the system at fault.” The government of the day launched an inquiry even before the Montreal Olympics had closed; later, a national training centre, first proposed in a separate 1975 report, was made a reality. Inaugurated in 1981 and officially open for business in 1985, AIS is an agency of the Australian Sports Commission (comparable to Sport Canada) and works under a surprisingly small 1994-95 budget of $23 million Australian ($22 million Canadian). About a hundred people work at AIS, of whom about 20 are administrators.

AIS’s facilities seem like a concrete embodiment of the Australian sport psyche and are an embarrassment of riches compared to that Ottawa office building. The Indoor Training Centre, home to basketball, indoor soccer, and netball (similar to basketball, played almost exclusively by women), doubles as practice hall for two local professional basketball teams and boasts a parquet floor that would be the envy of an NBA home team. A 25-metre pool comes equipped with viewing windows below water level and movable overhead booms, both of which make it possible to observe and videotape bodies in motion. Swimmers also get their own weight room, a perq which AIS public-relations manager Gabrielle Hallinan denies is related to Australia’s dominance in the pool.

There’s an outdoor “throwing area” for field events, along with indoor and outdoor tennis courts, two soccer/field-hockey “pitches,” a track, and indoor and outdoor stadia. Gymnastics gets its own building. Most administrators work in a modest two-storey structure that’s also home to an “information centre” (the term “library” is frowned upon) with a wide-ranging periodical collection and a large store of sport- and training-related audio-visual materials, from videotapes of Australia’s wrestling performance at the L.A. Olympics to Running Gay, a British film about Vancouver’s Gay Games III in 1990.

The Sydney Olympic Games in 2000 are a sink-or-swim event in Australian sport and the Aussie government is taking no chances: Fully $135 million Australian in new money is being distributed to national sports groups in the run-up to the Games, including some events AIS has nothing to do with. In fact, AIS works on only 21 sports, far fewer than are actually played in Australia at elite levels. Satellite institutes of sport exist in every state and territory (even in Australian Capital Territory, the tiny region in which Canberra and AIS are situated), and the administrations of many sports are decentralized. For example, ice hockey – yes, there is hockey in the land of sunshine and melanoma – is administered from Perth in Western Australia.

Acting AIS director Bob Hitchcock, a stout, balding man with a boisterous voice, explains that “there’s probably over a hundred national sporting bodies in Australia; we probably provide assistance to 80 or 100, but we focus on the [21]. Now, we’re getting to a stage of saying, ’Is it 21, or should it be the 31 Olympic sports?’ And then non-Olympic sports say, ’Well, what about us?’ So we’re in a growth stage of our own.” Winter events like skiing are being contemplated as strategically valuable sports for Aussie jocks – even though Australia has won only a single medal at a Winter Olympics (at Lillehammer in 1994).

But AIS’s facilities and athletic successes obscure the fact that the Institute has walked a very bumpy road. In 1985, press reports claimed that funds earmarked for athletes had been used to buy office furniture; a later independent audit “confirmed financial mismanagement, budget shortfalls and extravagance.” In 1988 a pistol shooter held an AIS sport psychologist hostage for two hours, with several shots fired but no injuries.

Canadians are not alone in our Johnsons and Dubins, either: In 1987, AIS endured a major steroid scandal, with accusations that coaches pressured athletes into taking performance-enhancing drugs and an admission of doping from at least one AIS athlete; an inquiry was held, rules were tightened (on paper, at least), and the admitted doper lost her scholarship at the facility. And just this year, a women’s gymnastics coach was accused of abusive training methods (later largely exonerated), and a swimming coach was convicted of assaulting four people on a trans-Pacific flight.

Moreover, some activities – like the euphemistically-named Aussie Able program for disabled athletes and the Women in Sport program – are funded directly by the Australian Sports Commission but are run out of AIS, which effectively inflates AIS’s budget beyond publicly-revealed levels. And not all of Australia’s champion medalists benefitted from AIS assistance – at the Los Angeles Olympics, a group of cyclists took home a gold medal without AIS help, and Paul Wiggins, the winner of the wheelchair marathon at last year’s Commonwealth Games, received little AIS training, mostly because AIS’s modern-looking athlete residences are wheelchair-inaccessible. (New, accessible residences are being built.)

Still, “we don’t have many complaints,” Hitchcock says with a noticeable trace of exasperation. “It always amazes me that people want to come and have a look at the bad things. We’ve been here for ten years. We’ve been tremendously successful, and people want to come here and find out how many complaints we’ve had.

“In any walk of life, there’s going to be someone who says ’Yeah, but you didn’t cross that t’ or ’dot that i,’ and we might have had a few of those glitches, but overwhelmingly, the place has been tremendously successful. If we weren’t, you wouldn’t be here. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t be getting thousands of visitors coming through every year. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t have an average of two or three people from overseas countries every week coming through to find out what we’re doing and how we do it. That’s why it’s so interesting that the criticism attracts so much attention.”

Every extra millisecond

Australia emphasizes biomechanics and sports physiology both in practice and in propaganda: An Australian Sports Commission brochure describes how “the margin between winning and losing is often minute. That gap can be closed. Like good coaching, expert guidance from sports scientists and doctors can lift an athlete’s efforts to medal status.” Indeed, if any of AIS’s facilities could make or break the Institute’s reputation, it’s the Sports Science and Medicine Centre, the only building off-limits to the public.

Bruce Mason – tall, trim-looking, with a bleach-blond moustache – heads up the centre. A former phys-ed teacher, Mason holds a math degree and an M.A. and a Ph.D. in biomechanics and became AIS’s head biomechanist virtually when it opened. With four biomechanists in the department and just under a dozen technicians, students, and researchers, he’s a busy man: Mason’s business card lists eight phone and fax numbers.

Whatever he and his colleagues around Australia are doing seems to be working. Australia’s Olympic medal totals grew from five in 1976 to 26 in 1992; Commonwealth Games medals jumped from 84 in 1978 to 182 in 1994.

But Mason rejects credit for the improvement. “One of the things as a sport scientist is that you shouldn’t take credit for athletes’ performances. I think we play a part in there. There’s nothing that, I guess, annoys the coaches more than if you try to accept responsibility for the achievement.”

Mason doesn’t work under, say, a corporate-innovation model that ties success to athletes’ performance and to marketable techniques and firsts. In fact, while AIS researchers did create Sustain, a brand of cereal marketed by Kellogg’s Australia, along with “nutrient-type drinks” and a medicine here or there, AIS scientists tend to keep their research to themselves.

“We’re working with Australia’s elite athletes to try and get them to gold medals,” Mason says. “We shouldn’t be releasing information that might help their competitors.... There are certain [findings] I need to get out to enhance the reputation of the work we do here. On the other side of the coin, I know that what some of our athletes are doing, it’s better that we keep it for those athletes so they will win the gold medal rather than someone else will win it.”

Mason leads me out of his office and downstairs to what looks like a big carpeted garage. It’s actually the main testing area for track and field biomechanics. A track leads to a grand paned-glass silo topped with a cupola juts out from the corner of the room; Mason pulls a bolt out from the floor and opens the silo like a pair of sliding doors. A couple of long tracks outside lead directly into the room and onto “force plates” built into the floor that measure speed, impact force, and other variables when an athlete runs over or lands on a plate. Off to the side, biomechanist Peggy McBride, a transplanted Canadian (see sidebar), works with technicians on a rowing oar that’s wired for readouts of deflection.

Sports-science centres are not universally popular. Some critics, like University of Toronto lecturer Brian Pronger, see the trend toward “sciencization of sport” as dehumanizing. What’s more, working for weeks to shave milliseconds off a swimmer’s lap time or fine-tuning a cyclist’s crouch position for optimum aerodynamics can leave the impression that athletes are becoming “mortal engines” (to borrow the title of sport historian John M. Hoberman’s book on sport science), or pawns in the quest for national glory.

Mason is more sanguine. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen an athlete in Australia subjected to anything that they haven’t got an interest in being involved in. In fact, it’s probably driven more by the athletes and coaches than it is by the scientists.... You know, in Australia, I guess, sport was thought of something that was intrinsic to our society, but now it’s a million-dollar industry and employs a lot of people. Success in the international arena has an influence on that. So we’re all the time trying to tune the athlete to perform better. Of course, the athlete wants to perform better. They assess now that, for instance, a gold medal in the Olympic Games should be able to be transformed into at least a couple of million dollars by the person concerned, so you can see the reason why they’re going for it. If a person wants to get better, one of the main means available to them is by legitimate sport science.”

See also: Sidebar on Canadians at AIS.

[Originally published 1995 ¶ Updated here 1999.07.25, 2009.07.30]

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