22 August 2016


Media commentary: Professor Kevin Norton

With the Rio Olympics Closing Ceremony underway, it is worth looking at how different countries approach the issue of finding and developing sports talent and how that may affect the medal tally.

Global trends in sports development, performance and funding have influenced Australia and, without taking anything away from individual performances in Rio, our days of punching well above our weight may well be numbered.

Most Australians would be familiar with the general structure of our system of the national (AIS) and state sports institutes.  At the elite level, Australia has about two thirds of all its Olympic and World Championship athletes identified through the numerous community sporting clubs.

That first happens when your children join little athletics or a local basketball or soccer club and rise to the highest levels through individual success. But the other third of our world-class athletes come from our Talent Identification Programs.

This well-structured, systematic program involves visiting schools, including country schools, universities, inviting siblings of successful athletes, and advertising for come-and-try events. Established in preparation for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, the importance of this talent ID program continues to grow in the face of a challenged community sport system and increased international competition.

Potential athletes are selected based on simple performance measures, but less than two per cent of all kids measured go on to the next phase, where they are tested at various sports institutes around the country.

Funded through the Australia Sports Commission the system supports in excess of 75 coaches and talent scouts around Australia, in addition to sport science expertise.

The Federal Government invests about $200 million for our excellence in performance program each year that includes over 1,000 elite athlete scholarships and the talent ID program - significantly more comes from state governments.

Australia is good at finding and developing athletic talent- not perfect but we probably identify about 80 per cent of what we have. To harness that last 20 per cent it would cost another $100 million or more a year.

Australia’s success in the Olympic Games is high on the absolute medal count – between 4th and 10th over the past four Olympic Games. We also rank among the top few countries over this period relative to our population.

That impressive record has seen our system emulated by the UK in the lead up to the London Olympic to great effect at those games and in Rio.

The Australian model works but at the end of the day it is dollar investment that builds Olympic success.

With a population of 311 million the United States is the most successful country in modern Olympic in history with more than twice as many gold medals as the next country on the league table.

But the US has a poorly developed community sports program. Talent finding is based almost exclusively on the widespread inter-school and collegiate sports programs. Athletes are offered scholarships and the programs involve some of the best coaching, facilities and competition opportunities available. The cream rises to the top within this huge network of talent identification.

At a national level an Olympic training centre provides a focus for coaching and sport science services for athletes in preparation for major competitions such as the Olympic Games.

A developing country of about 11 million Cuba has an impressive track record in Olympic Games, ranking alongside Australia on a per capita basis averaged across several decades. Its system of talent ID is a mirror of what Australia had in the 1950s and 1960s when school and community sport provided all of our elite athletes.  Up to two hours of school physical education is compulsory from ages eight to second year university.

Talented athletes are further developed in after-school specialist sessions. The system captures a large proportion of available talent especially in the less expensive combat sports of boxing, wrestling and judo. Potential athletes in other sports slip through the cracks because of a lack of technology and funding opportunities. It’s a lesson Australia learned in the 1970s and 1980s when community sports participation and inter-school competition declined and consequently our elite athlete talent pool and international sporting success also took a dive.

Targeted searches through NTID systems are essential for smaller countries. Cuba is now in a similar position as Australia in the 1980s. For such a small country too many potential athletes are missed because of the inability to fund an NTID program and Cuba has been slipping in the rankings from 5th in 1992 to 16th in 2012.

China talent ID program was cranked up for the Beijing games and has continued. The sheer number of potential athletes in China is staggering. It has a system of selective sports schools that typically focus on one or two sports and it is common for talented children to move to these schools, not unlike young athletes moving to Canberra’s AIS facility. Coaching and skill development are part of the school life which is built around sport from an early age. Repetition or over-learning have been the cornerstones of high-performance development. There is relatively little community-based sport in China but they still have an enormous, untapped athlete talent pool outside the major population concentrations.

My most recent research exchange funded by the Council of Australia Latin America Relations focused on talent ID in South America.

It was clear that Brazil would rise rapidly in the rankings. A country of 195 million has more potential talent to be uncovered than probably any other country on earth. We see it regularly in soccer where over 1000 Brazilian players are now playing in professional leagues around the world. The system for finding and developing soccer stars begins with soccer ‘farms’, usually set up as a business venture. Young talented players from about 13 years of age, live, breathe and train soccer. Educational opportunities are provided for a few hours in the evening but the focus is on soccer. Full-time coaches, medicos, and physios attend to the full-time athletes.

But the Rio Olympic Games have not been the success story Brazil had hoped for.

The stimulus of a home Games cannot counter lack of investment and planning. More funding and structured talent ID systems for Olympic sports are required and this will take time. When and if that does happen for Brazil it is likely that Australia’s tally will slip further.

Argentina with its population of 40 million could also be an international sporting force one day but right now that seems remote. Although there is a national institute of sport in Buenos Aires, economic hard times means poor upkeep, an empty Olympic pool and little sports science and technology support. Talent in sports other than soccer generally comes from the private schools and clubs.

For Australia to retain its medal tally, considerable investment in the systems and structures that support talent identification development would need not only to be maintained but increased.

Already we are slipping from our best effort in 2000 and it is not so much that we are doing less - far from it; we are investing a similar amount as we did for the Sydney games.

The trouble is inflation. We had previously calculated a cost of about $37 million per gold medal across a number of games leading up to Sydney. The gold medal currency has devalued to the extent we must now spend at least 30 per cent more for the same return. It is the investment that many other countries are making such as China, Great Britain, Russia, South Korea and Germany that will equally continue to affect our results.

Contact: Professor Kevin Norton office (08) 8302 15033 mobile 0417 817 026 email kevin.norton@unisa.edu.au

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