Updated: Mar 13, 2022
Australia is a nation fixated on sports. Whether it's a pub in the heart of a metropolitan city or the only drinking hole in a remote town, there's always at least one big screen featuring sports. Cricket. Footy. Basketball. Tennis. Cycling. The Olympics. And, sometimes international fans would be delighted with grid iron.
If you haven't already noticed, but sports in Australia is a national pride, nay, national duty. It is unAustralian to not dabble in sports.
But, have you ever wondered where do such talented athletes gather to train, eat and sleep?
In Australia, we know of this elite athlete production powerhouse as the Australian Institute of Sport, AIS. This centralised establishment is situated in the bush capital, Canberra. It is pretty much in the middle of nowhere. It is this middle of nowhere where athletes can focus on their training, compete at the national and international level to tell tales of winning gold for Australia.
But, have you ever wondered where did the AIS really come from?
Short answer, China.
Credit: Wix Media
We hear you chuckling in disbelief. As did we. This truth was too good to be true so we had to investigate. We certainly could not find any mention of China inspiring the AIS and its central sporting program on the official AIS website, however a knowledgeable Australian sport science 'Professor', pointed us in all the right direction.
COMPLACENCY + EMBARRASSMENT
Australia is renowned on the racing tracks and lap pools, dominating at almost every Olympics Games in swimming and cycling. At the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Australia won 17 gold medals and achieved an overall 6th ranking behind the usual suspects, namely the US, China, Japan, UK and ROC.
Since the inception of Olympics, comprising both the Summer and Winter games, Australia has achieved an extraordinary rank of 14 amongst over 150 nations. Winning over 170 gold medals to date and more to bag when Brisbane hosts the 2032 Olympics.
Team Australia's story has not always been so peachy. After WWII, Team Australia had performed almost consistently in the top 10 with our all time best coming 3rd at the Melbourne 1956 Olympics.
We stood tall at the 1972 Munich games with 8 golds and an overall ranking, 6th. The future looked bright for another successful Olympics in four years time and surely the only way is up.
Then, came Montreal 1976 Olympics. Australia did not win a single gold medal and plummeted to 32 on the ladder. Nor, at the Edmonton Commonwealth Games 1978.
What a disaster for Australia.
Prior to Australia's Montreal mayhem, the Government had received two reports, 'The Report of the Australian Sports Institute Study Group', aka the Coles report and 'Recreation in Australia, its role, scope and development', aka the Bloomfield report. Both reports were published prior to Australia's Montreal mayhem, pointing out the obvious fact that Australia's sporting system was unsustainable and on the path of a declining trajectory. Reform across sports at the local, regional and national level were duly needed.
Of course, the Bloomfield and Coles reports were completely ignored, because they were published after the success of the Munich Games.
The shock and embarrassment from Montreal and Edmonton shook the nation and Parliament, causing a knee jerk reaction to reclaim Australia's sporting reputation and a much needed sporting reform.
As a matter of priority, the Minister for Home Affairs and Environment portfolio under the Fraser Government, Robert 'Bob' James Ellicott, was appointed to investigate Team Australia's poor performance and to find a way to fix the problem.
Fully aware of the Bloomfield and Coles report, which recommended the US and UK models, Ellicott decided that the East Germany model was by far superior and would fit the Australian mould.
Unfortunately, the East Germans were not too keen for Ellicott to just enter and poke around. Rejected by his first choice, Ellicott approached the Chinese who had also innovated on the ex-Soviet Union's sporting model. Mind you, back then China had limited participation and wins under the Republic of China, however invisible to the rest of the world, China was busy implementing and innovating on the ex-Soviet sporting model with a fully functioning national institute of sport to train and develop elite athletes.
When Ellicott contacted the Chinese for a site visit, the Chinese welcomed him with open arms and a friendly ping pong game.
THE PERFECT CHINESE MODEL
In 1979, Ellicott landed in China to observe a sporting model that nurtures talent and inspired ordinary people to emulate elite athletes. The concept was well covered in both the Bloomfield and Coles report on a theoretical level, but the Chinese had implemented those elements and built a sporting institute with practical outcomes in athlete development.
Ellicott observed that athletes trained at the national institute instead of being sent overseas for professional training. He had the foresight to see how the Chinese sporting model could be adapted in Australia as a major step in the development of a professional and sustainable sports system.
Ping Pong Diplomacy: Ellicott may have lost the friendly ping pong match with the Chinese, but he won Australia the perfect sports model which has seen more than 60% of Australia's medals come from the establishment of a national centre for sporting excellence.
In 1980, Ellicott under the Fraser Government announced the development of Australia's first institute of sport. The centre of sporting excellence was one-of-a-kind and would concentrate its efforts from Bruce, Canberra.
The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) was conceived.
On 26 January 1981, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser opened the national centre and awarded 153 scholarships from a pool of over 800 applicants. Eight sports were prioritised for training in basketball, gymnastics, netball, soccer, swimming, tennis, track and field, and weight lifting.
Australia's performance at the Olympics recuperated after the establishment of the AIS. To this day, Australia has never fallen below a 15th rank or fallen to 32nd.
In May 2006, the Australian Olympic Committee awarded Bob Ellicott the Olympic Order of Merit, for his role of establishing the Australian Institute of Sport when he held the role of Minister for Home Affairs.
The Australia-China sporting relationship is less celebrated and discussed in the public sphere than it deserves. Ellicott's vision has left a sporting legacy which steered Australian sports to where it is today. Not to mention a political legacy as well. The Liberal Fraser Government presented a collaborative and open-minded approach by appointing the Minister for Home Affairs, Bob Ellicott, to a country, China, that had just opened its doors to the international system, to adopt the Chinese sporting system, because it was one of the best sporting models at that time.
Forty three years forward to now, 2022. Could you imagine the Liberal Government following in the footsteps of the Fraser Government back in 1979?
Imagine the Morrison Government appointing the Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, to a country, China, to adopt the Chinese cyber system, because it is one of the best cyber models in our time.
Unthinkable in the current Australia-China landscape, right?
GIVING BACK TO TEAM CHINA
Today, there are more Australians on Team China that you could ever imagine.
After adopting and adapting the Chinese national institute model and systems in Canberra, Australia found a way to innovate. China has a gigantic population base and surplus of talent to succeed as elite athletes. This meant they had quantity to override quality.
Australia with its smaller population size and even smaller talent pool to pick from, meant the AIS had to rethink about quality over quantity. Sport sciences and rehabilitation become a priority for Australian elite athletes given the finite number of athletes. Since the 1990s, Australian universities and its alumni of experts with a focus on sport sciences and rehabilitation started to innovate in this area by embedding its sport scientists into professional sports. Australia has strong branding when it comes to player load management, to balance injury prevention and optimal performance. Talk to anyone behind the scene of the NBA and you'll find a many Australian sport sciences and rehabilitation experts contributing to the the league's 30 teams.
This is why Team China prefers Team Australia. As a result of employing Australian sport sciences and rehabilitation strategies, the Chinese elite athletes are becoming stronger, recovering faster and winning more gold than ever.
To put this into context, Team China has held the top 3 spot since Sydney 2000 Olympics. Although, China competed in earlier games under the banner, Republic of China then People's Republic of China and non-participation due to a host of issues. It wasn't until China competed in the LA Olympics in 1984 to really showcase its national institute of sports prowess.
Having never won gold prior to 1984, China pounced onto the international stadium with 15 gold medals to rank 4th at the games. The AIS had been operational for several years and Australia's result at the same games resulted in 4 gold medals with an overall 14th ranking.
To date, China is ranked 4th on the total medal tally. Which is an impressive climb in less than 40 years.
Watch out for China in the 2024 Olympics in Paris. China is about to overtake the UK for overall 3rd place, with all the help it can get from Team Australia.
For more on Ellicott's legacy and birth of the AIS, visit:
Credit to Shane Hayes, who pointed us in the right direction regarding Australia's sporting history. Shane was the head of Sports Science and Rehabilitation for Team China during the 2014 Winter Olympics, served on the Australian Cricket team and the Pakistani Cricket team.