Increasing global competition for sporting success is encouraging nations to adopt strategic elite sports policies

Increasing global competition for sporting success is encouraging nations to adopt strategic elite sports policies. The net result of this is a seemingly similar elite sports development system which is ostensibly based around a near uniform model of development, with subtle local variations (Bergsgard, Houlihan, Mangset, Nødland, & Rommetvedt, 2007; De Bosscher, Bingham, Shibli, Van Bottenburg, & De Knop, 2008; Houlihan & Green, 2008; Oakley & Green, 2001). Often countries classified as borrowers draw lessons while countries classified as lenders act as models for other political systems (Dolowitz & Marsh, 2000). Australia was among the early adopters of strategic elite sport policy approaches and built their systems moderately modelled on the high-performance structures of former communist nations.
Australia and its Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) have been powerful examples for many other nations to emulate. The current elite sports literature reports that elite sports development is characterized by increasing institutionalization, government involvement, and homogenization (Green & Houlihan, 2005; Houlihan, 2009; Oakley & Green, 2001).
One of the most comprehensive projects of policy-level factors that influence international sporting success is the Sport Policy Factors that Lead to International Sporting Success known as the SPLISS model (De Bosscher et al., 2006; De Bosscher et al., 2009). Established in 2002, SPLISS is the work of a consortium group of international researchers. The SPLISS model clusters all factors within sports policy that can contribute to success (outputs) in nine Pillars and specifies 96 Critical Success Factors (CSFs) that contribute to improving the elite sports success of a nation.
This essay will have a direct focus on Australia’s elite sport policy in relation to Pillar 1 and Pillar 3 of the SPLISS model and their associated critical success factors.
Pillar 1 focuses on the measurement of the financial support made by sport generally, however, has a specific interest in elite sport across the nations. Pillar 1 is the input pillar as financial resources provide the basis for the extent to which the remaining eight process pillars can be implemented. Making transnational comparisons of expenditure on sport is fraught with difficulty as definitions and delivery mechanisms vary from nation to nation. To enable meaningful like for like comparisons between nations, Pillar 1 examines public expenditure on sport at a national level.
Within Australia, most of the expenditure on sport is made by local government. Most of the funding for elite sport tends to be derived from central government or national lotteries and it is the quantification of this data that is most important for Pillar 1.
In recent times, national sports organisations and governments throughout the world have committed increasing amounts of funding to elite sport to win medals in major international competitions. As nations have engaged in a power struggle to achieve international success, their elite sports systems appear to have become increasingly homogeneous and more than ever are based around a single elite sports development model (Oakley and Green, 2001a, 2001b; Clumpner, 1994).
The strategic investment in elite sports systems to deliver international sporting success has been referred to as the “global sporting arms race” by Oakley and Green (2001b).
One of the major findings of a 16-country international elite sports policy study (SPLISS) is that the absolute, not relative, amount of money spent on an elite sport by a national government will determine the success of nations worldwide.
Korea, Japan, and France currently spend more than $320 million annually on their national elite sports system, followed by Australia in the mid-100 million range. The top four spending nations in the sample of 16 are also the top four performing nations. Yet despite our massive levels of investment, Australia’s performance at the summer Olympic Games has been on a downward slope since our record medal haul at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
Elite Olympic sport in Australia has been since become largely institutionalised. Australia’s poor performance at the 1976 Montreal Olympics was the motivation for establishing the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in 1981. The establishment of the AIS provided a centralised facility for multi-sport training, expert coaching, medical and sports science support to athletes.
The success of the institute model resulted in the eight state and territory governments establishing their own high-performance institutes and academies. At the Sydney 2000 Olympics, Australia reaped the rewards of its innovative high-performance model, by then the envy of many rival countries.
Participation and competitive standards are linked by the desire to create a deep pool of athletic talent from which a core of elite competitors can develop (Green 2004; van Bottenburg 2003). Although the relationship between sport for all and elite sport is often inconsistent, most top athletes have their roots in sport for all.
Although not always a prerequisite for success, wide-ranging sports participation may impact positively through the constant supply of young talent and the high quality of training. In Pillar 3, the focus is on sport at three levels, sport during or after school time, non-organised sports participation and organised sports participation.
Van Bottenburg (2003) found that the strength of the relationship between sport for all and elite sport is dependent upon the intensity, competitiveness and the degree of organisation in sporting practice.
Pillar 3 also investigates the number of organised sports club members in the Province and any national initiatives to improve the quality of sports clubs. Future elite athletes often participate in several sports simultaneously during their formative years, before eventually specialising in the sport at which they will strive to excel. Evidence from both Flanders and the Netherlands suggests that this specialism which is based on the first interest they received as a talent from a sport governing body is most likely after the age of 16. Consequently, sports clubs play a vital role in initial talent development. The three CSFs that are used to guide the investigation around sports participation in Australia are:
1. Children have opportunities to participate in sport at school, during PE or extra-curricular activities.
2. There is a high general sports participation rate.
3. There is a national policy towards promoting the implementation of the principles of (total) quality management in sports clubs, at the level of mass participation and talent development.
Australian sport is at a perilous point where Australia’s sporting provisions, consistently focused on delivering high-performance success worldwide through a ‘top-down’ approach, have been met with new challenges. This highlights the need for a crucial change both on and off the sporting field. The test will be to see if the momentum formed in the lead up to and during the 2000 Sydney Olympic and Paralympic Games can be utilised. Australia’s innovative systems and practices, as seen by the international sporting arena, have previously seen Australia engage in events believed to be beyond their capacity or abilities. The dynamic lifestyle that has played a considerable role in creating our nation’s identity, culture, and international sporting reputation is being challenged by the difficulties of modern life and an progressively sedentary lifestyle, particularly amongst our children.
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Australia has the fifth highest rate of adult obesity in the developed world. The National Health Survey found that 68% of adult Australian men and 55% of adult women were overweight or obese. Further, 17% of Australian children (5–17 years) were overweight and nearly 8% were obese. A strategic focus on collaboration, reform, and investment across the entire sporting pathway is needed to strengthen engagement in sport amongst our community and to regain our competitive edge. An approach that encourages sporting participation and develops sporting paths, which ultimately benefits individual health and productivity, while also contributing to and sustaining our international success. Essential to this approach is separating the views of an inactive community versus elite sports debate. It begins with the development of a collaborative, efficient and integrated national sports scheme focused both on increasing participation to benefit our community as well as the high-performance system. The Australian Government is integral to this success by focussing on furthering the participation of Australians being involved in sport and therefore the individual sporting achievements. The Australian Government’s commitment to increase funding to both community and high-performance sport also represents their assurance that this approach will deliver a significant investment to the development pathway which is the vital link connecting grassroots and high-performance sport.
This would also ensure our champion athletes received the support they need in the international arena and maintain our proud record of Olympic, Paralympic and International success. Central to the new way forward is undertaking long overdue reform of our sporting system and putting in place the foundations to deliver a strategic, whole-of-sport approach to sports policy.
In a landmark agreement, the Sport and Recreation Ministers’ Council (SRMC) has agreed to establish the first National Sport and Active Recreation Policy Framework to help guide the development of sports policy across Australia. To further strengthen Australia’s sporting system, SRMC has also agreed for the first time to undertake reform that will improve the alignment of Australia’s institutes and academies of sport, strengthening the backbone of our high-performance system – the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) and the state and territory institutes and academies of sport (SIS/SAS). This reform has received substantial financial support, with the Australian Government funding over $1.2 billion into Australian sport, including a $324.8 million ongoing boost to the Australian Sports Commission (ASC) which incorporates $195.2 million in new funding from the Australian Government.
The Australian Government has demonstrated that they have confidence that the athletes have the potential to make, not only valuable contributions on the international sporting stage, but also to local sporting communities. This is demonstrated through the Government maximising the contribution the athletes make to community sport. The impact this has on children has been reinforced by the implementation of two Government initiatives being that AIS scholarship-holders will volunteer at local community sporting clubs or junior sport programs and the establishment of resources within the ASC to connect retired and current athletes with charity, government or non-government organisations delivering a range of initiatives that aim to strengthen our community. This initiative is based on the recognition of the unique and inspirational role that athletes play in our community.
According to the ASC, the initiative proposes that Talent Identification be the starting point for the development, case management and fast-tracking of athletes towards success in sports in which they are suited. It is the first step on the sporting development pathway. Compared to the USA (300 million) and China (1300 million people) Australia is relatively small (20 million people) Based on these figures our high-performance talent pool is estimated at 200,000 people, compared with the United States’ 2 million and China’s 20 million. In a world where high-performance sport is becoming increasingly competitive we are certainly utilising our limited potential.
The Australian Government understands the importance of sport to our communities and to our nation. We have made the single biggest investment in community sporting infrastructure that this nation has ever seen, delivering $300 million to sport under the $1 billion Regional and Local Community Infrastructure Program (RLCIP). With the release of Australian Sport: The Pathway to Success we are backing this up with an injection of $195 million in new funding to sport, the biggest increase in sports funding in Australia’s history, as well as a comprehensive plan of reform to benefit the health of our community and of our sports sector. Through renewed focus and strategy, enhanced partnerships across tiers of government, a close co-operative approach with our sporting organisations and the biggest increase to sports funding in Australia’s history. The impact of Pillars 1 and 3 demonstrates the need for increased opportunities for Australians to participate in sport and therefore ensuring Australia’s continued sporting excellence.