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Sport 2030 – will Australia regain its leading sport nation status?

On the first of August 2018 the Minister for Sport, the Honourable Bridget McKenzie (@senbmckenzie), launched the long awaited National Sports Plan, or ‘Sport 2030’ – for Australia to be(come) the world’s most active and healthy sporting nation, known for its integrity and sporting success. Around the traps it was clear that the plan had been doing the rounds for a while. The public release of the much anticipated ‘Review of Australia’s Sports Integrity Arrangements’ was also long overdue. The delays were justified by the Minister due to the significant importance of both reports, and the consequent requirement for government collaboration across various portfolios including Home Affairs and the Attorney General’s office. The review of integrity is part of the bigger national sport plan and is targeted at ‘safeguarding the integrity of sport’ part of the agenda.

I can call myself an academic and consulting veteran of sport business and management, having done almost 30 years in three different Australian Universities and four international tertiary institutions, and a successful 5-year stint at private sport business consulting as well – in and outside of Australia. But I started my career as a physical education teacher, during the times that in the Netherlands, and also in Australia some ‘wise’ politicians sought to redirect resources in the primary and secondary school systems by phasing out mandatory physical education classes, taught by specialised PE teachers. I have been in this industry long enough to have witnessed the short-term gain (Sydney 2000) to be had from investing a lot of high performance money in the last generation of children who had regular PE lessons at school. Ever since Sydney 2000 the Australian Olympic medal tally has been shrinking. This can only in part be explained by increasing competition from other nations investing in their high-performance systems. With a relatively small talent pool (26 million), Australia needs to make the best out of its potential, and if the talent pool is shrinking because young Australians cannot run, catch, throw, jump and coordinate their movements in the way that previous generations had learnt to do, then that surely explains lack of podium success.

Although the strategic priorities of the Sport 2030 plan seem straightforward, digging deeper into the mission and targets set by the rebranded Australian Sports Commission – now Sport Australia – provides a window into an exciting future for Australian sport. More people from cradle to grave engaged in sport and physical activity; a recast high-performance system that is empowered to achieve success for sports and for athletes; a whole of system approach to safeguarding competitive sport from illegal interference and exploitation; and a successful sport ecosystem – the in-vogue word for ‘industry’ – that is capable of delivering sustainable social and economic benefits to Australians. What does this deliver? Sport 2030 aims to build strong communities, made up of strong, enabled and empowered individuals who are physically and mentally healthy, facilitated by and in a sport and recreation environment that delivers economic and social value.

Just words you may argue. Sure, like any strategy, easy to put on paper but hard to execute. However, this is the first strategy document by the Australian government since I arrived in Australia in 1994, where the expressed focus is not (only) on achieving elite sporting success. And there is also a fresh wind blowing through the corridors of Sport Australia power. Both the Board and the rebuilt Executive Team at Sport Australia have taken the bull by the horns, and collectively turned realisation (that more of the same is not good enough) into action. The AIS has been credited with achieving amazing success during the first two decades of its life, but in an open admission by the Minister in Canberra, has lost its way during the past decade, and is in need of a complete rethink (which is happening as we speak). Sport Australia’s Board and AIS management are actively negotiating with State and Federal government about what to keep and what to sell on the massive AIS parcel of land. How can Canberra based management of the AIS better service a National elite system? How to empower and enable the range of stakeholders in Australian elite sport, to better perform their function in the system? This as opposed to basing all people and services out of Canberra.

Unlike earlier versions, the National Plan hardly talks about the traditional ways of growing participation in sport (through NSOs and SSOs) but rather, outlines a required focus on ensuring that all Australian children have the skills, confidence and motivation to be active for life and safe in the water. This can also be done by reducing barriers to sport and physical activity participation. And note the structural inclusion of ‘physical activity’ throughout the document – an acknowledgement that before sport participation comes confidence and desire to be physically active. There is also emphasis in the plan on investing in sport and recreation facilities – not merely ‘build it and they will come’, but with a focus on ‘universal design’ so that sport is accessible to all Australians.

In regard to the sport industry as a whole, there is an acknowledgement that some existing practice, like hosting and organising major sporting events in Australia and extending Australia’s sport diplomacy strategy, will require continued support and investment. More novel though are the intentions to collect data, evidence and insights to promote how active, sporting and healthy Australians are and could be, and also to actively increase the sport industry workforce capabilities. These latter intentions offer tremendous scope for Universities, but also for vocational and secondary school providers to partner with Sport Australia.

Last but not least… safeguarding the integrity of sport. At the foundation of this should be contemporary and efficient governance systems. Highlighted in the plan is also a focus on protecting children in sporting environments – an open acknowledgement that there are (and may be more) problems underneath the veil of a club-based delivery system of sport. A system that is insufficiently equipped and prepared for predators using the cover of ‘fun and healthy sport’ to satisfy their sick desires. Or indeed, physical sporting environments that do not live up to the health and safety standards that ensure an acceptable level of injury risk.

However, the major advancement of Australian sport may well come from the recommendations outlined in the Review of Australia’s Integrity Arrangements, in short, the Wood Review. There are 52 recommendations for the Australian government to consider, covering five action themes that go to the heart of integrity (safeguarding). First a National Sports Integrity Commission should be established, resourced and equipped to be the single platform that regulates, monitors, develops and delivers policy around integrity. Second, the Review recommends the establishment of an independent National Sports Tribunal, including an anti-doping, general, and appeals division. Third, the Review recommends deeper investment in the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) to invest in anti-doping education and outreach to younger athletes, and to streamline anti-doping procedures and change the ASADA-Act to more effectively carry out the organisation’s duties. Fourth, the government should establish an Australian Sports Wagering Scheme, governed and run by the new Integrity Commission, to ensure that wagering legislation and policy is formulated, guided and executed in a transparent and consistent manner. Finally, at the core of the matter, Australia should sign up to the Council of Europe Convention on the Manipulation of Sports Competitions (the Macolin Convention) as a first step towards a strong response to match fixing and the corruption that is underpinned by it. This will allow better international engagement in combatting match-fixing and illegal gambling, but equally important, drive the national discussion and agenda on tackling the range of criminal behaviours that threaten sport’s integrity.

The proof is in the pudding – good old adage – and as such, very true. Where from here? How will Sport Australia’s management and governors take this ambitious, and enlightening plan to the next phase, and find the resources to implement it in a sustainable fashion, so that its effect can be traced all the way to 2030 and beyond? This is an opportunity for a bold, forward and long term thinking government, way beyond their electoral survival, to invest in the wellbeing and welfare of Australians for generations to come. Not only will this bring medals to Australian young athletes, but it will make Australia’s education and health policies the envy of the obese and sedentary (rest) of the world, and indeed safeguard the future of the lucky country.