Julia Gillard must be very glad she resisted the urging of Australian Olympic Committee president John Coates to attend the London Games.

This bloke knows what he's doing.

John Howard benefited politically from the flood of Australian gold medals at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Kevin Rudd flew to Beijing in 2008 to bask in the glory of our athletes’ performances there.

Gillard was accused of snubbing London. Coates called her decision to stay at home a “missed opportunity” and “a disappointment to our team”.

But it proved to be smart politics. If Gillard had turned up in London she would have been associated with disappointment, and she can’t afford that.

As it is, there are those doing their best to lump her with at least part of the blame for the Aussie team’s failure to live up to predictions of a top five finish in the medal table anyway.

They claim inadequate federal government funding made out athletes less competitive, despite Coates’ statement as the London Games wound down that greater funding is not necessarily the way forward.

“We believe that there has been enough funding for the team to do well here,” Coates said -adding that elite sports authorities in Australia need to reassess whether they’ve been spending money provided by the government in the best way.       

So far, the funding issue has not blown up into a serious political problem for Gillard. This is largely because the federal opposition - like the government - is committed to a tight-purse-strings economic policy.

Tony Abbott - cyclist, swimmer, marathon runner, former boxer - might be a one-man Olympic team himself, but he is stuck with the coalition’s spending restraint mantra.

He is not in a position to demand that the Gillard Government agree to big increases in spending on sport, or to promise such increases himself after next year’s election.

But, as the various Olympic post-mortems get under way, pressure will build on both sides of politics for action to bring back the glory days. Australians have got used to seeing their sporting heroes triumph every four years. 

What is needed is a politician like Bob Ellicott, the Sports Minister who made Australia’s Olympic ascendancy possible in the first place and did it with sufficient cunning to conceal much of the cost.

I wrote about Ellicott’s role back in 2000, when the results of his labours were there for all to see. Australia won 58 medals at the Sydney Games, 16 of them gold.

Perhaps it’s time for another reminder now that our Olympic fortunes have apparently started to ebb again.

When Australia came away from the 1976 Montreal Olympics without a single gold medal, it came as a shock to the relatively new prime minister Malcolm Fraser. He approached some of the athletes personally to find out why they had done so badly.

“The answer was very simple,” Fraser said later. “A whole lot of countries - not just the East Europeans and the Russians - backed their athletes with government funding and resources. Techniques and practices were developing so fast that, unless you had the best and most professional people and facilities, you could not compete any longer.”
Then, like now, was a time of financial stringency and spending cutbacks as the Fraser Government dealt with the economic impact of the big-spending Whitlam years. It was hardly the ideal time to start pouring money into sport.

The then Treasurer, John Howard, was certainly against it.

But Fraser called in Home Affairs Minister Ellicott, one of the country’s most eminent lawyers before he entered politics, and said: “We’ve got to get this fixed, Bob.” He added sport to Ellicott’s portfolio and gave him the job of rebuilding Australia’s international sporting reputation.

Ellicott got the idea of a national Institute of Sport after visiting Beijing and seeing an institute, set up as part of a college, where students from all over China came to train as physical education teachers. The same thing, he realised, could work for athletes.

Because he was also Minister for the Capital Territory, Ellicott was able to build his vision of an Australian Institute of Sport on the cheap - “a sort of cut and paste job”, was the way he described it to me.

He allocated land for the Institute next to a stadium that had recently been built in Canberra for the Pan-Pacific Games, ordered work to start on a sports hall and administrative centre, used rooms at a half-empty College of Advanced Education as accommodation, upgraded a suburban swimming pool with a roof, heating and weight-training area paid for out of the ACT budget instead of the Institute budget, and so on.

The entire cost - including construction of tennis and netball courts - was less than $6 million.

The Australian Institute of Sport was opened officially on Australia Day, 1981, and has underpinned much of our Olympic and other sporting success since then.

As Coates acknowledges, money is not everything. Imagination, determination and a bit of cunning can achieve a lot, too - as Ellicott showed.

Laurie Oakes is political editor for the Nine Network.

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44 comments

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    • ronny jonny says:

      06:23am | 11/08/12

      This story shows how badly off track our governments have gone. Ellicotts achievement was an example of can-do. Imagine if they were setting up an institute of sport these days? They’d need millions of dollars worth of consultants reports before they even made a decision about whether to build it or not. They certainly wouldn’t look at reusing or renovating existing facillities to suit a budget or a bit of creative financing to help things along. Julia would most likely introduce a new tax to pay for it and of course she’d pay three times what it was worth, then it would be two years late being finished and probably not produce any improvement in performance anyway.
      That is the difference between having competent, capable people in government and what we have now.

    • darren says:

      10:11am | 11/08/12

      You forgot the part where all work got suspended until an environment impact study on the effects of the new site might have on an ‘endangered’ slug that had been found on site.

    • Dr B S Goh, Australian in Asia says:

      12:24pm | 11/08/12

      It is a shame we do not invest enough in our sportspeople.

      We wasted BILLIONS on the boatpeople in order to have a feel good illusion that we are helping refugees.

      The Hon Combet also wasted billions. Not many people know that Combet signed an Agreement last Dec at Cancum Mexico to give ten percent of the carbon tax collected each year o be squandered by the expensive UN

    • Revvy Kevvy says:

      09:18am | 12/08/12

      Yes quite true Johnny, and as a comparison, that “competent, capable” Lieberal government would have circulated Liberal Party branches calling for expressions of interest from corporate donors to become involved in the project, which would then not proceed as it is a project designed for those well down the social ladder and thus un-Liberal. Tony “don’t believe me unless you have it in writing” Abbott would then say “yes it must go ahead but unlike Labor paying for it with a tax, we will pay for it with a levy, not a tax”. It would probably cost three times what is is worth, be finished two years late and probably not produce any improvement in performance anyway.

    • ronny jonny says:

      01:39pm | 12/08/12

      Get your hand off it Kevvy

    • Thomas says:

      06:24am | 11/08/12

      Yep more funding will make you run faster, swim faster, row faster, and jump higher.

      Then again it might work if you dangle 100 bills at the finish line?

      Honestly how does anyone anywhere do anything without Government funding?

    • Andrew says:

      04:58pm | 11/08/12

      Thomas, are you actually serious. If you want to compete you need facilities, equipment and money to travel and compete, you need funds to develop the latest techniques and get the best coaches, do you seriously believe all you have to do is train 8 hours a day and turn up at the event. Does this mean you have to spend billions to be competitive, no of course not but you defferently wont compete without a decent amount of funding.

    • morrgo says:

      10:00am | 12/08/12

      [This comment was censored by the editor the first time around: why?]

      Hungary is more broke than Tasmania, has few facilities and funds its athletes at much lower levels than Australia.  It still leads Australia on the gold count.

      Not on the other metals: its fewer competing athletes just seem hungrier to succeed than, eg, our idolised, pampered and overfunded swimmers graduating from our gold-plated training facilities.

    • Thomas says:

      06:42am | 13/08/12

      Yes Andrew I am.

      I think all that is in place already? I believe all Australian swimmers have access to water, runners have access to a track. Shotputters access to something heavy to throw.

      Perhaps they need to return to traditional Rocky 3 style training. Pulling carts till they drop - not inside the latest 4 billion dollar facility where the tiles heat your feet in the shower.

      Nutritionist? Read a book.

      Money to travel? China southern is really cheap these days - their families can raise the money for the ticket.

      Masseuse? Get your girlfriend \ boyfriend or both.

      When they win, we could think about a % of Government funding, and pay it back with the millions they will get from advertisements ect. That way we get a return on investing in these people.

    • acotrel says:

      07:55am | 11/08/12

      There is an easy way for Australia to win gold at the Olympics.  We should work with our areas of strength, and promote Moto3 and lawn bowls as Olympic sports.

    • sunny says:

      12:57pm | 11/08/12

      I was going to say Aussie Rules football, but then thought the Irish would probably beat us in the gold medal match.

    • alto says:

      12:03pm | 12/08/12

      lawn mowing, not lawn bowls. Australia must have a few champions at that. Most lawn bowlers are too elderly to make the journey OS.

    • Badjack says:

      07:57am | 11/08/12

      Hey Laurie it’s good to see you haven’t fallen off the perch yet. Even Lib supporters would not be blaming Gillard for the lack of Gold. The only people who think the AOC need more money are the AOC and the athletes who benefit from the free money and the parasites who feed off them. The normal Australian would be saying they get enough of our money and all they have to do to win more medals is to;
      Stop whining
      Stay away from facebook, twitter etc.
      work as hard at training and be as focussed as the Chinese swimmers, Sally Pearson and Anna Meares.
      become a celebrity by winning their events and not by being social butterflies.
      Look in the mirror when they don’t do as well as THEY expected to.
      Don’t answer dumb questions put to them by flakey media types.

    • daniel says:

      09:42am | 11/08/12

      If more funding was allocated to sports other than swimming then I wouldn’t really care. However, realistically that wouldn’t be the case.

    • eRon says:

      10:01am | 11/08/12

      The “smart politics” was for Gillard to be absent.
       
      Seems to be a commonly held view.
       
      Looking forward to the logical progression of that mantra being realised.

    • Mouse says:

      04:10pm | 11/08/12

      Good thing she was absent from the games, we might not have won ANY gold otherwise!.  LOL   :o)

    • KimL says:

      10:24am | 11/08/12

      I am not an expert and don’t claim to be, but it seems to me that kids are not as active today as they were when I was young. We a played games outside and did sport at school, that was a good basis for those who were good enough to go on and become champions..  I certainly do not blame The Government for our lack of Gold.

    • Mack says:

      06:18pm | 11/08/12

      When the lefty pc crowd want every kid to get an award just for turning up and ‘participating’, you would hardly expect it to encourage competitiveness and a will to win. Just like the Unions, the leftys want everyone to be ‘equal’ - equally pathetic.  We are now a nation of mediocre whingers.

    • pa_kelvin says:

      12:50pm | 11/08/12

      Our athletes failed to perform. The athletes from other countrys worked harder and reaped the rewards…...simple

    • Andrew says:

      05:07pm | 11/08/12

      Actually, not that simple, go and have a look at the money spent by the americans, chinese, North Koreans etc etc and you might see a pattern. Are u seriously saying our athletics dont work hard, yeah right they all look so unfit, Fair enough to say in many cases that they wern’t good enough but saying they dont train hard is BS, they all had to beat other people just to get there, if they didnt train hard enough what does that say about the people they beat, they all have coaches do you really believe there coaches wouldnt make sure they put the work in, there wouldnt be much of a future forthem if they didnt ensure there athletics didnt work hard.

    • pa_kelvin says:

      08:02pm | 11/08/12

      Where in my post did I mention that they didn’t train hard enough?..Where in my post did I mention coach’s? Sure they had to beat other people to gain a spot on the team, but that only makes them the best in Australia, not the World.  Our athletes failed to perform (on the night) .The athletes from other countrys worked harder (on the night)and reaped the rewards….simple.      Kazakhstan has six gold medals, small population no billion dollar budgets and they have performed excellant.

    • pa_kelvin says:

      09:46pm | 11/08/12

      And FYI I’ve cheered on for every medal Gold , Silver or Bronze.

    • Andrew says:

      07:12pm | 12/08/12

      Yes they didnt perorm on the night as well but to say the other athletics worked harder is BS, the guy that comes last could easily be working harder then the guy that comes first, he just isnt as good. By saying that your basically saying they didnt give a 100%. Kazakstan won gold in the cycling which is a million dollar sport, the others were in sports which are hardly household names and are also cheap to participate in, when they start winning in swimming, athletics, gymnastics and the team sports then you can get back to me and tell me how great they are doing with a small budget. PS This is by no means putting there efforts down, its a great effort and good on them but comparing them to us is stupid

    • Andrew says:

      07:16pm | 12/08/12

      Your right they didnt perform on the night,  but to say the other athletics worked harder is BS, the guy that comes last could easily be working harder then the guy that comes first, he just isnt as good. By saying that your basically saying they didnt give a 100%. Kazakstan won gold in the cycling which is a million dollar sport, the others were in sports which are hardly household names and are also cheap to participate in, when they start winning in swimming, athletics, gymnastics and the team sports then you can get back to me and tell me how great they are doing with a small budget. PS This is by no means putting there efforts down, its a great effort and good on them but comparing them to us is stupid because they compete in completely different sports.

    • Anjuli says:

      01:57pm | 11/08/12

      There were 3 swimmers who should have given their spot to others.

    • Andrew says:

      05:09pm | 11/08/12

      Why!! They won or come second at the trial so they were better swimmers then the ones that didnt make it, so why would they or should they give up there place to someone not as good as them.

    • Mike says:

      11:30am | 12/08/12

      Too right Anjuli.  Didn’t stop some of the Australian swimmers saying the same a few years ago though !  Or did you all forget the disgusting pressure that was placed on Craig Stevens ?

    • Andrew says:

      07:22pm | 12/08/12

      yeah the difference was that everyone knew (including stevens) that the other guy when fit was a much better swimmer in fact stevens couldnt even get close to him. Stevens done the right thing by the team and he still went and completed in another event so he didnt miss out. There was no such evidence this time that any of the swimmers left behind would have done a better job.

    • biff says:

      02:20pm | 11/08/12

      Before we send our athletes to Rio can we sew up the lips of our swimmers. Idle boasting doesn’t mean success.

    • the cynic says:

      02:49pm | 11/08/12

      Forget about the sports that they tried to grab a medal in. The AIS should be hard at lobbying the IOC to include binge drinking ,wanton vandalism ,sexting, texting, twitter, facebook , stabbings, drive by shooting, random unprovoked bashings, all the range of video games ,political nepotism, assylum seeker spending to name a few pursuits into the Olympics . Australia would have a good chance at the No. 1 spot.

    • Zoe says:

      04:43pm | 12/08/12

      If twitter was a sport our swimmers would have cleaned up! I noticed Anna Meares’ coach put a media ban on her before her race. Obviously he knows what hes doing.
      Our athletes are technically at work on a funded trip so its appropriate that they arent twiitering or on facebook at work.
      Many workplaces have those rules

    • Paul says:

      04:55pm | 11/08/12

      I reckon we scatter ourselves across sports where we don’t really have a chance.  An example is Sergei Bubka.  The guy could run a hundred in 10.1 but realised he was never going to win a thing as a sprinter.  So he changed over to pole vault where he did pretty good.  Look at the Koreans.  They have 13 golds and I never saw one at the athletics stadium and just one at the swimming.  So let’s tell our marginal athletes the facts of life and direct them if possible over to something they can win rather than is waffle about participating.  As a taxpayer I don’t want to fund their impossible ‘dream’.

    • C says:

      06:33pm | 11/08/12

      The best exercise of all would be push the “off” button on the TV, the computer, the game-controller and the like. Then send the kids out to play in adventure style playgrounds - sans close adult supervision. That way they will learn to explore the basic skills that lead to advanced athletic skills. They will develop the imagination that leads to the mental capacity to handle the stress of sport at the highest levels. They will, even if they never make it to the Olympics be healthier and fitter.  Those that don’t make it may end up colonising Mars or some other planet or finding a cure for diabetes or cancer.
      Yes, there will be some bumps, bruises and a broken bone or two but they will overcome those and be back for more.
      It is not simply a matter of pouring money into sport and training up a few who look promising. We need to change our entire attitude to life.

    • wantok says:

      08:04am | 12/08/12

      Laurie,can you imagine the outcry had Julia Gillard gone to London for the Games while Tony Abbott is at the Aurukun aboriginal community on Cape York engaged in a tightly scripted PR event, paint brush in hand, together with an invited group of industry leaders (although Twiggy Forrest and James Packer dropped out at the last moment).The media would have been scathing of our prime minister’s choices.

    • David says:

      02:01pm | 12/08/12

      Abbott actually spends more time doing that sort of thing off-camera than on and he made a good point when interviewed saying that although it was only a day, life is made up of days. He pulled in some other big names to set an example as well.  It will have given the Aurukun community a huge boost to their self-image - far more than dollars donated can ever do.
      I am scathing of the PMs choice - when did she last get her hands dirty?
      Come to that when did Hawke, Keating or Rudd? Howard? Fraser would have - but he was a farmer as well.

    • dibatag says:

      09:34am | 12/08/12

      At the end of it all we were just not good enough, as for the money spent like all taxpayer funded things it’s most likely going on non jobs to useless peoplewho know nothing about sport

    • Davo says:

      11:28am | 12/08/12

      Announce to the world that we are going to use drugs to cheat at the olympics and use every method available to prevent our athletes testing positive. Due to the current lacklustre drug testing we should win more medals for less cost. After the olympics show the world how we did it and how to improve the drug testing. Once improved drug testing is in place try to ensure the next olympics our athletes are clean. Again we should win more medals.

    • Wilma J Craig says:

      03:06pm | 12/08/12

      “Inadequate Federtal Funding” Really? Is that what the Australian Olympic Committee & members of the Australian Olympics team are claiming?
      I fail to see how they can make such a claim for, depending on which report you read, they got either $380 million or $500 million since 2008. That is a hell of a lot of money for a small, if wealthy, country to spend on something as meaningless as the Olympics have now become.
      There were just 410 actual Competitors plus a huge 319-person team of hanger’s on. We can amost bet that whilst some Competitors travelled Business class & some in Steerage those “officials” will probably have gone First Class.I think our athletes did very well for we can’t always expect to be at the top. Why was so much time & money wasted by the officials in their attempts to resurrect past Olympians who had (in athletic terms) long-since retired?

    • bananabender says:

      04:34pm | 12/08/12

      Sorry folks but most of the Olyopic “sports” aren’t real sports. They are physical activities designed for B and C grade competitors who can’t compete in real professional sports like soccer or baseball.

    • Frank says:

      09:44am | 13/08/12

      oh get rid of Coates! hes the only reason we fail hes a dinosaur in a modern time and the meteor is coming, we need new blood in the AOC get rid of him and allow us to go into the future

    • Big Fella says:

      12:04pm | 13/08/12

      Couldnt agree more Frank ..the bloke is a 24 carat p*ss taker.
      Happy to commit money to sport aslong as its not used to give useless old wastes of space like that bloke an ongoing free ride. How he has managed to hang on to that gravy train for so long has got me dumbstruck.

    • Sam says:

      10:14am | 13/08/12

      Spend even more money of Sports ! Nooooo !!!!

      Im sorry but I think we have more important things to worry about other than how fast someone can swim.

      I do not understand this obsession some have with watching sport, I do not see how spending tens of millions of dollars just so a handful of athletes can get a nice shiny medal is in any way a benefit to the rest of the community.

      I think priorities should be looked at. Whats more important -

      A Gold medal or providing shelter to a homeless person

      A Gold Medal or providing care for an abused child

      A Gold Medal or providing mental health care

      A Gold Medal or providing affordable dental care to low income earners

      The list can go on and on, I defy anyone to say that a few athletes running, swimming and jumping deserve more money to do something they chose to do when we have people who have dire needs that are caused by issues not of their choosing.

    • X Treme says:

      12:47pm | 13/08/12

      We can’t possibly get orid of mr coates until he puts Richard in front of his name as Mr Kevan Gosper has.  IOC reps have a wonderful life enriched in so many ways. Shame we invested in Casino’s Australia, well mr coates putour cash in it, or we would have $4m more in 1998 dollars to spend on the last past the post mortem

 

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