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Monday, 25 May 2009
Page: 4249

Mr SULLIVAN (9:17 PM) —I want to use the time available to me tonight to talk about sport. Australia is often accused, mostly by Australians, of having an unhealthy obsession with sport. The truth, of course, is that Australia is no more or less infatuated with sports, sports people and sporting achievements than any other nation. The only differences are those of the particular sport or sports that attract mass followings in different countries. But all countries have a shared interest in the Olympic Games; the games have something for everyone. Australia’s lack of success at the Montreal Olympics in 1976 was the catalyst for the Australian government establishing the Australian Institute of Sport in 1981. That approach had been recommended in 1974 by Bloomfield, who based his research and recommendations on various institutes in Europe, and it was fleshed out later by Coles in 1975.

The AIS has had a degree of success. The cycling program, for example, has resulted in Australia punching above its weight in international cycling competition. No doubt this will be the case for some other sports also. Yet in swimming, without argument our most successful Olympic sport, our Olympic team members and medallists are more routinely drawn from the squads of private coaches operating at suburban swimming pools. Nearly 30 years on from the establishment of the AIS, it is appropriate to ask if this continues to be the only way forward for sport in Australia.

Honourable members will be aware of the establishment in August 2008 of the Independent Sport Panel, chaired by David Crawford, who has runs on the board, having been involved previously in the process of modernisation of both the Australian Football League and Football Federation Australia. The panel has consulted widely with sporting bodies, interest groups and the community. The panel has been given four terms of reference: ensure Australia’s continued elite sporting success; better place sport and physical activity as a key component of the government’s preventative health approach; strengthen pathways from junior sport to grassroots community sport right through to elite and professional sport; and, maintain Australia’s cutting-edge approach to sports science, research and technology. I am particularly interested in the third of these terms of reference, the pathways for athletes from junior sport through to professional sport. I am also in agreement with the thrust of the submission to the panel on behalf of Australian University Sport. In essence, with regard to the third term of reference, the AUS submission recommends:

Exploring the establishment of elite competitions through the Australian university sector must be a priority.

Australian National University student Lisa Kitvitee undertook a parliamentary internship on my staff last year and produced an excellent report on this subject titled The Australian brawn drain. I would be happy to make copies available to those who might want one.

Honourable members will also have some knowledge of the various university or college based sports programs offered in the United States. It is US practice to use the term ‘athletics’ to represent all sports; that is a practice I will adopt where appropriate in this contribution. Many members will be aware of student athletes from their own electorates who are currently attending universities and colleges in America on athletics scholarships. Whilst there is no means of accurately recording the number of Australian scholarship holders, it is estimated that 750 are joining the brawn drain each year, with around 2,000 Australians on US college athletics rosters at any time. But, unlike their American counterparts, our junior athletes are not aware of the existence of US college opportunities from the outset of their athletics careers. In truth, there is a suggestion that many of our peak sporting bodies either deliberately hide the fact from their athletes or actively discourage them from taking up offers that may be made. This is the gap in the pathway between junior sport and elite professional sport available to Australia’s young athletes.

The benefit that America derives from its college athletics program ought to be obvious to all. Precious few of America’s Olympic medallists will not have spent four years in intensive training and competing regimes at colleges across the country. In many cases, they will be competing at the Olympics before they have graduated. The introduction into Australia of a university based elite sports system modelled on the US system is the next logical step for Australia and will, as it develops, plug the gap that currently exists—a gap that sees too many promising young athletes drop out of their sport and seriously depletes our talent pool.

Comparing the Australian and US experiences in women’s softball illustrates how Australia is disadvantaged, both from the point of view of the individual player and as a sport generally. A young girl growing up in the US will know from an early age that sporting prowess will provide her with the opportunity to attend university on an athletics scholarship. Her family will encourage and assist her if she shows promise in any sport. If that sport is softball, through the travel ball organisations she will have an intensive summer tournament competition, routinely playing eight to 10 games per tournament and playing one tournament per fortnight, leading into national championships for girls in age groups from 10 and under through to 18 and under.

In contrast, her Australian counterpart will have a leisurely one game per weekend in her local league. She will have the opportunity to play in one state championship tournament each year, at under 14, under 16 and under 19 level, perhaps as many as 10 games at a time. The very best will represent their state at the national titles at under 16 and under 19, perhaps playing another 10 games. Her family will be totally unaware of the US college athletics system or, if they have heard of it, will have very little idea of how to pursue the matter.

On graduating from high school, the American girl, if she is talented, is likely to be offered a place in a team at a four-year university or a two-year junior college, with most of them receiving some level of financial assistance from the university. The best of them will be actively sought by a number of universities and will often receive what is called ‘the full ride’: all tuition, books, living and sporting expenses paid by the university that secures their signature. A university team will typically play 50-plus games in the months of February, March and April, with national championships held in May.

On graduating from high school, the Australian girl has nothing to look forward to. A few of those considered the very best will enter the AIS program. There are currently 23 women, ranging in age from around 19 to their late 20s, in the AIS program, at least four of whom are regulars in the Australian national team. Some others may be assisted by programs run through their state associations. For the rest, there is nothing other than the one league game per weekend, with the prospect of a long wait for senior team positions to become available and the certainty that those places will go to other players who have been ‘identified’ and placed in the program, as I mentioned earlier. It is no wonder that the American system is attractive to them—though, to be fair, the sport has been active in recent years to improve the situation.

For young women between the ages of 18 and 23, four years in the US playing a game they love and obtaining a university qualification is a very good deal. But prolonged separation from friends and family can also have an impact, and not all are able to take the fullest advantage of the opportunity they are given.

US softball derives a tremendous benefit from player participation via the college system, particularly by comparison with Australia. The population of the US is around 307 million. At 21 million, Australia is about seven per cent the size of the US. There are in the order of 1,000 four-year universities fielding a softball team in intercollegiate competition and another 1,000 two-year junior colleges doing the same. That means there are around 35,000 young women aged 18 to 23 competing in intensive competition. To have equivalency, Australia would need around 2,500 young women playing at a comparable level. We simply do not. Importantly, that number of US teams also translates into around 3,500 full-time softball coaches. An equivalent number for Australia would be 245. There are maybe a dozen. It is simply impossible to compete against that weight of numbers, be it players or coaches, which highlights the achievement of Australia’s few victories over the US national team.

While I have illustrated the situation using women’s softball, the experience will be the same for many sports. The development of university based competitions will tick a number of boxes which are considered by both government and community to be desirable. It will provide the capacity to transition young athletes between youth sport and elite sport. It will provide the impetus and opportunity for young people to obtain tertiary qualifications they might otherwise not attempt. It will provide the incentive needed to keep young athletes involved in sport at ages when participation numbers are traditionally depleted. It will provide the encouragement for young people to engage early in activities that promote health and fitness. And, not least, it will provide us with an expanded talent pool from which to select athletes for elite representative teams, enhancing prospects of international success.

I urge the Independent Sports Panel to look seriously at the submission from Australian University Sport as providing the right way forward for sports development in Australia.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms AE Burke)—Order! There being no further grievances, the debate is adjourned, and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.