Australia's hothouse method bears fruit

Dave Hadfield visited the Institute of Sport in Canberra to find out how their intensive approach has paid off and why they feel Britain can go one better
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The Independent Online
The finishing school widely regarded as top of the class in world sport has a message for John Major as he contemplates a similar initiative in Britain. He can have something bigger, better and more successful at the cutting edge of British sport - if he goes about it in the right way.

The Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra has been called the best establishment of its kind anywhere in the world by the International Olympic Committee. Being Australians, they are not eager to contradict that view here and its record is undeniably impressive. "But I'd love to be starting again with a clean sheet and all that lottery money," the Institute's acting director, Bob Hitchcock, said with more than a hint of envy. "The great advantage that Britain has is that they can plan it. Our system just grew and it wasn't always very coherent."

Coherent or not, the Institute has enjoyed conspicuous success. It was the national humiliation of failing to win a single gold medal at the Montreal Olympics in 1976 that provided the impetus for the setting-up of the Institute and since then its products have been regular medal winners at all the major games in which Australia has competed. Its basketball and netball teams have achieved worldwide recognition, Pat Cash is one of its tennis graduates, but perhaps the most celebrated aspect of its work as far as British audiences are concerned is the Australian Cricket Academy.

Based at one of the Institute's satellite centres in Adelaide, the Academy has produced a steady stream of Test players, including Shane Warne, who had the distinction of being kicked out for indiscipline only to return and finish the course with results that will be all too familiar to English batsmen. The Academy side embarrassed the full England team by beating them twice in a weekend last year, and also forms the foundation of the Young Australia team currently touring England.

However, whether the sport is cricket, athletics or basketball, the basic principles are the same. The AIS is unashamedly elitist. They set out to recruit the best in more than 20 sports (sometimes by placing adverts in newspapers seeking applicants), they give them the best of facilities and coaching and they expect results.

In the Olympic sports funded by the Institute's parent body, the Australian Sports Commission, the target for the 2000 Games in Sydney is already set. Australia expects 60 medals, 20 of them gold. If they fail, as the executive director of the ASC, Jim Ferguson, admits, the Australian taxpayer will want to know why.

Government funding is generous, running at around $40m (pounds 18.5m) a year on a guaranteed four-year programme that allows individual sports to plan ahead, and it is supplemented by a range of corporate sponsorships. One of the more imaginative nourishes the students in a literal way: a pizza company provides a "sports pizza" which is available in the communal dining hall.

But there is more to the AIS than simply throwing money at the problem. In Canberra, 250 athletes, ranging from eight-year-old gymnasts to world- class swimmers and runners up to the ages of 25 live in halls of residence on the site, with house-parents and continuing programmes of education at local schools and colleges. That allows sports to tap into the full wealth of centralised resources, such as the sports medicine and psychology departments.

It is little wonder that the Institute is a magnet, not just for Australian athletes, but also for ambitious coaches from overseas. Barry Prime swam for Great Britain in the 1972 Olympics and now coaches breaststroke in Canberra.

"It has been good to mix with the other coaches and other sports, with all the back-up that is here for the benefit of the athletes," he said. "I felt I had gone as far as I could in Britain without some radical change there - without something like this."

The AIS recruits the best coaches regardless of nationality, although there were problems when the largely Chinese-run gymnastics department was accused of treating young girl gymnasts too harshly, while the whole weightlifting programme was scrapped after a drugs scandal.

There are smaller disappointments. The Australian track and field squad in Gothenburg has not been the best advert for the Institute. The 200 and 400 metre runner Cathy Freeman appears on cereal boxes here - another of the Institute's commercial ventures - but her failure in Sweden has inevitably provoked criticism. The Institute believes it has the answers to that, pointing to statistical evaluations showing that Australia is more successful in virtually all the sports it nurtures than before it opened in 1981.

"But it is not a gold medal factory and it is not a quick fix," Ferguson said. Estimates vary from sport to sport but administrators and coaches at the Institute calculate that it takes between five and eight years for the hothouse approach to start to pay off.

That means that it is already too late for Britain for the 2000 Olympics. The Minister for Sport, Ian Sproat, has already visited both the Canberra and Adelaide sites and there has been considerable contact and discussion between the ASC and the Sports Council. The Australian impression, however, is that Britain is a long way from being convinced that the Australian model is the right one.

"I don't think they really want to know what the colonials are doing," Neil Gray, the Institute's director of marketing, said. That would be a shame, because all the evidence is that the colonials are doing something right. As Hitchcock insists, it could be even more right in Britain. Smaller distances would allow a greater concentration of resources and there would be no inter-state tensions like the ones that bedevil Australian sport - though those between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland could be equally interesting. Then there is all that money from the National Lottery.

"It's a fantastic opportunity," Hitchcock said, "but you shouldn't underestimate the difficulties. There will be a lot of sports pursuing their own agendas. Cricket here for a long time had the view that they didn't need any of this because they were already pretty good and we couldn't teach them anything because they had been around for so long. No one says that now."