Sproat goes in search of the secret of success

The Minister for Sport has been Down Under on a mission `to steal Austr alia's best ideas'. Adam Mynott reports
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At the 1976 Olympic Games Australia won just six medals, none of them gold. Having averaged more than 20 medals in the previous five Olympics, this was seen as a crisis, and the nation was so shocked that the then prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, i nitiated a radical government plan to improve the country's sporting achievements.

Rob de Castella, the former marathon world record holder who is now one of Australia's top sports administrators, says Australia had become complacent: "For too long we'd been relying on the amateur approach, hoping that youthful enthusiasm and the good climate would throw up top-class athletes. We'd grown used to having the likes of Herb Elliott, Ron Clark and John Newcombe beat everyone."

Five years after the dismal failure in Montreal, the Australian Institute of Sport was started. On a 160-acre site on the outskirts of Canberra, hundreds of Australia's best athletes in dozens of different sports rub broad shoulders with the country's top sports scientists, psychologists and medics. It is the hub of a federal and state sports programme whose principal aim is to produce elite sportsmen and women. Each year 700 sports scholarships are handed out to young people in the hope that they will be the gold medallists and world champions of the future. And it is working. Australia swept the board at the Commonwealth Games in Canada last summer, and they are world champions at rugby union, rugby league, hockey and a host of individual sports.

It is because of this record of achievement that Iain Sproat, the Minister for Sport, has been in Australia for the last week. Success has come at a price. The Australian Government spends about £50m a year on sport - the same as the British Government, but spread across a population a third of the size.

Sproat's odyssey through Australia's sporting citadels took him from the New South Wales Academy at Narrabeen (where, incidentally, Linford Christie chose to train in the winter months), through the Sports Institute in Canberra and on to the Australian Cricket Academy in Adelaide. "I am here," he said, "to unashamedly steal Australia's best ideas and take them back to Britain."

He is not the first or last to make a pilgrimage Down Under. The same week, the Australian Institute for Sport was expecting a visit from a French Government delegation and another from Indonesia. Sproat did not travel with an entirely open mind, he had already decided that there needs to be a programme of excellence in British sport and he has begun to re-organise the Sports Council to this end.

He is contemptuous of voices in Britain which say concentrating on the elite end is not the answer. Martin Stephen, the headmaster of Manchester Grammar School which turned out the current England cricket captain, Michael Atherton and batsman, John Crawley, believes the objective may be right but the elite approach is wrong - "a flower grows from its roots up, not its petals down," he said.