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One year to Rio Olympics

Australians are always up for a challenge, and no-one exemplifies the national can-do spirit better than our elite athletes.

04 Aug 2015

Comment by Australian Sports Commission Chair John Wylie as the one-year-to-go mark rolls over for the start of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. 

In almost 120 years of participation at the modern Olympic Games, only four times has Australia finished top five on the medal tally.

It’s an interesting statistic to think about today, as we mark one year to the 2016 Rio Olympics.

After a relative underperformance at the London Olympics where Australia finished 10th on the medal table, the Australian Sports Commission (ASC) in partnership with the sector set a new 10-year national game plan for our high-performance sport, called Australia’s Winning Edge 2012-2022. 

We proudly set ambitious targets for Australian achievement: a top-five position in the Summer Olympics and Paralympics, and 20 world champions at any given time.  

Great achievements don’t usually just happen, they start with ambitious goals. 

Our top-five Olympic goal was always a medium-term not short-term target. To achieve it in Rio will, in many respects require our athletes to defy history, as well as the natural weight of larger countries with much larger populations and money to spend.

Australia first achieved a top-five finish in Melbourne 1956, when we finished third on the medal tally. Success flowed on to Rome 1960, where Australia was fifth.

It wasn’t until Australia next hosted the Olympics, in Sydney 2000, that we were back in the top five on the medal tally again. Like Melbourne in 1956, momentum again carried through to the following Games, Athens 2004, where Australia finishing fourth to equal the Sydney result.

These are the four occasions Australia has finished top five on the Olympic medal tally in the 27 Games we have contested since 1896, when Edwin Flack was this nation’s first and sole representative.

World sport has never been more accessible or competitive than today. Countries continue to invest more in innovation and success. Now, by standing still, you only risk going backwards.

But Australians are always up for a challenge, and no-one exemplifies the national can-do spirit better than our elite athletes.

These athletes make incredible personal sacrifices to compete in a single event every four years that may define their sporting careers. Who can forget Kieren Perkins’ against-the-odds win from lane eight in Atlanta in 1996 or Catherine Freeman carrying the hopes of our nation around the track with her to victory in Sydney in 2000?

We owe it to our brave and ambitious young athletes to give them all the support we can to help them achieve their dreams, which we as a nation love to share.  That’s the reason that theASC is investing more than $650 million in our high performance sporting system in the four years between London and Rio.

It’s also the reason we’ve changed and reinvigorated many aspects of our high performance system since London through Australia’s Winning Edge, to sharpen our competitiveness against the best in the world.

We’ve set bold targets for achievement, linked our investment to goals, given responsibility back to sports to run their own high performance programs and asked for greater accountability from them in return.

We’ve renewed the AIS, formed a much closer partnership with the Australian Olympic Committee, substantially reduced our operating costs and re-invested the savings in athletes, coaches and high performance staff.

We’ve tried to get away from a short term four-year Olympic cycle mindset, and are now tracking about 2000 athletes, conscious it typically takes eight to 10 years to find and develop an Olympic medallist. Our focus is on Rio, but already there are plans for Tokyo 2020 and beyond.

We think this packed agenda is starting to produce dividends for Australian sport and we expect to see some evidence of that in Rio as a mid-term report card.

Our swimmers are in a very different and better place than they were in the lead-up to London, our cycling and sailing teams continue to shine and many other sports are on the up. 

We will be very disappointed if we don’t improve on London, given the way our athletes are currently performing. But this is very much an art not a science and a lot of unpredictable and new factors will come into play in Rio.

A potential surprise to keep an eye on in Rio will be the performance of New Zealand, who have mobilised an effective gold-medal campaign based around a small number of sports, in particular rowing, cycling, sailing and rugby sevens.  In rowing the Kiwis have surpassed GB as the number one nation and they could win multiple boat classes if current world rankings hold.

If this happens, our trans-Tasman neighbours could give Australia a real run for its money on the gold-medal table. Now there’s a challenge to our athletes!

To all who will proudly don green and gold as our representatives in Rio, we salute you, and send our best wishes.  You embody the continuous search for excellence that is elite sport, and the Olympic Motto: Citius. Altius. Fortius: Faster. Higher. Stronger.

Originally published in The Australian

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