MONTREAL has been so distant from Canberra in almost every way except for cold weather.
But it was in the French-speaking Canadian city during the 1976 Summer Olympics where Australia’s hopes for success went stone cold.
For the first time in 40 years since Berlin, one of only three nations to go to every modern Olympic Games came home without a gold medal.
The reception on the arrival back to Australia for the 178 Olympians – its third-largest number at the time – had turned positively frosty after just four years earlier winning eight gold in Munich.
An unimpressed Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, was spurred on immediately to set up the Australian Institute of Sport.
At the AIS opening centred on Canberra, he famously quipped that it is a “clear sign that we are no longer going to allow the world to pass us by”.
It was a strong message to the world that sport matters to Australians, influencing and inspiring their health, prosperity and culture while bringing together its people and instilling great pride as a nation.
That was 1981 and 40 years on this month, the AIS has since produced more than 60 per cent of Australia’s 86 gold medals at nine summer Olympics and its only five winter gold from 2002 through to 2010 Games.
The AIS claims to more broadly influence the progress and professionalism of Australian sport to inspire some of the biggest moments over four decades.
From John Aloisi’s clinching goal that returned the Socceroos to the 2006 World Cup to Cadel Evans winning the 2011 Tour de France and arguably the biggest of Cathy Freeman’s win in that race for the 400-metre gold at Sydney 2000.
The AIS do things differently now, building on its rich history.
Races are not won by standing still and like the early pioneers, they are continually looking for ways to progress Australian sport.
The modern-day AIS is evolving to fit the long-term vision first outlined in 1981 by Mr Fraser.
He spoke of ambition to replicate the sport institute outside of Canberra, providing greater opportunities for aspiring Australian talent.
It was once a one of a kind, but now there is a sport institute or academies in every state and territory as part of a national institute network.
The network signed a unified deal in 2019 towards a national high performance sport strategy that the AIS hopes will become “Australian sport’s greatest competitive advantage”.
Leading swimming coach Dan Talbot, who passed away in November last year, always took on an altruistic approach to Australian sport after first coaching Olympic swimmers in 1956 before officially becoming the national coach for the 1964 Games in Tokyo.
The advocate for the AIS envisaged the long-term strategy of the national institute network at the Canberra opening when 150 athletes from eight sports arrived in 1981.
“It may be in the future that the concept of an Institute of Sport has to be decentralised throughout Australia to provide for everybody. I think when that comes, Australia is well on the way to being a major sporting nation,” Talbot said.
Now there are more than 2200 institute members scattered across Australia.
While at last count, some 8858 athletes have been awarded AIS scholarships.
“You are an important part of the AIS story. Memories will no doubt be shared this year with #AIS40,” AIS chief executive Peter Conde said on reflection.
The AIS started out even without a pool and the first scholarship holders trained in public outdoor facilities with everyday lap swimmers in the Canberra suburb of Deakin.
The geographic reach early in its history expanded to decentralising programs.
Hockey has long been in Perth, cycling the same in Adelaide, diving in Brisbane and sailing in Sydney. Even a European training centre has been established in Italy for Aussies.
The AIS have recently delivered a $6.5m water jump in Brisbane for aspiring winter athletes to train at home. It has also invested in an aerodynamic wind tunnel in Adelaide.
But not that the potential for development of AIS facilities, where it all began in Canberra, has been totally forgotten amid negotiations with the federal government.
The AIS athletics track has been re-surfaced, widely considered the fastest in Australia.
“But clearly, the AIS is far more than bricks and mortar,” Conde said.
The AIS is pouring in more than $145 million a year towards 38 high-performance sporting organisations and their athletes that extends to a 40 per cent funding boost since 2013 to support Paralympians alone.
Despite its critics including former director Robert de Castella, the AIS claims to be at the forefront of innovation, including research into athlete health and performance and exploring new frontiers like artificial intelligence and data analysis.
“We still strive to win and we still care about athletes. Our approach to athlete mental health, wellbeing and community engagement is second to none globally,” Conde said.
That comes in the form of a mental health referral network that was created in 2018 and is available to support almost 2900 sports figures.
As its latest milestone falls during the postponed Olympic and Paralympic year, the AIS is happy to take a breath and reflect back on has been achieved.
“Thank you to all who have contributed to the AIS history and to all who aspire to be part of its successful future,” Conde said.
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