Last October, still smarting more than a year after the 2012 London Olympic Games produced Australia’s lowest medal haul in two decades, the Australian Institute of Sport announced a plan to boost the likelihood of a golden future.
The first AIS Sports Draft would trawl the nation and provide a fast-tracking opportunity for selected athletes who aspired to become Olympians or had the potential to transfer from one Olympic sport to another. The best of them would be trained by world-leading coaches and join national programs aimed at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro and 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
Neatly positioned between these two events is the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, home to London gold medallists including Sally Pearson (hurdling), Melanie Schlanger (swimming) and Mat Belcher (sailing), as well as to Griffith University, where initiatives such as the Griffith Sports College (GSC) are already delivering results that augur well for Australia’s sporting future.
Yet as much as the GSC is helping athletes rise to the pinnacle of their various sports, just as important is its mission to ensure they experience success beyond the competitive arena.
Manager of the GSC, Olympic gold medal-winning rower Duncan Free (Beijing, 2008), says that in sport, as in life, balance is crucial. Accordingly, he ponders whether today’s young elite athletes require a new approach towards achieving a successful sport-life balance.
“All sports have their ups and downs and several factors can be influential in that regard,” says Mr Free. “When successful senior athletes retire, for example, it may take a little time for the younger ones to step up.
“However, what I have noticed more recently is the effect of the many distractions facing the new generation of elite athletes. It’s certainly a different culture to my day.
“With all the sponsorship dollars, the big money endorsements, media exposure and public adulation on offer, in some cases this can lead to a skewed sense of priority and that can come at the expense of performance. Was London 2012 an example of that?
“Being distracted means an athlete is paying less attention to what they’re actually meant to be doing, whether that is running or swimming fast, jumping high, scoring goals, hitting boundaries and so on.
“There are lots of confused athletes out there and they need guidance, especially in their decision-making and in the setting of goals and priorities in sport and life.”
To that end, the GSC pursues balance by fostering elite athletes and helping them devote time to training and competition while studying. This integration of sporting and academic aspirations underpins a signed agreement between Griffith University and the Australian Sports Commission.
This year the GSC has more than 350 elite athletes across 40 sports, including athletics, swimming, cycling, netball, the football codes, lawn bowls, triathlon, surfing and surf lifesaving, hockey, boxing, water polo and more. All members are studying for tertiary degrees, with Health, Education and Business the most popular.
Among the GSC’s top recent performers are: swimmer Cameron McEvoy; surf lifesaver Brodie Moir; cyclists Chloe Hosking and David Edwards, who is doing Honours in Psychology; triathlete Ashleigh Gentle; Australian water polo captain Bronwen Knox; and kayaker Bernie Wallace. The GSC also maintains strong connections with the Gold Coast Titans and Gold Coast Suns and Mr Free says the Commonwealth Games will command increasing attention between now and 2018.
“I am excited by having the Gold Coast host the Commonwealth Games, and I’m especially excited by the number of athletes who will be competing after coming through Griffith University and the Griffith Sports College. It’s an opportunity to support and celebrate our athletes and to engage in this event and its legacy.”
Mr Free firmly believes the GSC is making a difference in the lives of young athletes. Performance results and retention rates would seem to confirm his view.
“For us, the well-being of the athlete is paramount,” he says. “Life can’t be sport and only sport. I know from my own experience that you need a switch, you need something else, and study is an ideal way to complement sport and create options for life after sport.
“The GSC sees its role as adding guidance and value to that important journey.”