Assisting elite sport in Papua New Guinea

400m hurdler, Betty Burua. photo: PNG Athletics Union

Gold medals make the eyes of people around the world twinkle with awe, delight, ambition, pride and a little envy. The eyes of our nearest neighbour twinkle just as brightly and they’ve decided they want to give their athletes the best chance possible of reaching the top of the dais.

Papua New Guinea (PNG) has a tradition of international sporting success going back the 1960s, but has been particularly successful on a regional level. In 2015 PNG won the medal count at the Pacific Games, held in Port Moresby, including 88 Gold medals. But the PNG Olympic Committee (PNGOC) knows that sporting glory at the Olympics and Commonwealth Games is a significant step up and they’re keen to assist the nation get the right structures in place to make the most of its talent.

Griffith University is a proven leader in sports coaching, development, management and medicine and along with University of Technology Sydney (UTS) has teamed up on a project led by the University of Stirling in Scotland to advise the PNGOC on how best to take the next step.

Griffith’s consultation has been led by Professor Kristine Toohey from the Department of Tourism, Sport and Hotel Management in the Griffith Business School. Together with Griffith Sports College Director and former Olympic rower, Duncan Free OAM the pair are assisting to develop a strategic plan for the PNGOC’s high performance area.

“We are finding out, firstly, what they think they need. It’s not about us coming in and telling them what to do, the government has a National Sports Institute in Goroka in the highlands, a high performance unit in Port Moresby and a government organisational structure,” said Professor Toohey.

“They realise they’ve had some success and want to build on those successes and understand they need to be systematic about how they go about it. They have a genuine intent to improve the delivery of their coaching and development.”

Part of the challenge for PNG is transitioning from a system built almost entirely on the energy of passionate volunteers to more well trained local professionals. The system will also need to be self-sustaining so that it doesn’t depend on endless external advisors.

“Their sport organisations will move past the volunteers stage at some point, but it’s how they do that while keeping all those fantastic people engaged. High performance sport is a very challenging thing to maintain over time while continuing to build capacity through the ups and downs,” Professor Toohey said.

The University of Stirling has been working with PNG for the last 3 to 4 years across activities ranging from supervising Masters research projects, to holding elite training camps. Professor Leigh Robinson is the lead researcher.

“PNG has good sporting infrastructure and a very encouraging commitment to build elite sporting success. It is a good extension of our previous work to be involved in this project. Linking with Kristine and Duncan (through Griffith) provides a great chance to improve high performance sport in PNG,” she said.

Gold Coast’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games in 2018 is shining a light on the vast array of top-shelf, sports-based research at Griffith University and Professor Toohey is keen to spread the impact of that research excellence into the region.

“We are and have always been a regionally focussed university, connected to our neighbours, partnering in research and sharing the benefits. PNG is our nearest neighbour and we should be part of building their capacities. It benefits everybody.

“I love these kind of commercial consultancies, it gets our research out into the world where it can do the most good. If we can help PNG it behoves us to do it,” Professor Toohey said.