Why was Australia so successful at the Tokyo 2020 & Beijing 2022 Olympics?
Olympic fever has well and truly been in the air over the last two years. Thanks to another type of fever (the spicy cough) we were fortunate enough to witness a Summer and Winter games inside the same 12 months. And what a 12 months it was for the Australian Olympic programs. First came Tokyo 2020. Held in the midst of a global pandemic and widespread lockdowns, much of the nation were glued to their couches, living vicariously through our athletes successes, and didn't they deliver. Australia produced its 3rd most prolific medal tally, after more than decade of declining performances to inspire a nation craving for success as the world around them imploded.
Then there was Beijing 2022. Held in a city not known for its snowfall (90% of snow at the games was manmade) or affinity for winter sports, you can understand why the forgotten sibling of Olympic games garners less attention than the Summer edition. Additionally, having the Australian broadcast primarily shown on channel 7's, 14th sister station at ungodly hours of the day did not help to increase viewership or awareness of the games. Despite not being in the forefront of many Australian's minds, our Winter Olympians well and truly came to the party to do our nation proud as their summer compatriots did 12 months before. As they produced Australia's greatest ever winter Olympics performance bringing home 4 medals (1 gold, 2 silver and 1 bronze).
Following our success at the most recent Summer and Winter Olympics, it lead me to question how we (Australia) got to this point? After a decade or more of declining Olympic performances, how did both our summer and winter Olympians turn it all around in the space of 4-5 years?
the winning edge
To truly understand Australia’s change in fortune at the 2020 Tokyo and Beijing 2022 Olympics we must step 29 years in the past to September 24th, 1993. This was the date that Sydney was awarded the hosting rights for the 2000 Olympic games and the day that Olympic sport changed forever in Australia. While, hosting the Olympic games comes with the significant pressure of delivering an extraordinary spectacle and sporting event for the world to see. There is also an expectation that the host nations athletes also deliver, by making it to the podium and/or leading the medal tally.
As a result, a significant level of funding and resources were poured into the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) and Olympic Sports in the lead up to the Sydney 2000 games to ensure Australia brought home the gold. After outstanding medal returns at the Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004 Olympics, Australia’s Gold and overall medal tally began to decline. With fledgling returns at Beijing 2008 and London 2012 executives were forced to re-think the Olympic model in Australia in search of a return to the podium.
The centralised AIS system that was created to propel the successes of Sydney and Athens was found to be lacking the punch required to maintain/grow our success on the world stage. In its place came the “Winning Edge.” At the executive level, the Winning Edge was a 10-year plan spanning from 2012-2022 with the following goals set to produce a more efficient and innovative Olympic sport model in Australia:
1. Introduce a sharper, more robust national funding and accountability model
2. Help sports reduce costs/complexity and grow their capacity
3. Invest dividends from efficiencies into 3 key areas
- Better direct support for athletes
- Greater investment in coaches and high-performance personnel
- Renewed focus on unearthing and nurturing Australia’s talent
4. Refocus the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) to grow its role as Australia’s national high-performance agency
While, at the high-performance level the following performance targets were set:
· Top 5 at the Summer Olympics & Paralympics
· Top 15 at the Winter Olympics & Paralympics
· #1 at the Commonwealth Games
· 20+ World Champions per year
As part of this model ownership was given back to the National Sporting Organisations (NSO’S) and State Institutes of Sport (SIS’s) to run the high-performance programs for their own athletes by the end of 2013. In short, leaving NSO’s and SIS’s with 3 years to get it together to prepare their athletes for the Rio games. In hindsight, it is really not surprising that with this level of organisational change three years out from the Olympics that Australia did not perform optimally at Rio 2016. With Australia’s overall medal tally and performance following the introduction of the Winning Edge dropped from 35 medals including 8 gold in London 2012 to 29 medals including 8 gold at Rio 2016.
Did we really expect the Winning Edge to effect change so quickly though? More importantly did the Australian Sports Commission (ASC) think that 3 years was sufficient time to rollout such widespread change and still elicit a worthwhile change to the medal tally? Without the luxury of time to iron out any teething problems, those involved essentially just had to roll with the punches and hope for the best. Australian’s are our own harshest critics but as fans I believe if we truly understood the change that was being undertaken, we would have taken a lower medal tally if we knew what was to come in Tokyo 2020.
WINNING EDGE - THE UPSIDE
With the power of hindsight, we can look back on the post Rio 2016 phase of the Winning Edge program and safely say that on a performance level it was a great success. The Tokyo 2020 games resulted in a total of 46 medals (equal with Beijing 2008), including a record equalling 17 gold medals, tied with Athens 2004 for our best gold medal tally ever. So, what resulted in this remarkable turnaround from a miserly return at the London and Rio games?
In my opinion much of this was a result of the change to the high-performance services for Olympic sports as part of the Winning Edge program. To understand what this actually means I should first explain what I mean by "high-performance services."
High-Performance Services - the plethora of staff (i.e analysts, biomechanists, technical coaches, s&c coaches, doctors, nutritionists, sport psychologists, physiotherapists - to name a few) and physical facilities (ie. gyms, fields, tracks, pools etc.) provided to assist athletes to optimise their performance.
You might be asking at this point, how did giving the NSO's and SIS's the responsibility to develop and train our best athletes and putting the world leading AIS and its staff on indefinite standby result in improved performance? Well, the beauty of returning responsibility to the NSO's and SIS's was that instead of only providing these high-performance services for the athletes lucky enough to selected to train at the AIS, these services would now be provided to all athletes within the SIS's and 'many' NSO's.
Note, that I say 'many' NSO's, this is because how NSO's receive funding and spend it on athlete/coach development is a whole other can of worms! However, thankfully our SIS's provide these high-performance services for all Olympic sports.
The first phase of this transition was to ensure that the SIS's were properly equipped to deliver these programs at the same standard as the AIS as quickly as possible. While, the SIS's had existing facilities, many were outdated and not capable of delivering the same level of program as the AIS. Unfortunately, implementing a new framework, upgrading infrastructure and up-skilling staff takes time and money. While money wasn't really an issue with huge amounts of government funding injected into the program, implementing a framework, constructing new facilities and training staff takes time. As a result, the program was never going to be able to deliver change for the 2016 Rio games. By the time the media had crucified the nations performance post Rio, the Winning Edge wheels were well and truly in motion. Facilities had been upgraded, staff were trained and the framework had been fully implemented. The SIS's and participating NSO's were now ready to begin the quest for Commonwealth and Olympic success.
This whole process was like planting a tree. You can dig a hole and plant it but without time and care it'll likely die but with the appropriate care it will prosper and establish strong roots. By investing some time and care into the program the roots became well established and were ready to filter down the system. No longer did you have to be in the national squad or top echelon of athletes in your sport to receive elite high-performance training services. Equipped with high quality facilities and staff the SIS's were now able to also provide these services to their own state based and junior athletes. This is not to say they didn't have programs in place beforehand, but with greater resources they now had the capacity to service a larger talent pool and produce more medal winning/podium athletes. As existing state based athletes could now be identified within their own state/region and receive a similar level of care and attention to an Olympian.
5 years into its existence came objective number 1. Dominate the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth games. Much like the Sydney Olympics the weight of a nation was on the shoulders of our athletes with the expectation to finish atop the medal tally with a rain of gold. Despite the level of competition at the Commonwealth Games being inferior to the Olympics this was the first sign that Winning Edge program may bear the fruits it was designed too. Australia topped the medal tally with 198, 80 gold, 59 silver and 59 bronze, a whopping 35 gold medals more than their nearest competitor (England). While topping the medal tally was the goal, the prospect of having unearthing a new generation world class athletes two years out from Tokyo 2020 spoke volumes of the Winning Edge model.
Fast forward another 3 years. The piece de resistance of the Winning Edge model was upon us, Tokyo 2020! The roots of the model had been well and truly entrenched into our Olympic sports and the opportunity to reclaim the success that we had all been salivating for had finally arrived, albeit a year later than planned. And didn't it deliver! 46 medals, 17 of which were gold, our equal best gold medal tally at an Olympics. Now was this all because of the Winning Edge program, probably, no definitely not! However, what the Winning Edge model did do is put the systems in place to increase the talent pool of potential medal winners by:
Identifying more talent within Olympic Sports/Events using the pooled resources of NSO's and SIS's (ie. building from the grassroots up)
Providing more athletes with high-performance coaching/support services
Additionally, the extra year of preparation created by the postponement of the 2020 games until 2021 could be seen to have also greatly assisted Australia's performance. As this allowed for our new generation of athletes to have an extra year of preparation/development and also allowed for some that may have missed Tokyo 2020 due to injury to recover and compete in the 2021 games.
At the end of the day you still also need exceptional athletes to be able to win gold medals. I believe Australia had an excellent crop of athletes that would have been successful even without the Winning Edge model but the overall team success (number of silver and bronze medals) would not have been to the same extent. It is likely that with the implementation of the model, more of our "second string" athletes and those within our lesser known sports were better funded and resourced to perform optimally (thankfully funding models were amended post 2016 to allow for this, but I will cover this in more detail below). As when the system as a whole is more nurturing, more success can be achieved, and that's what I believe happened for Australia at Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022.
WINNING EDGE - THE DOWNSIDE
Implementing a model like the Winning Edge was always going to come with its upsides but there were also a number of flaws and downsides that nearly derailed its rollout entirely. The most significant and publicly addressed downside of the Winning Edge model was the funding system devised to allocate money to each of the sports under its banner.
So why was this funding model such a downside? Well, there are a couple of reasons:
The primary reason was the inception of a Performance Based Funding system. Under the original Winning Edge Model it was decided that funding would not be evenly distributed across the Olympic sports based on factors such as the number of athletes/staff or facility/travel costs like at the AIS. Instead, the Winning Edge funding system was going to be based on performance KPI’s, otherwise known as Winning Edge targets/milestones set by the Australian Sports Commission (ASC). Looking from the outside in this may not sound too detrimental. The better you play, the higher you place, the more money you get! It's no different to an individual athlete playing on the ATP/WTA or PGA/WPGA tours your income is performance based, right?
Well not exactly. The vast majority of Olympic sports and the athletes competing in them are amateur/semi-professional. The key difference is that these athletes are not paid to train or compete. Many work part/full-time or study in addition to their training to ensure that they can afford to live. While, athletes with larger profiles often resort to signing personal sponsorships/endorsements to cover expenses. They also receive little to no performance bonuses, with athletes only receiving cash bonuses if they win a medal. At Tokyo 2020 Australian athletes received, $20,000 per gold medal, $15,000 per silver medal and $10,000 per bronze medal. Not a bad pay day if you were Emma McKeon (4 x Gold & 3 x Bronze) who took home a casual $110,000 in medal bonuses (plus a few personal endorsement deals I'm sure) but for those who didn't make the podium they walk home with $0.
The pressure to perform as an Olympian is already there. Many of these athletes have devoted a lifetime to training to get the opportunity to don the green and gold and represent their country with the hopes of making their friends, family and country proud. However, as part of returning control to the individual NSO's and SIS's. The lesser known sports propped up by the AIS and its extensive resources weren't so fortunate as they were left to be run by their independent sporting bodies, many of which were barely existent, let alone capable of providing the same level of service as the AIS. As a result, our Olympians were competing with the additional pressure of having to meet a performance KPI (ie. medal count or overall position) set by some suit in Canberra to save the financial security and future of their sport. With the simple equation. Succeed and your career and sport lives to fight another day. Fail, and yours and the next generation of athletes dreams of Olympic gold could disappear into thin air.
Following Rio 2016 the Winning Edge funding concept was quietly scrapped due to backlash over the pressure placed on athletes and sports to reach their KPI medal count/position or face major funding cuts. With critics, such as AOC president John Coates arguing that this model didn’t focus enough on nurturing the development of future athletes that ensure continued success. However, the revisions made to the Winning Edge funding model post Rio 2016 model came with significant drawbacks.
a. Year-on-Year Funding - funding is allocated on a year-on-year basis and therefore does not allow for adequate long-term planning (ie. staffing requirements, financial needs over a Olympic/Commonwealth 4-yr cycle)
b. Contestable Funding - large portions of funding are contestable and require onerous applications. This in itself presents high administrative and financial burden to smaller sports who simply can't compete against the better resourced sports
c. "Picking Winners" - the funding model still tries to “picks winners” and continues to cut funding to sports based on a lean Olympic cycle or two. Therefore, continuing to prop up commercially viable sports and to failing assist Tier 2 or 3 sports.
With the Winning Edge program coming to an end in 2022, the AOC & Commonwealth Games Australia commission worked with key industry stakeholders to develop the Sport | Powering Australia's Future (10+10) report. This document was submitted to the Federal Government in late 2021 with recommendations for changes to the funding system high on the priority list in the lead up to the 2032 Brisbane games. The key recommendations included:
Allocation of funding over a 4-year (Olympic cycle)
Prioritisation of podium success
Sport categorisation (foundation, prospective, contributing)
Investment pools (baseline & contestable)
NSO submissions (sport assessment/pitch for funding)
Assessment criteria matrix
1 year into the 10+10 era it is still too early to see any visible change from the program or funding recommendations but with Paris 2024 just around the corner and Brisbane 2032 closing in keep an eye on this space.
If you are interested in reading into the 10+10 in more detail check out the link below:
I think the important thing to remember in all this is that the AIS worked. It was developed to generate wide scale success at the Sydney 2000 games and did so, even flowing onto the 2004 Athens games. However, after doing what it was designed to do, the program was left to run to its own devices without any clear direction or goal, there was no more Sydney 2000 to strive for. This is not to say they stopped caring about the Olympics but it was no longer about showing off our country on the world stage, it was simply about the sports.
The Winning Edge while not immediately successful was the shot of adrenalin our Olympic program needed but its lifespan has now come to an end. Will the 10+10 program be as successful as the AIS leading into Sydney 2000? Who knows? But with the confirmation that Brisbane is hosting the 2032 summer games, don't be shocked that we go full circle and return to the tried and tested AIS model to ensure success on home soil!
Interested in hearing more about this topic? Tune into our podcast episode where we discuss Australia's Olympic success and the factors behind it.
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about the author
Strength and Conditioning Coach
M.App.Sp.Sci, ESSA L1 Sports Scientist, ASCA L1 Coach
Available for individualised online coaching