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Why has Australia’s Olympic team been in decline since Sydney 2000 and what should be done to fix it?

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The Sydney 2000 Olympic Games was a defining moment in Australia’s sporting history.

Perhaps it was Cathy Freeman’s 400m victory or the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay — 16 iconic gold medal moments made Sydney “the best Olympic Games ever”.

With a population of just 18.2 million people at the time, Australia produced 58 medals, a feat no other developing nation had done before or since.

For the past four Olympic games, Australia’s position on the medal tally has declined significantly, falling as low as 10th place in Rio 2016.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has confirmed Brisbane as preferred host of the games in 2032, giving the Queensland Academy of Sport (QAS) an 11-year runway to overhaul its high performance sporting system.

Game plan for Brisbane 2032

Chelsea Warr, the former director of performance with UK Sport, was a key figure behind Great Britain’s success in London 2012 and Rio 2016.

“In 1996, [Great Britain was] 36th on the medal table and by the time London 2012 rolled around and then onto Rio 2016, [we were] second on the medal table,” she said.

The QAS has appointed Ms Warr to increase Australia’s medal-winning chances for Brisbane 2032.

“The opportunity to host and hold a home Olympic Games we all know is just transformational — not just for the state but for the nation — and you know the eyes of the world will be watching,” she said.

The QAS has appointed Chelsea Warr to increase Australia’s medal-winning chances for Brisbane 2032.(

ABC News: Mark Leonardi

)

Ms Warr has gathered the best minds in sports high performance to develop a game plan for the next 11 years.

“If we look at the profile of medal winners from Rio of the Australian team, 75 per cent of them were already ranked top 10 in the world four years before Rio,” she said.

“We need to be really ready by 2028 in real terms if we’re going to have a really good home games in 2032.”

Promising young talent

Athletes like skateboarder Haylie Powell have already been identified as promising young talent.

At 15 years old, Powell could possibly debut alongside her sport at the Tokyo games later this year.  

Headshot of Skateboarder Haylie Powell
At 15, skateboarder Haylie Powell could possibly debut at the Tokyo games later this year.(

ABC News: Mark Leonardi

)

The young Olympic-hopeful will be 26 in 2032 and said “it’d be really cool because [Brisbane is] only an hour from my house”.

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Brisbane skateboarder Haylie Powell has been identified as promising young talent at 15 years old.(ABC News)

The optimal medal-winning age varies from sport to sport and Ms Warr said setting targets had been a big focus.

“How old do you actually need to be in order to develop in time, in the timeframes to become a world beater by 2032?” she posed.

Wheelchair basketballer Jordan Bartley is already 26 years-old but could still be playing well into his late 30s.

“It’s pretty incredible if you think about it — there’s nothing quite like playing on your home soil in front of your family and friends,” he said. 

Wheelchair basketballer Jordan Bartley
Jordan Bartley is already 26 but could still be playing well into his late 30s.(

Supplied: Queensland Academy of Sport

)

But athletes are just the first step of the high-performance puzzle.

Need for strong mentors

The QAS will launch a two-year scholarship program later this year to begin fostering Australia’s future coaches.

Benn Lees has been coaching elite water polo in Australia for almost 30 years, but fears young up-and-coming coaches could be falling through the cracks in the current system.

“It’s something that we have identified at a state level here in Queensland that we need to really work to develop a strong mentor program,” he said.

That was how Mr Lees learnt his craft in the early days, based out of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in Canberra.

Headshot of Water polo coach Benn Lees
Benn Lees has been coaching elite water polo in Australia for almost 30 years.(

ABC News: Brittney Kleyn

)

The QAS is also attempting to seek out the next generation of sports practitioners, the best minds in sports medicine and science, to optimise athlete development and performance.

“They all work together like a Formula 1 team around the athletes and the coaches to enable them to optimise their performances,” Ms Warr said.

Early talent identification

The QAS has also hired Australian professional beach volleyball player and Olympic gold medallist Natalie Cook last year as its director of elite success and partnerships.

Cook was born and raised in north Queensland and has already been touring the region with Ms Warr, as part of the QAS’ early talent identification program.

Beach volleyball player Nat Cook serves at a match at London 2012 Olympic Games.
Australian beach volleyball player Nat Cook competing at the London 2012 Olympic Games.(

Reuters: Marcelo del Pozo

)

Looking at new sports

The QAS is also looking to identify sports not yet on the Olympic agenda, with the IOC likely to change the portfolio again, before 2032.

Skateboarding, BMX freestyle and surfing are among the new sports to debut in Tokyo.

“What we’re seeing is the introduction of a lot of what they call these action sports … which is to try and engage more of a youth appeal to the Olympics going forward,” Ms Warr said.

She said the difficulty would be adapting to these new sports, which historically had developed athletes through an organic, self-coaching model.

“We watch the Youth Olympics quite carefully to see what might be on the horizon, so for example we know that high diving might be one of those sports that come on in the future,” Ms Warr said.

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