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Kieren Perkins delivers National Press Club address

05 October 2022

Australian Sports Commission CEO Kieren Perkins OAM has addressed the National Press Club in Canberra.

Kieren Perkins stands at a lectern in front of a naitonal press club backdrop
Kieren Perkins spoke about the ASC's vision for sport in Australia for the next decade and beyond.

Mr Perkins spoke about the ASC's new Strategic Vision for the Green and Gold decade to the Brisbane 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games and beyond.

The following is a copy of his speech.

I pay my respects to the Traditional Owners of country, to Elders past and present, and I acknowledge the valuable contribution Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make to Australian society and sport.

Thank you for this opportunity to address you all today, to the dignitaries and friends of the National Press Club, and especially Chief Executive Maurice Reilly, President Laura Tingle and Press Club directors for your kind invitation.

Sport has been incredible to me.

Growing up in Brisbane, I had a go at everything: Football, Aussie Rules, Tennis, Gymnastics, Cross Country-running, even equestrian.

I had my first swimming lessons at school. I wasn’t very good at first, but I really enjoyed it. A big part of that was because of supportive parents and then, eventually, a coach. There was never any overbearing focus on results, the focus was on fun and enjoyment. They just helped me to understand the value of consistent improvement and making progress.

Back then, I had no idea I would end up representing Australia as an athlete for over a decade. To compete around the world, and to set world records.

To savor that amazing feeling of standing at the top of an Olympic podium with a gold medal around my neck. To hear the national anthem play - not just for me - but for my family, friends, community and everyone who supported me every step of the way.

I was lucky, as an athlete, to be part of the bid team for the Sydney 2000 Olympics and Paralympics. It was an enormous motivating factor to continue my own swimming career, and it was an absolute honour to finish by competing at a home Games.

Sydney 2000, at the time, was widely regarded as the best Games ever. I bet everyone in this room still remembers where they were that night Cathy won, collapsing to the track with jubilation and relief. I was one of the lucky ones to be in the Olympic stadium. It was phenomenal.

I’m beginning with these personal memories today, not to try to relive past glories, but to show how much Australian sport has meant to me, so that I can better explain how optimistic I am about its future.

Because right now, standing here as the new CEO of the Australian Sports Commission, I’m more excited than ever to be a representative for Australian sport.

I truly believe we are entering one of the greatest periods of opportunity in Australia’s sporting history.

The 2032 Brisbane Olympic and Paralympic Games gives us a clear focus.
We’ve begun a Green and Gold decade of major events on home soil that will showcase the very best of sport.

In the past few weeks, we’ve hosted the UCI Road World Cycling Championships in Wollongong and the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup in Sydney.

This month we begin the Men’s T20 Cricket World Cup. Next year the FIFA women’s football World Cup. In 2026 the Commonwealth Games in Victoria. In 2027 the Netball and Men’s Rugby World Cups. And so much more.

The runway to 2032 is a gift for this generation. It’s an opportunity to unite, inspire and build the nation through sport.

It is a defining era and we - as a collective sporting industry and as a nation – must step up and be responsible for the results that come.

Our commitment and actions right now will directly shape success over the next decade, and well beyond. These results can be influential and far-reaching.

This opportunity can also be our impetus for change. Doing nothing, maintaining the status quo, is not an option. If Australian sport looks the same in 2032 as it does today, we will have missed our assignment. We will have lost.

This is our time … to elevate Australian sport and to create long-term sustainable success.

So today I’m proud to launch the Australian Sports Commission’s strategic vision for the next decade and beyond.

Our vision is that 'sport has a place for everyone and delivers results that make Australia proud'.

We are setting a mission to lead, support and provide opportunities for all communities to be involved in sport, while growing elite success and representation, inspiring future generations.

We have some goals:

  • lead and enable the world’s best sporting system
  • involve more Australians in sport at all levels
  • and drive innovation in sport.

This is just a short summary. Our most important job will be to put these words into action. Any game plan in sport is only as good as the deliver that comes from it.

And the reality is that for Australia to establish the world’s best sporting system, none of us here will be able to win alone. But if we can all be part of this together, we will achieve remarkable things. Not just for sport, but for the whole of the country.

Can I be clear from the outset that when I reference “sport” I am referring to the entire sport sector. We are fortunate in this country to have sporting codes with incredibly strong economic models backed by broadcast and commercial deals.

For many Australians, these major codes are the first thing that come to mind when we think of sport, but they do not always represent the array of sports that make up the whole sector and we require a united approach to achieve the success that I believe we’re capable of.

I want to draw further attention to two key phrases from our strategic vision.

The first one is this: to involve more Australians in sport.

The word involve is used deliberately. It doesn’t say more Australians playing sport – that’s an obvious outcome we are always seeking.

But if we can involve more Australians in sport, in whatever way or role they choose, then we can positively influence and enrich the lives of more Australians through sport.

We know that the majority of Australians value sport, it’s fundamental to many of our lives. But the immense value sport provides to Australia – beyond the sporting arena itself - is not acknowledged as much as it should be.

Modelling in the 2017 Intergenerational Review of Australian Sport estimated that every dollar invested in sport returned seven dollars in benefits to the nation. It’s estimated sport’s economic contribution is equivalent to 2 to 3 per cent of GDP.

Sport can be a winner in every sense, across multiple areas.

We know being involved in sport contributes to improved physical and mental health, relieving pressure on the health system.

There are also so many personal and community benefits.

Sport can encourage social cohesion and increase national pride. Sport improves cognitive development and helps uplift productivity. Imagine the possibilities if we can strengthen the collaboration between sport and education.

Sport delivers direct economic impact through infrastructure, tourism, international relations, commercial benefits, innovation. Not to mention a sporting workforce that is boosted by the largest volunteer-base of any industry in the country – around 3 million passionate Australians give their time without financial gain because they believe in the power of sport.

I cannot think of one single industry that would not benefit from a greater involvement with sport and the halo effect of Australia having the world’s best sporting system.

As the nation continues to recover from the global pandemic, sport can be even more influential in reinvigorating Australian communities.

Involving more Australians in sport is one challenge, keeping them engaged is the next. This is where our sector needs to adapt.

Our kids are still taking-up sport early in life, but they are disconnecting when they need it most.
Many sports do a fantastic job of developing fun and engaging entry level programs for young children.

The Australian Sports Commission has our own national Sporting Schools program, partnering with 38 sports to deliver free and fun sporting activities for students right across the country.

The peak sport participation age is 12 years, this is where 70 per cent of Australian children are participating. Come mid-teens there is a participation cliff. By the age of 20, only 20 per cent of Australians are still participating in organised sport.

The participation cliff coincides with the point at which sport becomes serious – we start identifying talent and grading teams, training commitments increase, there are ladders and finals, and clubs and coaches shift further away from having fun towards winning.

We can’t lose this “competitive pathway”- it suits a certain small group – but Australian sports need to develop complementary “participation pathways” which are less structured and can better meet the needs of today.

We need to disrupt what community sport looks like. Change our mindset about how sport is delivered and provide opportunities for all.

We need to create environments that engage people in sport for life. That includes evolving our approach to coaching, especially at junior levels.

As I outlined earlier, Australian sport relies on volunteering and the estimated $4 billion dollars of labour value they contribute each year.

Our sector is facing challenges in recruiting, retaining, and fostering an inclusive and fun experience for sport volunteers.

Earlier this year, we established the Sport Volunteer Coalition, comprised of leaders from across sport and government. This group has working together to develop a national action plan to reimagine the future of sport volunteering.

A key focus of this Action Plan is helping recruit and retain the additional 130,000 new volunteers needed over the next decade to deliver our major sporting events successfully.

Now is the time to put volunteering at the heart of sport, to celebrate our current volunteers, reimagine ways to support more people to volunteer and harness the social and economic value volunteering brings. These are all key focus areas for the Australian Sports Commission.

The second key phrase I want to expand on from our strategy is: opportunities for all communities – with an emphasis on the word communities.

I get the irony of what I’m about to say, because it’s coming from a middle-aged white man in a privileged position.

Sport needs to be more open and inclusive.

After coming back into the Australian sport sector after a career in the banking, I’ve been disheartened but not surprised to see that sport looks identical to when I finished as an athlete in 2000.

Last month, Cricket NSW Chair John Knox said his sport is “very white and very male”.
We haven’t progressed and it’s imperative that our sport sector becomes truly representative of a modern, progressive, and diverse Australia.

By 2032, if sport still looks the same as today, I haven’t done my job properly.

I was in Birmingham recently to watch the Commonwealth Games and the Australian team excelled, topping the medal table. As I watched on, I was proud and inspired by the athlete performances.

But I did reflect about whether everyone in Australia saw themselves in the team of about 430 athletes.

This is not a criticism of the team itself, which performed remarkably, it’s just an honest look at the numbers:

53% of athletes on the team were female, yet we know less than 10% of coaches in Australia’s high performance sport system are female.

13% of the Australian team in Birmingham were born overseas, compared to 29% of Australia’s population.

There were a record 10 First Nations athletes in our Commonwealth Games team reflecting just over 2% of the Birmingham team, a positive step. However, First Nations athletes make up more than 10% of the players in the AFL and NRL.

it's clear there needs to be more we can do ...

So what can we do to better to support the progression of First Nations athletes into our Olympic, Paralympic and Commonwealth Games sports as well?

There were also a record 76 Para-athletes in Birmingham, and the increasing integration of able-bodied and disability sport is a key feature that we need to continue to grow.

All Australians must see themselves in their sporting heroes, helping to promote national pride, drive sport participation, and increase our talent pool.

It is not a choice between nurturing participation or high performance sport. Both are important, both complement the other - it is about delivering the best outcomes for all involved in sport.

To borrow a phrase from our close partners, the Australian Olympic Committee and Commonwealth Games Australia, sport is a virtuous circle. Our sporting champions inspire participation, which in turn creates the talent pool for the next champions.

With this in mind, the Australian Sports Commission is changing our business model.

We are retiring the brand name Sport Australia, which was introduced to delineate between the participation and high performance aspects of sport across our business. This divided our focus, created confusion across the sector and didn’t maximise our resources.

Going forward, the Australian Sports Commission is one integrated organisation, incorporating the Australian Institute of Sport – the AIS.

I want to be very clear about this - our focus on high performance sport remains as strong as ever. High performance sport does matter to Australia.

Our research shows that 79% of Australians say our Olympic, Paralympic and Commonwealth Games athletes make them proud, compared to 65% for Australian professional sporting codes.
This is something we must amplify on this Green and Gold decade of major sporting events. Our athletes have the ultimate platform to perform and connect all Australians with sport like never before. These athletes are our role models and ambassadors.

There has been so much promise in our results over the past 14 months: a record-equaling 17 gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics, a record four medals at the Beijing Winter Olympics and topping the medal count at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games. An extraordinary result.

But we need to intensify our support in all areas of high performance sport if we are to maintain, let alone improve by Brisbane in 2032.

The leadership role of the AIS remains as important as ever. We are committed to a thriving AIS and that includes a modern campus in Canberra.

I’ve been asked multiple times about whether the Australian Sports Commission has plans to relocate the AIS from Canberra to south-east Queensland.

Let me be emphatic – our plans for the AIS campus remain firmly in Canberra. Canberra is the seat of Federal Government and is the home of the AIS.

When it was built in 1981, the AIS became the most important factor in the resurgence of Australian sport on the world stage.

It is one of our most treasured national institutions, but after 41 years of service, the AIS campus must be updated.

We are working closely with the Federal Government to plan the AIS campus revitalisation, while also connecting with the ACT Government to ensure we respect its deep-seated value to the Canberra community.

There continues to be increased demand for the AIS campus and the services it provides.

Over the next 12 months we’ll see the AIS host 166 high performance camps, bringing over 4000 athletes and staff from across 27 sports to Canberra. This is almost double the demand we had for the same period pre-COVID.

Building a new AIS in Queensland is unwarranted and would just divert investment away from our athletes.

The Brisbane Games will be measured by how we go about delivering the event, how our athletes perform, and how the nation embraces it – not just by the infrastructure built to support it.

To this end, the Australian Sports Commission is working together with state and territory counterparts, the Australian Olympic Committee, Commonwealth Games Australia, Paralympics Australia and our sports, to deliver a long-term plan that has the potential to make us more united than ever.

The development of Australia’s High Performance 2032+ Sport Strategy is a truly industry wide approach that is harnessing our collective strengths, talent and resources. It’s about leaving self-interest at the door and uniting for a national cause.

We are on track to deliver this strategy by the end of the year.

A focus of this strategy will be about how we, as Australian sport, will define success. We want to win well.

What does that mean? It means we cannot - and should not - shy away from the aspiration to win. But we must always inspire with how we win. It means winning and wellbeing must always be in balance.

The first step to winning is believing.

I remember the first Director of the AIS and legendary swim coach Don Talbot once said he wanted Australia to be the best swimming nation in the world. People laughed at him – within a decade Australia had achieved it.

Athletes today are telling us loud and clear that they train and compete to win, they’re not there to make up the numbers.

But we must never confuse that ambition with a win-at-all-costs approach.

Winning well means setting courageous performance goals, but always balancing that with cultures and behaviours that are safe, fair and supportive.

It’s about maintaining the ambition for success, but with humility, integrity, sportsmanship, and supporting our athletes and people in sport to win well in all areas of their lives.

Government funding will continue to be a major factor in establishing this success, but also in future-proofing Australian sport so our best talent is supported to progress.

To be clear, when I refer to Australian high performance sport I’m specifically referencing Olympic, Paralympic and Commonwealth Games sports.

I want to dispel any myth or perception that these Australian athletes are doing so for huge monetary reward – for the vast majority, it simply is not true. Most athletes do not make the equivalent of the minimum wage during their sporting career. Almost all will finish without superannuation.

The Australian Sports Commission, funded by the Australian Government, is by far the largest investor in these sports and athletes. We invest almost $150 million a year directly into approximately 35 high performance sport programs each year, which includes $14.6 million in direct grants to athletes.

Let’s put that $14.6 million in perspective. It’s shared between about 900 athletes across more than 30 sports every year.

It’s means tested - so it goes to those who need it most. The average grant is about $16,000 a year and the maximum is $35,000. That’s about $7,000 less than the Australian minimum wage.
This isn’t to paint a completely bleak picture, as a former athlete I know the wonderful experiences and opportunities sport can provide. Most athletes view it as a privilege, not a sacrifice.

But we also want to ensure athletes are not significantly disadvantaged financially by pursuing a sporting career to represent Australia.

The reality is that competing in contemporary international sport requires a full-time workload and many other countries are providing the financial support needed for their athletes to attain this.

We are looking at how we can better support Australian athletes with their sporting ambitions, while also enhancing their education and vocational prospects.

Longer-term funding is something we’re working on too, and it could be a game-changer for athletes and sports.

Sports have been seeking longer-term funding for greater consistency and clarity in their planning.

I’m pleased today to be able to thank Federal Sports Minister Anika Wells and the Australian Government by announcing one such example.

For the first time ever, Australia’s Winter Olympic and Paralympic sports have been given a funding commitment for the whole four-year cycle through to the 2026 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Milan-Cortina.

This is a $28.6 million commitment, which is a huge sign of confidence in our Australian athletes, saying we believe in you, we support you and we know you’ll make us proud.

We’ve already committed funding to sports for the Paris 2024 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games too. We thank the Australian Government for believing in our longer-term vision.

We had seven years to prepare ahead of Sydney 2000, we now have the blessing of a decade before Brisbane 2032. But it will only be an advantage if we start now.

We are already working with athletes and sports about plans for the Los Angles Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2028.

In this financial year and the next, we are also investing almost $21 million directly into sports and their athlete development pathways. This investment is about ensuring sports have the right people, resources, and strategies to identify, develop and support our most talented young athletes.

It’s also incumbent on us to make every tax-payer dollar count. We can, and we will.

Speaking of the support of the Federal Government, I would like to acknowledge the announcement from Minister Wells last week regarding the new Safety in Sport division as part of Sport Integrity Australia.

We all have a role to play to ensure sport at all levels is a safe and enjoyable environment and our modernised approach to community coaching is a critical component of this.

The focus on educating and empowering coaches to create safe, fun and inclusive environments where participants, volunteers and community sport can thrive is central to our overall success in the coming decade.

I want to finish today on an important point. We will do everything we can to make Brisbane 2032 the best Olympic and Paralympic Games ever, an incredible milestone. But it cannot be our end game.

Gold medal tables are not a sole indicator of success, but they help tell a story.

Four times in Olympic summer history Australia has been top five on the medal table, they were the two Games Australia hosted in Melbourne 1956 and Sydney 2000, and in the Games that immediately followed - Rome 1960 and Athens 2004.  And the Paralympic team finished top of the medal tally in 2000.

It shows we have united before to host a successful home Games, but that the focus can drift once the Games move on.

The sporting system and the nation worked together in the approach to Sydney 2000. At the time, we could justifiably claim to have the world’s best sporting system, but the focus faded.
We are still a strong sporting system, doing things well, but we have spent the past two decades trying to climb back to where we were.

We must have a sense of community, fun and the wider benefits of grassroots sport at the centre of everything we do.

We must build progressively towards Brisbane 2032, but then be positioned to carry on after. Brisbane 2032 must be our springboard to ongoing sustainable success.

We don’t want to keep looking back and reminiscing about the golden ages of Australian sport. We have a golden opportunity right now, let’s grab it.

Thank you.

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