Australian cycling: beyond the Rio Olympics
In part one of a series of interviews and commentary pieces, we consider the implications of what the end of another Olympic cycle means for ‘our’ sport in Australia. The Rio Games have come and gone and many in Australian cycling believe that what happened in Brazil could serve as a catalyst for change.
We begin proceedings by talking to the CEO of Cycling Australia, Nick Green, and ask about the funding for cycling and if the time may come for there to be less importance placed on Olympic gold and more emphasis put on bike riding at a grass roots level…
Interview – Nick Green
There has been a dramatic change to Cycling Australia’s high performance unit recently with the resignation of the HPU’s director Kevin Tabotta.
The CEO, Nick Green, explained that the federation has “already commenced the process of filling Kevin’s position and we are certain we will attract a highly competitive field”.
After so many years on the job it’s logical that Tabotta would seek a change but we could also construe it as being one of the legacies of the Rio Olympics campaign. Either way, one of the messages is that changes to Cycling Australia’s approach have began unravelling.
Sport in general is about much more than success at the Olympics. Even so, the Games are pivotal when it comes to the acquisition of government funding for federations like Cycling Australia.
Green is a former Olympic champion (from rowing, winning the gold medal for the coxless four in both 1992 and 1996). He was also the chef de mission for the Australian team at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
He has been the CEO of Cycling Australia since September 2014.
Three weeks after Green’s return from Rio, RIDE’s editor Rob Arnold spoke to him about the Games and what we can expect from Cycling Australia as we ride away from another Olympiad. Can it be more of the same or, as the situation with Tabotta suggests, a catalyst for change at the top?
He initially baulked at the idea of a discussion but later agreed to speak about Rio and related topics.
We asked if he could offer a paraphrased synopsis of where Cycling Australia is at.
“I think it’s important to reflect that, over the last four years of funding for Cycling Australia and the AIS, cycling has delivered astounding success in the disciplines that we provide our investment and support to,” said Nick Green early in September.
“Over the four years since the Australian ‘Winning Edge Strategy’ was introduced Australian cyclists have won 44 medals at world championships… and we’ve been doing exceptionally well until the Olympic Games when our expectations were for between five and seven medals.
“By all the benchmarking that we’ve been doing for the past couple of years, that was a realistic target.
“History will say that the Australian cyclists won two medals: a silver and a bronze in Rio.
“We class ourselves as ‘disappointed’ with those results.
“Like happens after all Olympic cycles, Cycling Australia will do an evaluation of what we did right, what we did wrong, and what we could improve so that we can do better.
“There’s a sense of disappointment amongst the elite athletes and coaches who had high expectations but we will also reflect on it…
“There is a disconnect between what is achieved at a world [championship] level and an Olympic level so we have to learn from that.”
Below is the transcript of another Q&A session with Green in which he essentially received the same question repeatedly – albeit in varying formats…
Is the investment in elite sport really the way forward for cycling?
And he effectively continued to explain what the Australian Sports Commission seems to insist on.
Gold is good, or so we are led to believe.
From success comes funding – and from funding comes success.
The Australian Sports Commission acts as the agent for government funding and Green realises the value in having the ASC’s support.
In the coming months we’ll realise what other legacies there are from the fall-out of the Rio Olympics. In the meantime, Green and his cohort continue to work on finding the best solutions for how cycling will progress in Australia.
He was reluctant to suggest that there was any significant “fall-out” from the Games but Green clearly loves reviews and investigations. He was once an athlete but the 46-year-old has clearly become a politician in recent years. There’s a lot that can be done but first he wants to “review” the efforts from Rio before working on what comes next.
Green doesn’t shy away from questions but his responses are laced with political language and it become apparent when you consider the full context of his answers that the thought process is still in action.
He wants to do something, but exactly what that something is remains to be uncovered.
For the purpose of offering the full insight into how Green is managing the ramifications of what happened in Rio, we present the full transcript of his exchange with RIDE (below).
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This is part of an ongoing series of stories about cycling in Australia and what the future holds. If you’ve got anything to add, please don’t hesitate to write and offer your thoughts.
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Nick Green: “We will do a review and that’s starting on Monday [12 September] in Adelaide. There’ll be a number of components to the review.
“There’ll be an internal review, an external review and we as a sport want to be better than what we were at the Olympics.
“We’ll search for what opportunities we can to improve our systems, improve our preparation, and particularly improve those one- or two-percenters which ultimately will make a difference between winning a medal and not winning a medal at Olympic competition… we need to understand from the athletes’ point of view – from their perspective – from the coaches, from the support personnel, from the medical staff, from the sports psychologists… the whole bit.
“We’ll do that review and get a comprehensive understanding of things that we need to address moving forward.
RIDE: It’s difficult for me to paraphrase my line of thought with regards to the Olympics but I wonder if it can be a time when we almost shelve gold medal ambitions and if we happen to get some that’s great… but perhaps we put that elite, high performance arrangement on the backburner in favour of building the grass roots. As an administrator of a sport – especially a sport which comes so close to Olympic success but yet is only really nipping at the heels – do you feel like there is a solution?
“There are three things that immediately come to mind. Of course we need to invest in the grass roots. We need to invest in the talent identification. And we need the pool of athletes coming through and knocking on the door for the next wave of talent coming through.
“Absolutely, I agree with you. And there’s a fine balance between investing in all levels of an athlete’s preparation to get outcomes. I understand that, and I agree with you on that point of view.
“The second point is managing the expectations of whether the athletes, the public, the government, our own systems internally… are working.
“It became very clear by a number of athletes, not so much cyclists, post-Olympic Games, particularly the ones who had won medals: [they] felt the weight of expectation of the nation – that all the nation cared about was gold medals. That caused a lot of debate around the value of our Olympic team. What are they contributing to Australian society through the investment of government and the time that they’re allocated and a few other things?
“So there is a learning, I think, for all of us that the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) in particular start with a top-five gold medal expectation. And they therefore put that as the benchmark for the athletes to achieve.
“Now, there are times when there is a disconnect between the aspirations of the AOC or others versus that of the aspirations of the athlete. So we need to manage that better.
“Ideally the less pressure you put on the athletes the better, but you allow their own pressures of performances to be almost the same expectations as that of the public – and that is, the athletes are there to perform on an international stage, that’s why they’ve been selected, that’s why they receive the support, that’s why they receive the coaching and administrative support that they get… but it’s also the aspiration of the athlete.
“An athlete does this because of their personal journey, to try and be excellent in what they’ve chosen to do.
“There’s all of that that we need to marry up [to get] the best outcome. And I think we’ll reflect on a lot of those things and bring them into play to go: how do we work better with our athletes? How do we manage the expectations of our athletes and the public? How do we manage the expectations of either companies and tax payers who fund, quite heavily, the cycling program?
“We do know cycling is probably the second highest funded sport; swimming would be the number-one. So we have an obligation with that funding to deliver exceptional results.”
When we spoke last, I alluded to a rumour that I’d heard which suggested: after Rio, Cycling Australia would be in financial turmoil. You assured me that it may be the case, but it won’t be that way to the point where it’s going to be the end of the federation – which is good news.
“I think people, when they see the annual report, they know the history of Cycling Australia financially. It’s all documented. You can see it on our website – it’s on our ‘annual reports’.
“Last year we posted a profit after the year prior had a significant deficit.
“This year we’re forecasted for another profit.
“So as a business we’ve done enormous amounts of work to ensure our sustainability. Our strategic plan is now in place.
“Yes, we’ve had to make some really tough decisions around people and about strategies and about funding and around support – all in line of bringing the organisation back into a better position to be in a growth phase.
“Over the last eight to 12 months, there’s been significant growth in the organisation in a very positive way but, for the first 12 months of my position here, we’ve had to turn this ship around.
“Financially we’ve definitely still got a long way to go but we’ve turned the ship around and we’re in a far better position than we were when I started 18 months ago.”
How reliant are you on Sports Commission funding for Cycling Australia? Or is that HPU only?
“They fund half of our business. The annual report will say to you our total revenue streams and the money we get is all allocated directly to high performance but it funds half of our business.
“Through that money we invest in our athletes, our people, our systems, our technology, our IT… it’s all focused on delivering high performance. So every dollar we receive, we account and invest towards high performance outcomes.”
That’s the requisite of the Sports Commission?
“It’s the same as every sport. Every national federation receives, in essence, a ‘grant’ to deliver outcomes.
“We’re no different to anyone else, so we have to deliver those outcomes according to the investment we receive.
“There’s a lot of rigour around it. We receive money not just for high performance but also the Sports Commission do give us money that goes into grass roots development and we’ve invested that money into our ‘She Rides’ and our ‘Let’s Ride’ programs, where we’ve made significant inroads in our education system. And we’ve got some great progress on that.
“We hope to be [involved with] somewhere between 6,000 to 10,000 primary school kids in the 2016 calendar year.
“Our ‘She Rides’ program is dedicated to getting women back on the bike and that continues to sell out every time we have [events]. So the investment that we get from the Sports Commission allows us to build our own capability around delivering sustainable programs that, in the longer term, will be great for the sport, but also drive better financial stability for the organisation.”
You know where I’m going with this. I just wonder if you can change the priority of the Olympics and say to the Sports Commission: ‘Can we make a smaller emphasis on high performance and a greater emphasis on the sheer glut of interest that exists for cycling?’
“Well, the fact is: we receive the investment from the Sports Commission aligned to the Australian ‘Winning Edge’ strategy. We received that money knowing that…
“Which, in essence, is investing in medals, investing in high performance, and a high performance outcome. So one of the observations or criticisms people will target at the Australian ‘Winning Edge’ is that it doesn’t allow for the appropriate investment into that talent ID – talent pathway – the real basis of foundations of good athletes coming through the system.
“And you’re right, the observations are there and so from our point of view, the additional revenue we generate in high performance through sponsorship, through service agreements, we invest that money of our own accord into the development of the sport. Whether it’s through the national track program, women’s development programs, through Europe or whatever it might be – we do what we can with the investment we have to ensure that we’ve got an appropriate channel of great athletes coming through.”
My line of questioning is based on this: when the Olympics are good, like they were in Athens, it’s wonderful. [Australian cycling] won six gold medals in 2004. It was an exciting time. It was a thrill to be a part of. And the legacy of it was significant insofar that a lot of people got engaged by cycling at that time. But if you miss and you fall short – like you could say that we did in Rio – then it’s just is a case of: ‘Well, let’s aim for the future…’
The long part of that preamble is to say: can we change the focus and not even really worry about the Olympics anymore? Because the Olympics, for all the fun that it is for two weeks, it seems like it’s too much of a strain on everything else for the sake of a two week feel-good stanza. That’s how I see it after we’ve come through what we’ve gone through…
“There’s a couple of points of observation.
“Since 1996 there’s been no significant new investment into Australian sport. And the money we made in 1996 was all around preparing our team for the Sydney Olympic Games. And, like most host countries, you have an exceptional Games – and Australia clearly did. Since that time, there’s been no new money into sport and if you look at the medal decline, there’s been a slow decline of medals that Australia wins on a global stage.
“It’s a very competitive global industry. But Australia loves to compete in that arena and we pride ourselves on doing so – and we will continue to do so.
“The ideal scenario to create the balance that we’re looking for is for further investment into sport.
“The Great Britain cycling team would be out-funding us probably three times greater than what we get in Australia.
“In some degrees is it an arms race? Is it an investment race? Yes it is!
“We’ve been out-funded by most of the big countries around the world, that’s pretty clear. So therefore, with the investment we get, we need to make tough decisions about what we do invest in and what we don’t invest in. And that investment needs to be in line with commitment to the Australian ‘Winning Edge’ strategy.
“So, in an ideal world, if we were to be able to increase our revenue pool – or investment pool – we can make some better, or different, investment choices.
“But with the investment that we’ve got to we need to make some pretty blunt choices around where we invest the money.
“One of the beauties about the Olympic Games – and you’re well aware of this – is that it does happen every four years. It’s bloody hard! But that’s what the athletes absolutely aspire to.
“To look at how to perform on that ultimate competitive stage – that one chance they get every four years – you’ve got to be ‘on’!
“Now, our athletes, you could say, gave us all the signs that they were ready to compete. And when it came to the crunch some of them didn’t step up to the mark or some of them got beaten convincingly by a better opponent. But that’s sport.
“We address that and, from an Australian point of view, it hurts our pride to be beaten – and particularly beaten by Great Britain – but that creates the next challenge: how do we be more innovative? How do we invest? How do we use technology better? How do we look at better partnerships with institutes? With universities? With technology partners?
“All of those things lead to a better platform for our business to be more collaborative in the way we try and go about preparing our athletes for high performance.
“With less money, it actually teaches you to be diverse; it teaches you to form better partnerships that can still achieve the same outcome.”
I understand where you’re coming from as well. And I just hope that the lessons that we learned by sending people off to go and try and win gold medals are then later progressed into a greater part of society to make the world a better place. Otherwise it serves no purpose. There’s a brief moment of titillation and they stand on the podium and the anthem is played and it dissipates into nothingness, really. I know Graeme Brown has two gold medals in his cabinet but I don’t know what else he’s really gotten out of that – a couple of years prolonged on his pro career perhaps… but it’s part of a much larger discussion and I guess I’m saying to you, in context, the theme of a tweet that I did after the road race: ‘I love the Olympics. I hate the Olympics. I love the Olympics. I hate the Olympics…’ and, after the road race, I loved the Olympics but there were other times when I really don’t like it – when it just seems corrupt and abominable.
“You probably say that when you’re watching your favourite AFL team play.”
That’s right. It’s just sport.
“Sport does that to people. It does drive that raw passion and frustration.
“We do need to reflect that the athletes we are sending away are some of the most exceptionally talented athletes and role models.
“Just to pick up on your point, what we’ve tried to do – and we’ll continue to do over the next evolution of our Olympic cycle – is around what we’ll call ‘athlete welfare’. The sport of cycling has been buoyed by so many terrific former bike riders who have gone off into coaching and other aspects of sport, administration and so on, and we love that these athletes want to maintain their involvement in the sport so we welcome that and we encourage that and we embrace that as much as we can.
“On the other side is: how do we use our athletes as role models in the community? And how do we have a greater sense of responsibility of the athletes?
“Most of the track riders are all amateur athletes who earn very little money. How can we also create an environment where they can also give back to the sport that they love instead of having to go off and try and make ends meet elsewhere in an industry that maybe they’re not as passionate about?
“Anna Meares is a classic example. We’ve got the most respected and loved athlete in this country right at this moment. And I have no idea what her position is long term but we need to make sure that we can keep her in cycling and contribute back into cycling because of the absolutely outstanding reputation that she has in the community…
“There’s lots of athletes we can choose from. And some of them don’t have to have a high profile. Some of them just want to give back to the sport because the sport has given them so much along the way.”
There’s a larger philosophical discussion that could go on for a lot longer but I’ll say thanks for your time. I think that the message is: we all want to be on the winning team and when you get beaten it’s just a search for answers, isn’t it?
“It smarts. Yep.”
– Interview by Rob Arnold