David Cameron and his Conservative Party in Britain have outlined plans for a sports-led recovery to help them win office – and their model for success is the Australian system.
Under a headline in the Observer newspaper yesterday: “Australians have got it right, and so will we”, Cameron wrote that the Australian Sports Commission, and all the success it has brought, is the template needed in England – a government body run by people “on the frontline” largely immune from outside influence.
“Successful sports policy must come from within sport, not without. The success of Australian sport goes to show that when it comes to revitalising grass-roots participation, spotting talent and nurturing it, and ensuring that sporting facilities remain first-class, we should put our trust in schemes run and operated by those who work on the frontline.
“… What we need is a body like the Australian Sports Commission, acting as a champion for both sporting excellence and participation within government.”
Cameron, 40, who is fighting a reputation as a blue-blood toff who would prefer to go pheasant-shooting with his Eton mates than stand on the terraces at Anfield or Highbury, recalls how he became smitten with sport at a young age.
“The first great sporting moment I clearly remember was when Red Rum won his third Grand National at Aintree. It was 1977 and I was lucky enough to be at the Canal Turn. The one that thrilled me most was that Headingley Test of 1981 and Ian Botham’s 149 not out. I can still remember where I sat at home and how I felt. As the drama unfolded, I knew then, aged just 14, that my sense of anticipation and excitement was being echoed up and down the country,” he wrote.
“That’s the thing about sport: it is etched in this country’s DNA. If you ever doubt this, ask yourself: what has done more to bring the country together in recent years than the announcement that London was to hold the Olympics in 2012?”
Coincidentally, the same newspaper carried a photograph of former Australian cricket coach John Buchanan on the front page of its sports section with the words: “Why this man can help English cricket, from the bottom up”.
So, Australian sport is in vogue right now. And so it should be, given the success Australians have achieved in just about any sporting field of endeavour you’d care to name, and the accompanying sense of collective pride that brings.
So by all means ape the Sports Commission, crave success and pursue excellence, Mr Cameron, but before you plunge headfirst into the Australian pool, a quiet word of advice.
The British don’t need to sell their soul for sporting success. It is a very ephemeral thing. The Australian sporting culture has a flipside and it comes in the form of rah-rah jingoism and a ‘’gold, gold, gold’’ win-at-all-costs mentality. In the breathless pursuit of Olympic medals, or Ashes trophies, or tennis Grand Slams, our elite athletes are in danger of forgetting how to compete graciously. Certainly, the art of losing graciously is threatening to go the same way as the dodo.
The Australian Institute of Sport is bursting at the seams with all manner of psychologists, dieticians, physiotherapists, strength and conditioning coaches, sports science geeks and blokes in white coats poring over test tubes. But who is there to guide the way on less tangible aspects of elite sport such as how to compete with dignity and fairness? You’d need to look at the fineprint of the AIS manifesto with a very powerful magnifying glass to get an idea of which full-time staff are employed to that end.