Former Olympic swimming champion Kieren Perkins – now the CEO responsible for allocating government funding for sport – has issued a stark warning to officials: Take a look outside the bubble because the world is changing.
- Perkins says swimming needs to adapt to the changing sporting landscape
- Turnout rates are cited as an issue that needs to be addressed in Australian swimming
- Swimming must now compete with sports like skateboarding and surfing for Olympic coverage
As the world’s best swimmers from Australia and the United States entertained the crowds at the recently relaunched Duel in the Pool meet at the Sydney Aquatics Center, Perkins produced his own ripples at a tandem conference – SwimCon ’22, a two- day meeting for national and international swimming executives and others involved in the sport.
“The sport needs time to take a serious look at itself,” Perkins said.
“If we just want to win, and we’re happy to put people through the meat grinder and see how many kids survive to get gold medals, if that’s all that matters… fine, I can buy gold medals, it’s not difficult.
“But I think we can do better than that, I think we can create a culture and an environment in Australia where everyone on their life journey…starts with learning basic skills and having a lot of fun to become an adult who would love nothing more than to give their free time to help the sport succeed.”
Perkins accepts responsibility for leading this conversation as CEO of the Australian Sports Commission under the supervision of Sport Australia and the Australian Institute of Sport, but he warned that the sports sector must unify or jeopardize any advantage significant and lasting part of the so-called green and gold decade leading up to the Olympic Games Brisbane 2032.
“We want all Australians, regardless of background, to have access to quality sporting experiences,” he said.
“We live in a world of great diversity, be it gender, race, culture, age, sexual orientation, abilities, skills, experiences and/or values.
“By valuing this diversity and engaging with it, the strength that can be created for sport in this country and that sport can help create inclusive communities is imperative.”
A day earlier, Brent Nowicki, the CEO of swimming’s world governing body FINA, had told the same delegates that their sport was facing a time of change requiring ingenuity, flexibility, openness and evolution.
A new event format, greater recognition of the voice of athletes, career planning initiatives and a recent inclusion policy banning transgender athletes were listed as some of the significant developments made over the past year.
FINA’s inclusion policy is at odds with Sport Australia’s inclusion framework, where inclusion comes first unless evidence of an unfair advantage can be provided on a case-by-case basis.
While not one of the most pressing challenges facing women’s sport, it is one of the loudest discussions on social media, and one of the topics on which Perkins will be interviewed tonight on the ABC’s Q&A program.
“It would be somewhat dishonest of me to carry on a conversation like this without at least not addressing one of the most vocal, but probably least significant, population-level issues regarding transgender athletes in our sport. “, said Perkins.
“I know the decision FINA made to make their position known on swimming and the opportunity for transgender people in sport has been in the news.
“But what I would ask, and what I would acknowledge, is that the decision at international level has significant impacts and repercussions on the sport in national communities and we have seen that here in Australia.
“I’ve seen communications come out at the community sport level, [saying] FINA has made their appeal, does that mean we don’t have to play these guys anymore in women’s sport?
“This kind of bigotry and built-in cultural problem that we have in Australia is likely to be exacerbated dramatically if we don’t find a way to be inclusive in our policies, find a way to navigate these very difficult subjects and nuanced in a way that allows us to continue to ensure the integrity of sport, to ensure the cultural value that sport conveys.
“But more than anything, recognize that unless we’re actually playing for sheep stations, and there’s life and death at stake…we shouldn’t be creating an environment or a position where anyone has the feel like he’s not allowed or shouldn’t be involved in what we’re trying to deliver.”
Repairing the “participation cliff”
A much bigger problem for sport is what Perkins calls a “participation cliff”, where the 70% of kids who play sport under the age of 12 drop to less than 20% once they get out of the game. ‘adolescence.
“This cliff coincides with the time when the sport is getting serious,” Perkins said.
“We start to rank teams, training intensifies, we start talking about ladders and recruitment… competitions that lead to finals and selections.
“[Sport] goes from fun, engagement and participation to seriousness, to winning and not having fun.”
Technology, hormones and social distractions for dropout rates can no longer be blamed, Perkins said.
“What is it about the experience we provide that keeps children from wanting to be part of our environment? And what responsibility do we have to change that?” he said.
For decades the system has been geared towards the sport’s elite, which only appeals to a small minority, and Perkins pointed to his own experience returning to the sport after more than two decades of working in the banking industry.
“It’s quite extraordinary, I talked about it when I came back to the [Swimming Australia] board in 2018 or 2019, whatever it was,” he said.
“Recognizing that what I came back to was a sport that looked pretty much the same as when I was competing.
“This is not surprising considering that the government’s position and the programs implemented have remained essentially unchanged since 1979.
“The world has changed dramatically, the cohorts of people who want to get involved or get involved in sports are very, very, different from the kids who wanted to get involved in sports in the 60s, 70s and 80s.”
Embrace Emerging Sports
The biggest adoption of a sport in the two years of the pandemic turned out to be the same sports that made their Olympic debuts at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics – surfing and skateboarding.
“It has absolutely nothing to do with the elite [sport]. They were in Tokyo and that helped, but in fact, these are people doing an activity that they engage with as they please in their time. And we have to understand that,” Perkins said.
“I sincerely believe that there is a huge opportunity for sports that are trying to create Olympians or Paralympians to really understand what is going on in the community and connect with it.
“Don’t try to change it or blow it up because it doesn’t fit our model of what we think is acceptable or should be the way things are done.
“If you have a few hundred thousand people playing a sport because they like it in their own way, leave them alone.
“But… when we find people who have talent or who might have the opportunity to be good, how do we nurture them and help them grow and move them forward, not oh you have to become a member of the club or we will refuse to support you.”
Without grassroots football, elite sport cannot exist. Striking the right balance has proven notoriously difficult, and the constant demand for additional government funding is also not the answer, according to Perkins, who points out that Australia’s continued gold medal success on the international scene undermines this call.
“The reality is that the government doesn’t trust sport because they don’t know who to listen to. It’s not a wallet that comes with a lot of high-fives and whoopees,” he said.
“How about we come together with consolidated strategic views on things.
“A bit more of a singular voice…so that when the government is faced with choices, it can make choices that have strategic impact without helping a small group that cries the loudest.”
This is a difficult task, which Perkins would like to accomplish as soon as possible.
He recognizes, however, that to bring in a whole sector it will be necessary to “hurry slowly”.