The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) used to be the pinnacle of athletic training in Australia.

It opened in 1981 in response to Australia’s woeful performance at the Montreal Olympics. Australia didn’t win a gold medal. It was a national embarrassment which could not stand.

The government was blamed so government responded by establishing the AIS.

The halcyon days of the AIS have long passed.

This is because many sports have established their own centres of excellence, leaving the AIS to focus on Olympic sports. In other words, sports people only care about every four years.

The exception is basketball. Which is clever. They’re staying at the AIS so the taxpayer can foot the bill for development rather than basketball franchises.

According to Member for Fenner Dr Andrew Leigh, over the past decade, the number of Canberra-based staff has fallen from 173 to 140. The number of athletes in residence dropped from 237 to 140.

For many years, the fear in Canberra has been that the AIS and its 150 jobs would leave Canberra – last year gymnastics threatened to leave until a gift of $3.2 million from the Australian Sports Commission changed their mind.

The Australian Sports Commission also oversees the AIS. Keep that in mind.

Why do we have the AIS?

Why have the AIS when seven state governments have their own institutes of sports, and the major codes have their own as well?

This was the lament of former AIS director Rob de Castella in July 2018, just prior to the release of National Sports Plan.

De Castella told Fairfax:

“It’s like shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic. It’s just a shell of what it was at the AIS. The ‘new’ AIS has no athletes, no coaches, and no residential program. It makes it a sham.

“What was once great, the envy of the world and the dreams of Aussie sports kids, coaches and support staff, is now gone, never to return.”

So if the AIS is downsizing, although likely irrelevant, why keep it at all? Especially when you consider the massive doubling up between the state institutes and the commonwealth AIS?

The only good reason is so that you aren’t the government that killed the AIS.

Which is why this item on page 139 of the MYEFO, released on 17 December, has long-term implications for sport in Australia.

What’s going on with the AIS?

The AIS is iconic. So it is unlikely to be killed off in the race to a surplus.

Indeed, in an election year, its iconic status makes it very valuable, especially when there is little love for it remaining in Canberra among the AIS (sports are trying to leave) and the ACT Government would be happy to redevelop the site.

So instead of closing, it is likely to move. But where would it go?

Speaking to Fairfax today, De Castella lamented the fall of the AIS, and questioned why the government would spend $2 million to investigate the future of the AIS.

The report is due to government by 30 June 2019.

After all these years you’d think they’d have a clear understanding of the role of the AIS,” said de Castella, who was the AIS director from 1990-95.

It’s a big concern because it’s a very expensive way to try to come up with something and if it doesn’t work you point the finger at someone else instead of accepting responsibility.

It typifies the whole philosophy that seems to be unfolding at Sport Australia which is very much not getting involved in any of the actual servicing things and outsourcing everything to other so-called experts.

So many sports are crying out for funds and they’ve spent so much money rebranding the logo of the AIS already… this is like moving the deck chairs on the Titanic.

I don’t know what’s so hard and complicated about trying to come up with a role of the AIS. They’ve already stripped the guts out of all the servicing areas… it’s like death by thousand cuts.

With respect, De Castella may have missed the point.

The purpose of government reports are not to investigate what you don’t know (ie, the future of the AIS), but to support a decision you’ve already made.

The head of Sport Australia, Kate Palmer, is not directly quoted on the future location of the AIS in the article, although it paraphrases her to say the study is necessary, a chance to develop a 30-year vision to reinvigorate the Bruce campus and finally plug the holes in the leaking roof.

That isn’t to say it will be invigorated for the AIS.

BTW … If the roof is leaking, fix the bloody roof. Unless you won’t be there long enough to justify the cost. Which brings us to …

What’s next for the AIS?

Before we answer that question, consider the election in May.

Queensland will be a bloodbath for the Coalition.

The state has a long history of huge swings. Remember, it was Queenslanders who sat on their porches with baseball bats waiting for Paul Keating in 1996. They didn’t miss.

Nor did they miss John Howard in 2007.

The government would love a huge announcement for Queensland. Big. Bold. Visionary. Patriotic!

Here’s are some hot tips:

  1. The report will be brought forward and released sometime in late April 2019.
  2. The Commonwealth Government will sell the AIS land – including Canberra Stadium – to the ACT Government.
  3. The Morrison Government will announce it is moving the AIS to Queensland.

The ACT will be mightily annoyed but they don’t vote for the Coalition, but there might be one or two in Queensland who still might … if the price is right.


Writing in Fairfax, Eamonn Tiernan, a sports reporter with The Canberra Times, asks us to imagine “what some of Australia’s struggling athletes could do with [$2 million]”.

Probably not a lot. Especially if we waste the money on track and field.