Kieren Perkins warns sport organisations that they risk losing talent unless they change their ways

Former Olympic swimming champion Kieren Perkins – now the CEO in charge of distributing state sports funding – has issued a stark warning to officials: think outside the box because the world is changing.

While the world’s best swimmers from Australia and the US entertained crowds at the recently revived Duel in the Pool gathering at Sydney’s Aquatic Centre, Perkins provided excitement at a parallel conference – SwimCon ’22, a two-day gathering for national and international swim leaders and others involved in sport.

“The sport needs to take some time to really look at itself,” Perkins said.

“If we just want to win and be happy about putting people in the meat grinder and seeing how many kids survive to get gold medals, if that’s all that matters… well, I can buy gold medals, it’s not hard .

“But I think we can do better, 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 be an adult.” , who would love nothing more than to dedicate their free time to the success of the sport.”

Perkins takes responsibility for having this conversation as CEO of the Australian Sports Commission with oversight over Sport Australia and the Australian Institute of Sport, but cautioned that the sports sector has meaningful, lasting benefits from what has been called the green and gold decade for the 2032 Olympic Games in Brisbane.

“We want all Australians, regardless of their background, to have access to quality sports 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.

A day earlier, FINA CEO Brent Nowicki told the same delegates that their sport is facing a time of change that requires ingenuity, flexibility, open-mindedness and evolution.

New event formats, greater recognition of the athlete’s voice, career planning initiatives and a recently introduced inclusion policy banning transgender athletes were cited as some of the key developments over the past year.

General view of the Duna Arena ahead of the 2022 FINA World Championships in Budapest.
FINA has told national bodies that swimming is entering a period of change.(Getty Images: Tom Pennington)

FINA’s Inclusion Policy is at odds with Sport Australia’s Inclusion Framework, which puts inclusion first unless evidence of unfair advantage can be demonstrated on a case-by-case basis.

While it’s not one of the most pressing challenges facing women’s sports, it’s one of the loudest discussions on social media and one of the topics Perkins will be asked about on ABC’s Q&A program tonight.

“It would be disingenuous of me to have a conversation like this without failing to address at least one of the louder but probably less significant population-level issues surrounding transgender athletes in our sport,” Perkins said.

“I know that FINA’s decision to represent its position on swimming and the opportunity for transgender people in sport made a lot of headlines.

“But what I would ask and what I would acknowledge is that at international level the decision has had a significant impact and impact on sport in the home communities and we have seen that here in Australia.

“I’ve seen the communication in sport go out at the community level, [saying] FINA called, does that mean we don’t have to compete against these guys in women’s sport anymore?

“This kind of bigotry and embedded cultural issue that we have in Australia risks exacerbating dramatically if we don’t find a way to be inclusive in our politics, find a way to address these very difficult and nuanced issues in a way that allows us to continue to ensure the integrity of sport to ensure the cultural value that drives sport.

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“But above all, realize that unless we’re actually playing for sheep farms and it’s a matter of life and death, we shouldn’t create an environment or position where anyone feels they shouldn’t or shouldn’t be involved we’re trying to deliver.”

Fix “Participation Cliff”

A much bigger problem for the sport is what Perkins calls the “participation cliff,” where the 70 percent of children playing sport under the age of 12 drops to less than 20 percent once they get past the teens.

“That cliff coincides with the time when the sport is getting serious,” Perkins said.

“We’re starting to rank teams, training is ramping up, we’re starting to talk about ladders and recruitment… competitions leading up to finals and selection.

“[Sport] moves away from having fun and being involved and participating to being serious, winning and not having fun.”

Technology, hormones, and social distractions can no longer be blamed for drop-off rates, Perkins said.

“What is it about the experience we offer that keeps children from wanting to be a part of our environment? And what responsibility do we have to change that?” he said.

Four swimmers dive into a pool before a race.
Swimming participation rates are a challenge for the sport.(AP: Mark Schiefelbein)

The system has catered to the sport’s elite for decades, who appeal to only a small minority, and Perkins cited his own experience of returning to the sport after more than two decades in the banking sector.

“It’s quite extraordinary, I was talking about it as I stepped back on the pitch [Swimming Australia] Board in 2018 or 19, whenever it was,” he said.

“Realizing that I’ve returned to a sport that looked pretty much the same as it did when I competed.

“It is not surprising given that the government’s position and the programs that have all been delivered have been essentially unchanged since 1979.

“The world has changed dramatically, the cohorts of people who want to play or be involved in sports are very, very different from the kids who wanted to play sports in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.”

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Embrace emerging sports

The most significant uptake of any sport over the two years of the pandemic happened 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 elite [sport]. They were in Tokyo and that helped, but actually these are people doing an activity that they engage in on their terms in their time. And we need to understand that,” Perkins said.

“I honestly believe there’s a tremendous opportunity for sports trying to create Olympians or Paralympians to actually understand what’s happening in the community and connect with it.

“Don’t try to change it or blow it up because that doesn’t fit our model of what we think is acceptable or how things should be done.

“If you have a few hundred thousand people doing a sport because they love it on their own terms, leave them alone.

“But … when we find people who are talented or could have an opportunity to be good, how do we nurture them and help them grow and help them advance, not oh you have to become a member of the club or we will refuse to support.” you.”

Poppy Olsen takes a breath on her skateboard.
Swimming now competes with sports like skateboarding for Olympic recognition.(Getty: Adam Davy)

Without mass sport, there can be no top-class sport. Striking the right balance has proved notoriously difficult, and neither is the constant call for more government funding, according to Perkins, who points out that Australia’s continued gold medal success on the international stage is undermining that demand.

“The reality is the government doesn’t trust sport because they don’t know who to listen to. It’s not a portfolio that comes with a whole bunch of high-fives and whoopees,” he said.

“How about we come together with some consolidated strategic views on things.

“A little more of a singular voice … so that when faced with decisions, the government can make decisions that are strategically effective and not help a small group that shouts the loudest.”

It’s a difficult task that Perkins would like to achieve sooner rather than later.

However, he realizes that in order to bring an entire sector with him, he must “hurry up slowly”.

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