Matt Favier joined the Australian Institute of Sport as its director in late March, almost 20 years after he held a sponsorship, as a track athlete, at the then-nascent high performance sports factory.
The AIS was world leading in its early days but has now been caught, and some say passed, by similar organisations in rival countries, and Favier acknowledges Australia did not take sufficient strides forward after the Sydney Olympics and hit a “flat spot” between then and now.
Favier, 46, comes home after almost a decade in Britain working for UK Athletics and then as UK Sport’s head of performance solutions.
Although new to the AIS role, and his focus is towards the end of a five-year contract and the 2016 Rio Olympics rather than the games in London, he has started forming his vision for a makeover of the institute; targeting a fresh approach to how money is invested in Australian high performance sport.
Favier tells SBI that there are challenges ahead for the AIS and many Australian sports, adding “What we also need to do is align our resources in such a way that every dollar we receive sweats hard for the nation and the return on that investment is consistent with our national aspirations.”
SBI: What changes have you noticed from when you arrived at AIS as an athlete?
MF: The time I was first here was quite pioneering for high performance sport in Australia. The AIS played a significant role in developing what high performance actually was, and what excellence was, in Olympic sport at the time. What’s changed a lot is the quality of the expertise that the AIS now delivers. There are more people in very discrete disciplines who have developed a world-leading expertise that the AIS has become renowned for.
I left Canberra 20 years ago and was in the AIS almost 30 years ago, so of course the facilities have evolved. But as well as that, the rest of the world has moved on.
So despite the AIS being, at the time, far ahead of the curve from a performance point of the view, the rest of the world, probably for the last eight years or so, has ramped up its performance. We were ahead of the curve and cutting edge but now we’ve got to look at the next crest of the next wave. And that need to be a different wave to what the rest of the world is riding.
SBI: So is there a sense that we’ve been standing still while others have powered on past? When did this start to happen?
MF: The Sydney Olympics was a significant milestone for Australia. Leading up to it, it allowed for a lot of things to happen for sport, particularly high performance sport in Australia, as London will be doing for the UK.
My observations are that Australia probably wasn’t as proactive in planning for the post-Sydney period as it could have been. While that may be slightly unfair on the one hand, I don’t believe that as an entire high performance sector in Australia we adapted as well as we should have, or could have, in order to remain really cutting edge and moving forward. I believe we have hit a bit of a flat spot somewhere between Sydney and where we are now.
SBI: Was that complacency, or did it take so much funding and effort to host the Sydney Olympics that it was simply too difficult to sustain?
MF: There is a combination of reasons. There was a lot of change after Sydney and we have to remember that it’s not to say we’re poorly funded. Of course we could always do with more resources in terms of financial investments, and, certainly moving forward, there will be strong arguments in increasing our investments, not decreasing them.
What we also need to do is align our resources in such a way that every dollar we receive sweats hard for the nation and the return on that investment is consistent with our national aspirations.
I’m very clear, as is our CEO Simon Hollingsworth, on what we need to do to present a strategy that helps and supports an Australian ambition to retain a seat at the top table of international sport. We’re in the process of defining what that might be. There may be some challenging decisions ahead of us and not all of those are going to be popular.
SBI: What experience do you bring from UK Sport in particular that you think the AIS should be considering?
MF: One of the things I was involved with in the UK was around how investments were made for higher performance. UK Sport as an agency is very different to the set up we have in Australia– not better, just different. One of their approaches to investment was very much around investing in a future performance based on a credible business case, to understand what the return is on that investment.
By return on investment we’re looking at performance outcomes that can be measured a number of ways and is prioritised based on the overall national aspiration; we would immediately then look to those sports that can deliver medals, top 8s, top 16s, athletes who can qualify and make the teams.
Sports that deliver multiple medals and consistently deliver performances in the international arena should feel confident and safe in the support that would be available to them.
One of the ways the UK have approached this, as do Australia is to have very clear performance expectations. The UK is very focussed on Olympic and Paralympic sports, their investment is tied to a performance outcome at those events. We have a broader remit in Australia where we need to account for a different expectation. One of the things the UK has is absolute clarity to linking investment to a performance outcome at Olympic and Paralympic Games.
SBI: Doesn’t our area of strengths change over time? Is there a danger that we might concentrate on what’s hot now and neglect a sport with great potential?
MF: No. Once we know the amount to invest we will know what our capacity is. We know how many medal events are available at Olympics and Paralympics, if I can use those for example. We know what the medal profile is for each sport. We can do a number of things in analysing the performance potential, taking into account past performance, looking at emerging athletes, new disciplines in which we have to have flexibility around.
We can do a reasonable job in identifying those sports that matter most, those sports that we should invest in, new opportunities that will present themselves, while needing to have to flexibility to invest as well.
It’s important for any nation to have that flexibility but you also need to base your actions on credible evidence and performance profiles so we are making the best investment decisions for the best return.
SBI: Should more money go to fewer sports?
MF: Only if there is a need to do that, by which I say there is a point of saturation at which more money won’t necessarily achieve better performance.
There is a balance to be struck where we not increasing investment for investment sake. It should reflect an increase in performance opportunity. That should only ever come when we review performance up to a point and if there is a change in medal profile opportunity that should drive a change in investment in terms of increased support.
If there is a decline in medal opportunity that may be the lever that needs to be looked at, or a reason you might decrease investment in sports going forward.
SBI: The sport you competed in, track and field, is relatively well funded but does it warrant the levels based on Olympic results?
MF: When it comes to that, I believe there are two relevant factors we have to separate out. Firstly, I’m interested in looking at the overall investment approach and understand how we approach it going forward. I’m not that close to it yet, I’m still learning about it, given I’m only several weeks into the job and it’s not the main area I’m engaged with.
Athletics is a four medal sport for us at the Olympic Games, that’s what it has typically produced, and it is certainly capable of delivering and achieving more, if we’re looking at medals.
It’s more than that too; it’s about supporting emerging athletes. A lot of sports, particularly track and field, find retaining high quality athletic talent long enough so it performs at Olympic Games by making finals and hopefully converting to medals, is challenging.
At the moment, there is no expectation that if you are a world junior athlete that you will go onto be a world senior potential medallist, it’s not impossible but it’s very low.
The male population particularly can drift off into AFL, rugby league, rugby union and a number of options including other Olympic sports.
The issue facing track and field is that it can take anywhere from eight-12 years for emerging potential to realise performance outcomes. We as an agency, or as a sector, need to consider what is our role in supporting that pathway and how do we as a nation engage young people to stay involved long enough so their performance potential can be realised.
One of the areas I’m interested to further explore is to what extent do we need to reach further down the performance pathway to support athletes in discrete disciplines and sports across the board.
We have a responsibility as a nation to retain high quality athletes for long enough so their potential can be realised. I don’t think we do that as a nation.
Again, I don’t know our strategy well enough yet but my observation is we could do better at it.
It comes at a cost because, as an extension, I believe the idea that we should provide resources and support to allow athletes in a daily training environment to participate and engage with their own performance development; I’m not convinced we do that as well as we could.
SBI: The AIS has continued to expand in terms of infrastructure and expertise. Is the priority, then, more of a philosophical makeover?
MF: We need to be clear about what our aspirations are. We are working on that at the moment and it will have a combination of measures that we’re yet to clarify and that are not appropriate for me to talk about at the minute.
There has been broad consultation, before I started, on the back of the Sports Minister’s announcement in January last year on resetting the high performance strategy as well as the role of the AIS.
As a consequence of that there has been a significant engagement from the ASC and AIS with a number of stakeholders, including national sporting organisations and the state institute and academy network, in order to engage and discuss and consult around our performance strategy.
What we have is a consultation document which outlines in broad brush strokes – and some detail – what are some of the key drivers for the nation and some of the areas we need to further explore.
We now need to take that information and present it in a way that clearly articulates the aspiration for the nation, how our investment will align to that and what is the role of the AIS.
SBI: You have spoken about a “knife at the throat” funding model that means many Olympic sports tend to live from Games to Games. Is there a danger, too, that a poor performance in London might see Australian governments losing their taste of sports funding?
MF: We’re not immune to challenges around public money. That’s the environment all high performance sport faces. But I don’t believe this will be the case at all.
In fact I believe Australians would be horrified by any thought that there was a shift away from governments supporting sport as they do.
If they did we would have to cut costs according to that and it would change what we do and would involve very, very challenging decisions.
My view is we will still have to confront some difficult challenges anyway but I believe there is still strong support for high performance sport investment. What we need to do is realign our resourcing strategy so were clear about how we’re investing and what we’re investing for.
I think the idea of nationhood is a significant reason why we do this. I believe Australians really engage with the idea of seeing young people achieve excellence. You only have to look to the last year and the Tour de France and Cadel Evans’ performance and the performances of Sally McLellan on the world stage. Those two athletes are just recent examples of the pride we all feel when athletes achieve success.
SBI: How important are the Olympic medals tables to you and and what do think the expectations should be for London?
MF: If we’re looking at the Olympic table, it comes to two ways, the gold medals and overall tally. On the gold tally side, we are capable of finishing as high as fourth. I don’t think we’re strong enough to finish in third but the margins are going to be so tight on gold medals.
I believe we could fall into eighth place but it could be one to two medals different between fourth and eighth. I don’t think we should interpret that to be a failure, but below eighth absolutely we all should be asking very hard questions.
We’re already asking tough questions, but if we fell below that it would advance some of the thinking we’re already considering now. We know we some of the changes we need to make and areas we need to explore. I still believe that Australia can and should perform well in London in both Olympic and Paralympic Games, but that said, we have to reflect on the actual result in London before we move forward with any final strategy.
SBI: Your contract is through to 2017. When it’s up what do you think you will be judged on?
MF: It’s a good point, and I’m looking to really clarify that. Personally, I want to be able to think that if there was a legacy I left that one of those things would be every athlete that aspired to Olympic and Paralympic success in that period was able to reflect on the support they received from the AIS and ASC and valued that support significantly. I’m not saying that’s not happening now but something that’s very important to me, otherwise why do this? This is all about the athletes.
The second thing is that I’ve played a role in evolving the high performance sector in Australia such that it is able to genuinely retain its position at the top table of international sport. And that the AIS, as a brand, continues to be seen as a brand of integrity and excellence and that Australians understand what that means and what our role is in supporting high performance Australians.