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

Kieren Perkins warns sport organisations that they risk losing talent unless they change their ways
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Former Olympic swimming champion Kieren Perkins — now the CEO in charge of dispersing the government's funding of sport — has issued a stark warning to those in charge: take a look outside the bubble because the world is changing.
While the globe's best swimmers from Australia and the USA were entertaining the crowds at the recently revived Duel in the Pool meet at Sydney's Aquatic Centre, Perkins was providing some ripples of his own at a conference running in tandem — SwimCon '22, a two-day meeting for national and international swimming executives and others involved in the sport.
"Sport needs to take some time having a really good hard look at itself," Perkins said.
"If we just want to win, and we're happy just putting people into the meat grinder and seeing how many kids survive to get gold medals, if that's all that matters … fine, I can buy gold medals, that's not hard.
"But I think we can do better than that, I think we can create a culture and an environment in Australia where everyone as they go through their life's journey … starts from learning basic skills and having lots of fun to being an adult that would love nothing more than to give their free time to help sports succeed."
Perkins accepts the responsibility of leading that conversation as CEO of the Australian Sports Commission with oversight of Sport Australia and the Australian Institute of Sport, but he warned the sports sector must unify or put at risk any meaningful, long-lasting benefit of the so-called green and gold decade leading into the Brisbane 2032 Olympic Games.
"We want all Australians, regardless of their background, to have access to quality sporting experiences," he said.
"We do live in a world of great diversity whether that be gender, race, culture, age, sexual orientation, abilities, skills, experiences and or values.
"By valuing that diversity and engaging with it the strength that can be created for sport in this country and that sport can help deliver in building inclusive communities is imperative."
A day earlier Brent Nowicki, the CEO of swimming's world governing body FINA, had told the same delegates their sport was facing a period of change requiring ingenuity, flexibility, open-mindedness and evolution.
New event formatting, greater recognition of the athletes' voice, career planning initiatives, and a recent inclusion policy banning transgender athletes were listed as some of the significant developments made in the past year.
FINA's inclusion policy is at odds with Sport Australia's inclusion framework, where inclusion comes first unless evidence of unfair advantage can be provided on a case-by-case basis.
Despite not being one of the most pressing challenges facing women's sport, it is one of the noisiest discussions on social media, and one of the topics Perkins will be asked about on the ABC's Q and A program tonight.
"It would be somewhat disingenuous of me to go through a conversation like this without at least not touching on one of the more vocal, but probably less significant, population level issues around transgender athletes in our sport," Perkins said.
"I know that the decision that FINA has made to deliver their position on swimming, and the opportunity for transgender people in sport has caused plenty of headlines.
"But what I would ask, and what I would acknowledge, is that the international level decision has significant impacts and repercussions for sport in domestic communities and we've seen that here in Australia.
"I have seen communications go out at community level sport, [saying] FINA's made their call, does that mean we no longer have to play against these blokes in women's sport anymore?
"This kind of bigotry and embedded cultural problem that we have in Australia is at risk of being exacerbated dramatically if we don't find a way to be inclusive in our policies, to find a way to navigate these very difficult and nuanced topics in a way that allows us to continue to ensure the integrity of sport, to ensure the cultural value that sport drives.
"But more than anything, recognise that unless we are actually playing for sheep stations, and there is life and death involved … we should not be creating an environment or a position where anybody feels like they are not allowed or should not be involved in what we're trying to deliver."
A much bigger issue for sport is what Perkins refers to as a "cliff of participation", where the 70 per cent of kids who play sport under the age of 12 drops to less than 20 per cent once they emerge from their teens.
"This cliff coincides with the period of time when sport becomes serious," Perkins said.
"We start grading teams, training ramps up, we start talking about ladders and recruitment … competitions that are leading to finals and selection.
"[Sport] moves away from having fun, and being engaged, and being a participant, to seriousness, to winning, and to not having fun."
Technology, hormones and social distractions for drop-off rates can no longer be blamed, Perkins said. 
"What is it about the experience that we are providing that is pushing children away from wanting to be a part of our environment? And what responsibility do we have to shift that?" he said.
The system has for decades been geared towards the elite end of sport, which only appeals to a small minority, and Perkins pointed to his own experience of coming back into sport after more than two decades working in the banking sector.
"It's quite extraordinary, I did talk about this when I stepped back onto the [Swimming Australia] board back in 2018 or '19, whenever it was," he said.
"Recognising that what I came back to was a sport that looked pretty much the same as it did when I was competing.
"It's not surprising when you consider that the government's position and programs all being delivered were essentially unchanged since 1979.
"The world's changed, dramatically, the cohorts of individuals who want to engage or be involved in sport are very, very, different to the children who wanted to be involved in sport in the 60s, 70s, and 80s."
The most significant uptake of a sport during the two years of the pandemic happened to be the same sports that made their Olympic debut at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games — surfing and skateboarding.
"That's got absolutely nothing to do with elite [sport]. They were in Tokyo and that helped but actually, that's people doing an activity that they engage with on their terms in their time. And we've got to understand that," Perkins said.
"I do honestly believe that there is a massive opportunity for sports that are trying to create Olympians or Paralympians to actually understand what's happening in the community and link into it.
"Not try to change it or blow it up because that doesn't fit our model of what we think is acceptable or should be the way things are done.
"If you've got a couple of 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 bring them forward, not oh you need to become a member of the club or we'll refuse to support you."
Without the grassroots, elite sport cannot exist. Getting the balance right has proven to be notoriously difficult, and the constant demand for more government funding is not the answer either, according to Perkins, who points to Australia's continued gold medal success on the international stage undermining that call.
"The reality is that government does not trust sport because they don't know who to listen to. It's not a portfolio that comes with a whole lot of high-fives and whoopees," he said.
"How about we come together with some consolidated strategic views on things.
"A little bit more of a singular voice … so that when the government does get confronted with choices, they can make choices which are strategically impactful not helping one small group who scream the loudest."
It is a tough ask, one Perkins would like to achieve sooner rather than later.
He recognises though that to bring along an entire sector he's going to have to "hurry up slowly".
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