Shooting duo voice concerns with Australian sport at the crossroads

Voices from within the SSAA have added their weight to growing fears the running of Australian sport at elite level has lost its way.

Shooting once again showed up well at the recent Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, with the Australian team finishing second on the medal table behind big-spending India. And Australia ended up well clear of its rivals on the overall medal ladder. However, let’s remember that while the Commonwealth Games is a vibrant gathering, it does not possess the all-star aura of the Olympics or International Shooting Sport Federation World Cup events.

So behind those bald facts there is growing discontent the Australian Sports Commission’s ‘Winning Edge’ strategy is failing to deliver its aims with the mismanagement of funding to many sports.

An open letter to The Australian newspaper co-written by former ASC chairman Greg Hartung, former ASC executive director Jim Ferguson, former Australian Institute of Sport director John Boultbee and Australian Olympic Committee president and member of the International Olympic Committee John Coates, wants to see an independent inquiry look at the ASC’s Winning Edge funding model and the parlous appearance of the Australian Institute of Sport.

The once-revered training regime of the AIS is in a state of neglect due to lack of personnel and fractured infrastructure. Passing responsibilities to various national sporting organisations has created a chaotic situation.

In the open letter the four have registered their concern the elite Australian sports model is effectively “broken” and has lost its sense of direction.

The highly respected and well-credentialed administrators say they hope recently installed sports minister Senator Bridget McKenzie, a noted SSAA supporter, could start to turn things around with the release of the national sports plan which will include the next instalment of high-performance funding for Olympic athletes.

The Winning Edge approach is seen by some as being obsessed with short-term pursuit of medals at the expense of participants lower down the order who are denied their chance of guidance and advancement.

These developments were greeted with interest by SSAA National President Geoff Jones and Olympic shooting gold medallist Russell Mark, a regular columnist in Australian Shooter magazine and long-standing SSAA member.

Geoff is not surprised at some of the factors that give rise to anxiety about what the future holds for Australian sport. “As an organisation we (the SSAA) have had an uncomfortable relationship with the elite sports model,” he said. “And if anything it only seems to be getting worse.

“To say the model is broken seems right on the money – that does seem relevant. There’s a clear lack of communication from elite level management. It’s an exclusive model, not an inclusive model.”

Geoff feels the shooting sports receive a raw deal from a funding perspective. “We effectively get no support or funding and are disappointed with the whole deal,” he said.

“We’re constantly frustrated by elitist political agendas and have had a corporate model forced on our organisation. We could become a part of it but there’s absolutely no point.

“As an organisation we’re probably 10 times larger than a lot of the other sporting organisations put together but we’re effectively locked out. As I say, we get absolutely no funding from the Government because we refuse to toady to their demands.”

With SSAA membership soaring towards the 200,000 mark, Geoff said the organisation was in great shape but was frequently given the cold shoulder in terms of sporting acknowledgment when compared to more mainstream sports.

“Members who join our organisation are 100 per cent involved in the actual physical participation of shooting. They may not be running around a football field but they are actively involved,” he said.

“We can provide an ideal pathway to Commonwealth and Olympic Games action. Yet the philosophical and ideological views of some politicians stifle the pathway to those events.

“We have promising youngsters who come along and make progress but are then virtually pulled out of the sport by the central body. They seem to want to take control of the athletes.

“Some people are extremely vocal in wanting to deny others entry into our sport, a sport which shows equality and no bias in regard to age, gender, religion and so on.”

Despite the frustrations experienced by shooting, Geoff was proud of the code’s achievements on the global sporting stage. “There’s a negative media portrayal of shooting, yet our sport has won more Olympic and Commonwealth medals down the years for Australia than just about any other,” he said.

“It was interesting that the oldest competitor at the recent Commonwealth Games was a 79-year-old shooter from Canada, which illustrates perfectly what I’m talking about.”

Russell was equally scathing in his disillusionment of the funding process and the way Winning Edge allows Shooting Australia to choose its team for major events.

“I have never been a supporter of Winning Edge. The trouble with it is that it doesn’t build depth,” said Russell. “It creates the world’s narrowest sporting pyramids. It’s killing our sport. In fact, Winning Edge has destroyed the grass roots level of shooting – that’s why I hate it.”

Russell, a six-time Olympian, knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the selection process. He pointed to the flaws demonstrated by the final selection trial in the women’s Trap for the recent Commonwealth Games.

The first person in the team was whoever finished first, while the second was at the discretion of Shooting Australia. “Laetisha Scanlan won, so fair and square she was off to the Games,” said Russell. “But young Penny Smith came second and beat Olympic champion Catherine Skinner on points. Yet Shooting Australia decided to take Skinner over the woman who had just beaten her.”

The irony is that shortly before that trial, Smith was named 2017 Female Shooter of the Year by Shooting Australia. “So how can you say ‘well done but you’re not going to the Games?’ Penny Smith was not a ‘name’ in the eyes of Shooting Australia, who had put all their eggs in one basket with Catherine Skinner,” said Russell.

“It is all too political, not transparent. Catherine is the goose that laid the golden egg. She saved the administrators’ faces with gold at the Rio Olympics. Shooting Australia needed Catherine Skinner to go to the Commonwealth Games. She was in bad form and shouldn’t have gone, but Penny was pulled out of the team in favour of Catherine because the administration had paid funds to her, so they’d look stupid if she didn’t make the team.

“People look at that and think ‘why should I bother taking up shooting?’ If you start out now in shooting you’re virtually funding yourself. Look at women’s Skeet. We have only three people left competing and you can’t build a team around a pool of three.”

Russell is adamant such selection anomalies should be rectified but was doubtful there would be any quick-fix. “Winning Edge is a policy thought up by administrators for the benefit of administrators. There are more administrators being paid from the funds than competitors,” he said.

Yet Russell pointed out that a better pre-Games model was right under the nose of shooting’s ruling body. “Look at swimming. They have one trial and that’s it. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done before, if you’re good enough in the trial you’re good enough to go to the Games,” he said.

“That was the same back in the 1990s for me and Michael Diamond. We won lots of events but knew we had to be at our very best just to qualify because of the intense competition.

“Swimming operates a system that’s clear and concise. With their system you’ll get the best team in the best form – you don’t need administrators. Their pyramid is big at the bottom.”

Russell hopes there’s still time to do something before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are upon us. But, like Geoff, he mirrors the more formal apprehensions of the four joint-authors of the open letter about Australia’s sporting administrative landscape that has sparked these reactions.

“John Coates is a good administrator, excellent in fact. No wonder he’s speaking up – he can see what’s going on and wants to do something about it,” said Russell.

“The SSAA may not have the shooting pull of the ISSF but if ISSF shooters do well at the Olympics, the whole of shooting benefits as a result. At the same time, if the shooters do badly in the Tokyo Games we’ll all feel the effects. I can’t see things getting any better in Tokyo.”

To prevent such a doom-laden outcome, Australia’s sports administrators need to put their house in order – and fast.

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