Australian sport failing on diversity - Perkins

FILE PHOTO: Commonwealth Games - Opening Ceremony - Alexander Stadium, Birmingham, Britain - July 28, 2022 General view of the Australia team during the athletes parade REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australian sport is racking up impressive achievements in global competition but it has failed to develop athletes and coaches that represent the diversity of the country, former Olympic swimming champion Kieren Perkins said on Wednesday.

Perkins, who now runs the national sports funding agency, the Australian Sports Commission, said little had changed since he left sport to pursue a career in banking over a decade ago.

"Sport needs to be a lot more open and inclusive," the 49-year-old said in a speech at the National Press Club.

"I’ve been very disheartened but honestly not surprised to see that sport looks identical to when I finished in the late 2000s as an athlete.

"We haven’t progressed and it’s imperative that our sporting sector becomes truly representative of a modern, progressive and diverse Australia.

"By 2032 (Olympics), if sports still look the same as they do today, I certainly haven’t done my job properly."

Perkins cited Australia's Commonwealth Games delegation at Birmingham as evidence of a lack of diversity in elite sport.

While 53% of the athletes were female, less than 10% of high performance coaches were women. Thirteen percent of the team were born overseas compared with 29% of the Australian population.

Perkins said Australian sport had to do more to nurture talent from socially disadvantaged backgrounds and create more inclusive environments for people who might be turned off by rigid structures around competition, training and coaching at community level.

"All Australians must see themselves in their sporting heroes, helping to promote national pride, drive sport participation and increase our talent pool," said Perkins, who won back-to-back 1,500 metres freestyle gold medals at the 1992 and 1996 Olympics.

At Olympic level, Australia is enjoying a renaissance in the lead-up to hosting the Brisbane Games in 2032, with its athletes winning 17 gold medals in Tokyo last year to match the country's haul at Athens in 2004.

Australia's Winter Olympians won a record four medals at the Beijing Games this year and will enjoy a funding boost to prepare for the 2026 Milano-Cortina Games.

Perkins announced the government had pledged A$28.6 million ($18.6 million) to support athletes through the four-year cycle to Milano-Cortina, the first commitment of its kind for the Winter Games.

Australia will host the 2026 Commonwealth Games in southern Victoria state six years before the Brisbane Olympics, giving the sports industry a major boost over the next decade.

Keeping the momentum strong after 2032 will be the challenge, said Perkins, who noted Australia's long decline in high performance after hosting the 2000 Sydney Games.

"We're still a strong sporting system and doing things well but we've spent the past two decades trying to climb back to just where we were then," he said.

"Brisbane '32 needs to be a springboard, not a finishing line."

($1 = 1.5404 Australian dollars)

(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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