Culture overhaul to lift Aussie Olympians

A team culture overhaul will help Australia achieve its lofty goal of returning to Olympic superpower status at the Rio Games, chef de mission Kitty Chiller says.


A year out from the Olympics, Chiller and the Australian Olympic Committee believe a top-five finish on the medal table is possible in Rio.

“I honestly think that top-five is absolutely realistic,” Chiller told AAP.

“I’m not saying it’s going to be easy by any stretch. I’m sure we’ll need a bit of luck going our way here and there. Yes, it’s an aspirational goal – but it’s also realistic.”

Chiller, preparing for her first Olympics as Australia’s chef de mission after replacing Nick Green in the role, has initiated reforms to team culture in the wake of the nation’s middling campaign at the 2012 London Games.

Australia collected just seven gold medals in London – the fewest in two decades since also winning seven gold at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

Some 16 silver and 12 bronze medals in London bolstered the tally but Australia slid to 10th on the medal table, after finishing sixth, fourth and fourth in the three Games prior.

Chiller said her bullish approach to the Rio Games, which start on August 5 next year, is two-fold.

One: improved culture. Two: swimmers getting their collective act together.

“There is that focus on performance excellence at Olympic Games, that is what it’s about,” Chiller said.

“But the underpinning framework has to be on a supportive, respectful, one-team approach of culture and values.”

To that end, Chiller and the AOC embarked on travelling roadshows where past Olympians met with potential Olympians.

“Previously we haven’t really had that face-to-face contact with athletes,” she said.

“I strongly believe you can’t just develop a team of 750 people in three weeks every four years.

“The concept of this cultural and values roadshow was an idea that I had to try and build that momentum and understand that feeling of team.

“It was just resetting the benchmark of what it means to be an Australian Olympian and making sure our athletes and officials actually understand that and respect what it is that they’re a part of.

“It could be arguable: is it going to make Sally (Pearson) run quicker or Anna (Meares) cycle quicker? You don’t know.

“But I would rather do it and have a great framework around the culture and values of the team than not do it, because I think it can only help that general feeling of one team.”

Much of the cultural review was a reaction to Australia’s miserable swimming campaign at the London Games.

Swimmers, the traditional tone-setters for Australia’s Olympic campaign, were off-key: for the first time since the 1972 Olympics, Australia didn’t produce an individual gold medallist at the pool.

Chiller said reforms in swimming would ensure that meagre return wasn’t repeated in Rio.

“One gold medal in London – we need four, five, six gold medals, that is previously what we had from that sport,” she said.

“And that really was the difference in London between where we finished and where we would have hoped to finish. That affects the mood of the whole team, it really does.

“But swimming, just in the last year, is a much different sport to what it was a couple of years ago in respect of the leadership culture … and their performances in the pool are showing that.”

Chiller, who competed in modern pentathlon at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, will soon travel to Rio for a chef de missions seminar and to attend test events in the Brazilian city.

“It will be really good to start to see Rio in event mode and in competition mode,” Chiller said.

“I think that will show where the gaps are, if there are any, and what else we need to be thinking about.”

Australia expect to send between 460 and 470 athletes to Rio for the first Olympics held in South America.

And Chiller said the AOC was tracking to meet fundraising and sponsorship targets to cover its $32 million budget for the Rio Games – $12m spent on preparations and $20m to send the team.

“A lot of people don’t understand that no government funding goes to sending the team away, it’s all totally through fundraising and sponsorship,” she said.