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Which is Australia's most successful Olympic town?

26 July 2016

Perth, Western Australia, has come out on top in a study into Australia's most successful towns for producing Olympic athletes, according to new University of Sydney research. 

Athlete at the starting block

Kristy O'Neill, a PhD student from the Faculty of Education and Social Work, arrived at the result after examining the profiles of 2160 Australian athletes who had competed in the summer Olympic Games between 1984 and 2012.

Using biographical and archival data from the Australian Olympic Committee, official team handbooks, the National Sport Information Centre in Canberra and published newspaper articles, O'Neill then traced each athlete to a corresponding local government area to determine where the athletes were born or raised.  

Olympic success was determined by those local government areas which had the highest number of representations proportionate to their population size, with the three bordering local government areas of Cambridge, Claremont and Nedlands in Perth emerging as a clear hotspot for nurturing sporting talent.

"The 'birthplace effect phenomena' – where elite or professional athletes are more likely to come from small-to-medium-sized communities – has been identified in Canada and the United States, but I wanted to see if this effect also existed in Australia," said O'Neill.

As part of her doctoral thesis, O'Neill interviewed 42 people from the local community, including 11 Olympians, to determine which features made Perth such a strong sporting community, and whether this success could be replicated in other areas across Australia.

While early learning environments were a crucial factor for fostering world-class athletes, O'Neill also uncovered several other elements that, if present in other locations, could produce similar results to Perth.

"The geographic location in Perth is ideal for encouraging a sporting culture. The climate is more Mediterranean, the community has access to lots of built and natural facilities – beaches, parks and open spaces – as well as access to larger backyards. All of this encourages people to engage with sports from an early age and fosters a physically active population," said O’Neill.

"Given Perth has a relatively small population compared to somewhere like Sydney, the athletes there are also able to compete against more experienced athletes from a young age, and as juniors had quite a lot of interaction with older athletes as role models."

O'Neill's analysis revealed several other hotspots nationally which have produced a proportionately high number of Olympic representation for their region, including local government areas around Brisbane, Ballarat and Boroondara in Victoria, Burnside and Mitcham in Adelaide, and Manly in the Sydney region.

Yet one key factor contributing towards Perth’s sporting success was the size of the city itself, O'Neill found.

Perth is big enough to have world-class sporting facilities but is not as large as Sydney or Melbourne, meaning that promising athletes were more likely to be noticed early on by coaches or talent spotters.
Kristy O'Neill

"Perth-raised athletes also benefited from easy commutes to these sports facilities. Many athletes in the Perth hotspot areas only needed to travel for between five and 15 minutes before arriving at their destination, which is better for their training and recovery because they're not sitting in traffic for hours each day."

Regardless of where they were based, most of the athletes profiled in O'Neill's study shared the view that resilience and perseverance, rather than natural skill level, contributed most to their success; a promising finding for other towns hoping to follow Perth's example.

"None of the athletes really emphasised having good genes or being 'born with it' – they just believed that relentlessly working hard made the difference. They weren't always the best athletes at the younger age groups, but they were the ones who had the most grit or stuck with it," said O'Neill.

"It's multifaceted and definitely can't be attributed to one thing, but the athletes said the factors that were close to home – their family influences, their psychological traits, and having a positive early experience at community sports clubs and in primary school – were the most influential, rather than location-based factors which no doubt gave them an advantage."

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