Over his career, Gary Flowers FAICD has become a familiar fixture on the boards and management teams of several of Australia’s most iconic sporting organisations. He knows first-hand the highs and lows that come with managing elite sporting teams: the governance challenges, cultural issues and the immense pressure the Australian public places on its athletes.

AICD: Gary, how do you think the Australian Olympic Team will perform at the Rio Games?

Gary Flowers (GF): I think that our performance will be a vast improvement on what we saw at the London Games in 2012 and I anticipate that we will come home with 15 or 16 gold medals. The Australian Olympic Committee has set a clear standard – it wants to be the most respected team at the Olympic Games. We will have a group of almost 500 athletes at the Games, and the NSW Institute of Sport (NSWIS) will be providing around 90 of those athletes.

AICD: How can a good culture in sporting teams positively impact performance?

GF: There are many examples of how culture can lead to what I would call “sustainable competitive performance”. It stems from leadership of the organisation as much as the athletes themselves. In the past we have seen how poor culture can damage and negatively impact performance. Now, there is a much more pointed focus on our athletes shaping the culture. We have some wonderful role models in Australian sport who help our athletes and provide inspiration on how they themselves can set that culture benchmark.

AICD: What are some of the unique governance challenges that face sporting organisations?

GF: There is a lot of pressure on sporting organisations to reform themselves – the Australian Sports Commission and the NSWIS are leading the way in this reform. It’s all about diversity; it’s about moving away from federated models, moving towards governance models that include independent non-executive directors who bring a special set of skills and expertise to the organisation.

You only have to read the newspapers every day to see the increased attention on the governance of anti-doping policies, alcohol policies and child-protection policies. But for me, the greatest governance challenge that sporting organisations face, particularly in Olympic sports, is that we have to contend with and stretch finite resources – in comparison with our international competitors – and still produce world-best performance every time.

AICD: At the Olympic level in particular, where athletes begin under the jurisdiction of their sporting body, e.g. Swimming Australia, and then get transferred to the jurisdiction of the Australian Olympic Committee and the Chef de Mission – is there a governance gap? How do elite sporting organisations manage this governance transfer?

GF: There’s a sophisticated and long-running program every four-year cycle where there is a lot of interaction between organisations like the NSWIS and other sporting bodies. So while it may seem like there is a gap – there actually isn’t. A lot of work goes on behind the scenes to ensure national sporting organisations interact seamlessly with the State Institutes of Sport and the Olympic Committee.

AICD: In the lead up to Rio we have seen issues emerge like the threat of the Zika Virus and terrorism. How do the boards of sporting organisations manage and mitigate risks that have the potential to affect their athletes?

GF: In relation to those key issues around security and disease, the International Olympic Committee, the hosting committee and the Government of the country in which the Games are held are ultimately responsible for ensuring the safety of the athletes. A lot of work goes into protecting and looking after athletes and spectators. I think that where the State Institutes of Sport and other sporting bodies play a role is in preparing the athletes for the countries that they are going to, educating them about the risks in those countries.

AICD: Sport, particularly at the Olympic level involves a lot of moving parts coming together to produce a gold medal-winning athlete. How do they work together to achieve the best outcome?

GF: One of the greatest challenges we face in sport here in Australia is how do we take that wonderful, raw, natural talent we see with our athletes and nuture and support it so they are able to perform on the international stage. It isn’t a quirk of fate. It takes a lot of people and a solid organisation and expert skills along the way to produce it. Certainly, it takes a lot of dedication from the individual athlete, but also includes government and non-government bodies, the parents of the athletes, and their coaches.

Following the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, Gary Flowers FAICD will present an exclusive series of Directors’ Briefings, featuring highlights from the Games and expert insights on sports governance, culture and performance and lessons to be learned.

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