Why Is Australia So Athletic & Good At Sports?

Australia Olympic Medals Per Person

The Olympics are coming this summer. And there will be one thing for sure – Australia is going to win way more medals than they are supposed to, given their population.

The reasons why they excel at the Olympics is well-covered. They have developed a system of scouting and development across a range of sports. Other countries do that as well.

But here’s the thing. Australia only has 25 million people. Sure, they are very wealthy. But they have the population of, like, Florida or a mid-size city in China.

And they excel in every global sport. The Olympics are just extra.

Cricket

Australia has the team in the world. They crush India, which has 1.5 billion people who are obsessed with only cricket. They crush the UK, which invented the sport and has 3x their population. AND – they support one of the top cricket leagues in the world with attendance above 40,000 per game.

Rugby

Australia has a top 10 rugby team in both men’s and women’s tournaments. Again, they do this like, on the side, rather than focusing on it like South Africa – a country with 3x their population.

Soccer

Australia has qualified for the last 5 FIFA World Cups, and advanced to the Round of 16 twice. That’s better than the US and many other more populous and/or soccer obsessed countries. Oh – and their women’s teams are all top ten year in and year out. And, like cricket and rugby, they host one of the most competitive domestic leagues in the world.

Basketball

The men’s team is #5 in the world. Also, they still repeatedly beat the United States. It’s really annoying. But hey – they have the population of Florida.

But Those Aren’t Even Their Main Sport…

Like in the US, Australia has their own version of football – Australian Rules Football.

And it’s absolutely insane.

Their teams can draw 100,000 people. The players are absolutely nuts – it has all the violence of rugby with all the running of a marathon.

So Australians Are All Super-Fit?…No.

Why Is Australia So Athletic & Good At Sports? 1
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Australia has all the issue of every other food secure country.

It seems like it’s a matter of heavy childhood participation, universal support for sport, and an insane amount of money. Much to an American’s chagrin, Australia spends tax money on elite athletes and clubs – they have an entire government bureaucracies that subsidize scouting, sports medicine, and organized preparation. Like, imagine if the US National Park Service had a division of Recreation devoted to developing American athletes.

But I think there’s one extra step.

Australia seems to be the entire-country-version of the second-child, midsize city phenomenon. On an individual level, elite athletes are disproportionately likely to come from midsize cities. Here’s how sports writer Tim Wrigmore describes it –

“If you grow up in a town of between 50,000 and 100,000, you’re 15 times — 15 times — more likely to become an elite athlete than if you grew up in an area smaller or bigger,” Wigmore says. Michael Jordan grew up in Wilmington, N.C., which fit the bill during his childhood (these days it’s slightly over 100,000 people). During the 20th century, Wilmington produced a huge number of elite athletes, including Sonny Jurgensen, a NFL quarterback Hall of Famer, and Sugar Ray Leonard, an Olympic gold medalist in boxing.

Wigmore says research finds the midsize-city phenomenon all over the world. “Midsized towns have the perfect combination of rural and urban living,” he says. “You get the space that you get in rural areas, but you also get the kind of quality of competition and coaching that you get in urban areas.”

Midsize towns also fall in the sweet spot when it comes to supply and demand for athletes. They’re big enough to have a diverse array of people to recruit from, but they’re also small enough that players will be in demand. Coaches may encourage more kids to play — even if they’re not good yet — and help them reach their potential. “There’s been studies of dropout rates, and they find that if you’re in cities with over half a million people, kids are about three times more likely to drop out of a certain sport than kids in these midsized towns,” Wigmore says.

How To Be An Elite Athlete, According To The Data

So here’s my idea – Australia benefits from being the perfect population size. Australia is a midsize city on the scale of countries.

They are big enough to have dedicated coaches, involved parents, salaried athletes, 5 Start training facilities, and lots of sports options for kids. It’s not like the only sport to play is soccer, or running, or skiing. You can be athletic in other ways.

But they aren’t so big that they have infinite choice and infinite competition with the best of the best from a young age. In other words, Australia doesn’t have kids peeling off to play lacrosse, ultimate frisbee, pickleball, and other sports that think they too can be “major league” and they also don’t have kids that are so good in elementary school that they feel like they can’t compete and develop.

I think we’re going to keep hearing the Australian national anthem on the world sporting stage.

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