The torch, baton and monograph

September 22, 2000

Every aspect of the Olympics, from its history to its effect on communities, is under scrutiny by Australian students and academics, writes Geoff Maslen

Almost every team of athletes from the 200 nations who marched at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games had a community from their nation living in Sydney - and cheering them on. That fact was a big reason for Sydney's winning the bid to host the Olympics, says Jock Collins, a lecturer at the University of Technology, Sydney.

Professor Collins says that the city's multicultural communities have been closely involved in organising the games. His students conducted a survey of ethnic community organisations in Sydney that revealed one in three was involved in recruiting Olympic volunteers, with most reporting that they were very interested in the games.

"More than 50 per cent of all ethnic community centres, social and sporting clubs are planning games-related activities," Professor Collins says.

Professor Collins is just one of hundreds of academics across Australia who have brought the Olympics into the lecture theatre. A dozen universities offer Olympics studies courses, while every school or department dealing with sport has its students investigating different aspects of the event.

Janet Cahill is the University of Technology's Olympic project manager and a graduate of the UTS School of Leisure, Sport and Tourism. In 1994 she was in the first student intake to complete the then new subject on the Olympics. After graduating, Ms Cahill became fascinated by the field and last year she wrote a history of the Olympic flame and torch.

Her position at UTS allows her to liaise with hundreds of students and staff associated with Olympic planning. Students have been doing work experience with the games' organising body, the International Olympic Committee.

"The IOC has watched every achievement and milestone at UTS, and - for the first time - the committee endorsed an academic programme linked to the Olympics," Ms Cahill says. The course is a masters programme for Greek students funded by the Greek government (the games will be in Greece in 2004) and supported by UTS and the Sydney organising committee.

Although students across Australia are studying aspects of the games, the local, club-based nature of sport in the country means that university teams lack the profile or institutional significance their US counterparts enjoy.

"Sport tends to be outside the university network," says Richard Baka, a lecturer in the School of Human Movement, Recreation and Performance at Victoria University in Melbourne. "Because sport is part of the local club system, Australia has not followed the US model, where sport is linked to the universities, with scholarship schemes and all the rest."

Dr Baka, a Canadian academic who has worked in Australia for 21 years, says many top sports people have had sponsors to finance their degree studies in fields such as physical education or sports administration. But such scholarships are almost always awarded by local clubs, state institutes of sport or the Australian Sports Commission.

"The great majority of students interested in sport or doing a sports-related degree have to meet the same entry requirements as any other applicant for a place," Dr Baka says. "I do not think Australian universities will ever have a US-type sports scholarship system because our athletes belong to their own clubs."

In the US, having a top sporting programme can help attract donations from former students, Dr Baka says. "Australian universities do not have that relationship between their sports teams and their alumni. They usually do not even have strong alumni associations, and I do not see universities getting their foot in the door with sports scholarships."

Dr Baka is coordinator of an Olympics studies subject at Victoria. It is an elective that undergraduates can take as part of their PE degree, and he is in Sydney watching the games for his research.

"We took students on the Olympics studies course on a field trip to Sydney to look at the venues before the games," he says. "Now they have three weeks off so they can watch the events and then present a post-games analysis and a research paper."

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