Australia’s most successful city for producing Olympic athletes

Sculpture By The Sea at Cottesloe Beach in Perth. Paul Kane/Getty Images

Perth has come out on top in a study into Australia’s most successful towns for producing Olympic athletes.

And it has nothing to do with the water and everything to do with the size of the community, its facilities, parks, beaches, the ease of getting around and its benign climate.

Kristy O’Neill, a PhD student from the University of Sydney, arrived at the result after examining the profiles of 2160 Australian athletes who competed in 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 newspaper articles, O’Neill then traced each athlete to a local government area to determine where they were born or raised.

Olympic success was determined by areas which had the highest number of representations proportionate to their population size.

The three bordering local government areas of Cambridge, Claremont and Nedlands in Perth emerged as a hot spot for 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,” says O’Neill.

“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.”

O’Neill’s analysis revealed several other hot spots nationally which have produced a proportionately high number of Olympic representation.

These include local government areas around Brisbane, Ballarat and Boroondara in Victoria, Burnside and Mitcham in Adelaide, and Manly in Sydney.

The one key factor contributing towards Perth’s sporting success was the size of the city itself.

“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,” says O’Neill.

“Perth-raised athletes also benefited from easy commutes to these sports facilities. Many athletes in the Perth hot spot 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, contributed most to their success.

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