Australia’s love of sport combined with better funding and improved infrastructure is behind the success of the national team at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics and Olympics, a leading sports scientist has said. 

After ranking 6th in the Tokyo Olympics Australia kicked off its Paralympics campaign by topping the rankings, with six gold medals after two days of competition. Athletes including Paige Greco, Emily Petricola and William Martin won gold in cycling and swimming.

Australia finished the Tokyo 2020 Olympics with a final medal tally of 46: 17 gold, 7 silver and 22 bronze. Despite a global pandemic, Australia sent 478 competitors in 30 Olympic sports. 

Dr Stephen Townsend from the University of Queensland’s School of Human Movement and Nutrition Sciences told Central News “money and infrastructure predominantly” were the leading factors in higher performance. 

“It’s a combination of the popularity of sport in Australia and the amount of taxpayer money that goes towards elite sport,” he said. 

Dr Townsend said similar factors will influence Australia’s success at the Paralympics.

“Australia is still deeply ableist and our treatment of people with disabilities leaves much to be desired, but compared to some other nations our healthcare system is relatively good at providing opportunities [for] disability leisure activities, which means there is a bigger talent pool for potential Paralympic selection,” he added.

Paralympics Tokyo

The opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics. Photo by mrhayata/flickr

He said Australian sports have a history of identifying athletes at a junior level and nurturing them.

“We’ve got great systems in place for locating talent. Talent identifying young athletes, funnelling them into sports that are going to potentially win gold medals and putting a significant portion of public funds towards ensuring that those medals come,” Dr Townsend said.

“I imagine what we’re going to see is that there was a significant amount of government spending on elite athletes over the last four years.” 

This year’s hosting city of Tokyo has a one-hour time difference with Australia as opposed to the 13 hours between the previous hosting city, Rio de Janeiro.

Dr Townsend said while all elite athletes had prepared and trained for those complications, Australian competitors are “less likely” to have “circadian rhythm problems as opposed to someone who’s got to travel from Europe or the United States”. 

He added competitors from other countries may have been hampered as a result of training time lost in early 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions, lack of crowds and being prevented from competing in other “major meets” of national or international competitions which may have boosted their performance in the Olympic Games. These factors may have paved the way for some of Australia’s success. 

Australia’s highest ranking in the games was 3rd in Melbourne 1956, with a tally of 35, which is the second lowest medal tally in comparison to the last 20 years. 

Australia’s Olympic Ranking 2008 – 2020.


Australia’s Olympic Medal Tally 2008 – 2020.


“The Olympic Games have obviously expanded hugely,” Dr Townsend said. “There are many more events for women and men.”

He also suggested, “the addition of some alternative sports” was a factor in success. Tokyo featured skateboarding for the first time, with Japan and Australia the only two countries to win gold – Australian Keegan Palmer being a stand-out.

Australia’s performance does fluctuate in the Olympics and it is difficult to forecast the performance of a particular group of athletes. 

“You can’t necessarily predict when a particularly talented crop of athletes is going to come through… you can plan, or you can prepare to succeed as much as possible but sometimes you just get brilliant athletes who all come through and represent your country at the same time and that appears to be what’s happened in these Olympics.” 

Main image: Aussie Edward Trippas competes in the first round of the 3000m steeplechase. Photo: Brittany Nelson/US Army/Flickr