When Sydneysider Alana Thomson was in year 3, Sydney won the right to host the Olympic Games, and she waited excitedly for the big event. “It was rammed down our throats that the most amazing thing was about to happen,” she says.
She enthusiastically became a youth ambassador for the Games and a student volunteer for the Paralympic Games while also developing her skills and love for playing sport, particularly netball. But, years later, after completing a Bachelor of Management degree, Alana realised that many of the hyped promises about the supposed legacy from big sporting events such as the Olympics never materialise.
Now a high-profile sports researcher, Federation University Lecturer and advisor in the Institute of Health and Wellbeing in Queensland, Dr Thomson has spent much of her academic career looking at improving the legacy of sports events. These are vital issues as Australia is set to host the Olympics, Commonwealth Games and other big sporting events in the next few years.
“For my PhD I studied the World Masters Games in Sydney in 2009, which emphasised healthy lifestyle legacies for seniors in the community, but the main priority for this event was the tourism and economic impacts, and there was very little on encouraging and enabling our seniors to get back into sport,” she says. “I just found a broken system. People were developing an event rather than developing the sport.”
In 2015 Dr Thomson’s expertise in this area saw her become the principal policy officer for legacy for the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast in 2018. She now researches issues around women’s sport, migrant involvement and the effect of sport on communities.
“Signing me up for under 9s netball in the suburbs of outer Sydney, I don’t think my mother had any idea just how big a role this activity would play over the next 20 years and more.” Dr Alana Thomson
Through belonging to netball clubs and volunteering her time at all levels of the sport, she has gained perspective about the treatment of women in sport and women’s sporting events. “We can’t keep comparing it to men’s sport – we have to treat it as its own phenomenon, its own endeavour,” she says.
As an example, a colleague relayed a story to Dr Thomson about the Road Nationals cycling event in Ballarat earlier this year, where the women’s final was run before the men’s. "At the end of the women's race, my colleague was disappointed to hear the commentator say, ‘And now the race you’ve all been waiting for,’ and started the men’s race. This is an example of how we are used to looking at women’s sport from a deficit perspective.”
With her unique blend of policy expertise, academic rigour, business acumen and sport experience, Dr Thomson was approached by Rugby Australia to help work out how to attract Chinese communities to rugby. “If you don’t grow up with it, you don’t know the rules, and you’re not familiar with it,” she says. “But the Aussie approach is often ‘we treat everyone as equal, so we treat everyone the same’ – therefore we won’t attract those different cultural groups.”
In partnership with the World Academy of Sport, Dr Thomson has helped design Federation’s Bachelor of International Sports Management degree over the past couple of years. Students come from all over Australia, and elite athletes have joined the course from as far away as Africa. “This program is cutting edge in that is co-designed with industry and delivered wholly online to provide flexibility for dual-career athletes and sport management students who are often balancing work and study commitments," she says.