Making his mark - AFL to AAG

Sport Integrity Australia's Athlete Advisory Group (AAG) was formed to assist strategic direction and shape education, through insights which threaten sport integrity. Former AFL captain Eric McKenzie and Olympic champion Petria Thomas tell us more. 

Making his Mark from the AFL to the AAG

We spoke with former West Coast Eagles captain Eric McKenzie (current AAG member) and Olympic swimming champion Petria Thomas, about the role of the Athlete Advisory Group.



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    Podcast intro: Welcome to On Side, the official podcast of Sport Integrity Australia. Our mission is to protect the integrity of sport and the health and welfare of those who participate in Australian sport. 

    Tim Gavel: Hello and welcome to Sport Integrity Australia's podcast On Side. I'm Tim Gavel. Today we're going to be looking at Sport Integrity Australia's Athlete Advisory Group. The Athlete Advisory Group was originally formed in 2019 to assist Sport Integrity Australia's strategic direction, and to help shape education strategies through their insights into the pressures and influences which can threaten the integrity of sport.

    The group includes former and current athletes from varying backgrounds in sports. Among the new members Paralympic swimming champion Ellie Cole, Australian basketballer Jenna O'Hea, and former West Coast Eagles Captain Eric McKenzie. Today we're going to be speaking with Eric, Petria Thomas a former member of the group and SIA's Assistant Director Engagement. That's coming up shortly.



    Tim Gavel: Well, joining us now is former West Coast Eagles Captain Eric McKenzie. Eric is an AFL Players Association Players Delegate and an International Testing Agency Athlete Ambassador; we'll have a chat to Eric in just a moment. Also joining us is Petria Thomas an Olympic swimming champion, Petria is Chef de mission for the Australian Commonwealth Games Team for Birmingham this year, and Petria, a former member of the group is now SIA's Assistant Director Engagement.

    Well, firstly to you Eric, why did you decide that this might be a good thing to join Sport Integrity Australia's Athlete Advisory Group? 

    Eric McKenzie: It's something I've always kept a close eye on. The integrity of sport is huge. So, the fact I can now have a voice and talk about it with people from a lot of other different sports and see what the common issues are that I experienced in AFL and now seen across other sports, is a really great experience for me and I think there's a lot of lessons to be learned from AFL that can be used in other sports as well.

    Tim Gavel: We'll talk about those lessons learned as well as your experience in other sports and of course, the number of degrees that you have and how you've been able to apply those to sports. But Petria, you have been a member of the Athlete Advisory Group, what did you get out of it? Because you went in really not knowing a lot about Sport Integrity Australia, I guess?

    Petria Thomas: Yeah, look Tim, my experience, well it would be ASADA back in the day, was obviously focused on anti-doping testing and my experience as an athlete. So, I had a degree of knowledge, but it was a real eye opener when we had briefings from different areas within ASADA even when it was focused solely on anti-doping. Just the breadth of work that the organisation does and that's obviously now increased a lot now with the other integrity threat areas coming under the banner of Sport Integrity Australia.

    So, look, I just wanted to contribute and give back and that's why I joined the AAG, and I was in the first sort of intake, so we were still sort of finding our feet and working out what our purpose was, but it was really about contributing and refining that athlete feedback and, take on things. I think and doing that to help ASADA or now Sport Integrity Australia to help shape its policies and things like that. 

    Tim Gavel: Were you surprised when you went to that first meeting and you realised that some of the experiences that you had, and I guess some of the frustrations and the insights that you provided, were also there from other sports, totally different sports than yours? 

    Petria Thomas: Oh yeah absolutely. I think there's a lot of common threads amongst sports. Each sport has its own I suppose particular way things happen, but generally the principles are all the same and the concerns and things are all the same across the majority of sport.

    So, I think it's great that we have such a wide mix of people involved in our new group of AAG Members. We've got 12 members this time around. So, it adds more breadth of opinion and experience and feedback and ideas importantly.  

    Tim Gavel: All right Eric, just on I guess your experience going into this, what was your impression of firstly ASADA and Sport Integrity Australia?

    Eric McKenzie: Well as Petria said, Sport Integrity Australia's very new, and we were actually talking about it just off air prior to this, about how it was ASADA, which was purely anti-doping. But now Sport Integrity Australia covers all the integrity issues which I think is great having it all under the one banner.

    Because doping is one-part, anti-doping is one part. But often there'll be other issues as well which the same athletes experience. So, by having the knowledge and being able to share it under the one banner of Sports Integrity is a really good thing, I think. 

    Tim Gavel: As a former player and as well as somebody who has been involved in getting a number of degrees, do you feel as though you're able to combine your theoretical background with your background from playing days into a role like this?

    Eric McKenzie: I think I can add a unique perspective to this group, and I believe that's why I was added into it. From both my playing backgrounds 12 years at West Coast, but also experience in the off-field stuff as well. As you said, I do have a background, a couple of degrees under my belt, but also having been over to Switzerland and studied there, been in around the Olympic capital in Lausanne was a hugely eye-opening experience for me. 

    Seeing the IOC and all international federations based there and that's how I ended up becoming an Athlete Ambassador as well for the International Testing Agency too. So, to help them deliver their education pieces, it is supposed to be around events but since I came on board, a little thing called COVID has stopped most of the major events for us to be able to get to. 

    Tim Gavel: So, just tell us about the ITA, obviously very much focused on anti-doping, now it is quite an expanded remit for Sport Integrity in Australia. Is your focus very much on anti-doping or do you feel as though you can add a little bit extra to the Athlete Advisory Group?

    Eric McKenzie: I think I can certainly add a lot outside the anti-doping side of things as well. There's a multitude of integrity issues. My role with Basketball WA at the moment is looking at all our policies in place, the child safeguarding, gambling and all those different types of things. So, I believe I do have a well-rounded knowledge that I can add to this group, but I do have, with my ITA backgrounds and having contacts there, I believe I can add a lot in that space as well.

    Tim Gavel: What do you see as the biggest threat to sport now, in terms of an integrity viewpoint?

    Eric McKenzie: It's the access people have to players, that they never used to have. So, the fact that phones have cameras there's no hiding these days, your public life is very much public. There's no private life for athletes anymore, so that I believe can be used against athletes.

    While it's really good and the vast majority of people are really good at giving people space, people can use that to manipulate people, they catch them out doing something silly and then that can be used against them. Whether that is drugs or use it to, they know they've got a gambling problem, and they can manipulate results that way.

    Tim Gavel: Petria, back in your day sort of a few years ago when you came onto the scene, what did you see as the major issue in sport in terms of integrity?

    Petria Thomas: Oh well, certainly back in my swimming days there was a real focus on doping within sport and unfortunately, I swim in an era when that was quite prevalent with a number of countries, but I think in recent years our eyes have really been opened to other integrity threats and obviously particularly in recent times.

    The child safeguarding issues and some of the coaching practices that have become ingrained in in the way people coach, which is concerning. I have kids myself and I know I want my kids to be able to go to their sport and that I'm confident that they're safe, and that they feel safe while they're participating as well.

    So, I think we've made a good start, and I think that there's a long way to go to making significant cultural change so that we can improve sport for everyone involved. 

    Tim Gavel: Do you feel as though athletes feel more empowered now to come out and speak about historical abuse?

    Petria Thomas: Yeah, absolutely. I think the whole Athlete A stuff that came out in the US and then sort of reverberated around the world has really, I think given people more courage, and they perhaps feel a little bit more safe speaking up about things. And I think obviously the role that Sport Integrity Australia is playing in the system now furthers that as well.

    So, we're not there yet, I think there's still a ways to go in terms of people feeling entirely comfortable to speak up, but it's such an important thing to do. Because it's just critical that we keep marching forward and making sport a safer and a fairer place for everyone involved. 

    Tim Gavel: You mentioned there the practices of the past and I guess, it's not only coaches who've got to change, but sports administration has to change as well, doesn't it? And I guess, that's part of the National Integrity Framework in giving a guideline to sporting organisations about how to handle these sorts of things to prevent them happening in future.

    Petria Thomas: Yeah, yeah absolutely Tim. The introduction of the National Integrity Framework whilst it might not be for all sports, but the standards behind them is what we need to be working towards for all sports, you know in Australia, and it's a really important step forward I think, is to have that consistent approach to the standards that we expect our people involved in sport top live by. 

    Tim Gavel: Firstly, to you Petria, and I'll get Eric to follow on from this, but when you came into swimming was there enough education around about sport integrity do you think? Not just talking about anti-doping but talking about child safeguarding, possible manipulation of events, was there enough there that you thought; 'Well I'm well informed now, I'm a young swimmer'? And also, to you Eric in just a moment when you were drafted in 2006, whether there was that education for you, but firstly to you Petria. 

    Petria Thomas: The simple answer is no Tim. There wasn't enough education, and I still don't think there's enough education and that's obviously something they're working hard to roll out from a Sport Integrity Australia perspective. Education is the key. At the end of the day, we want to prevent things from happening and education is the best way to achieve that so. 

    Tim Gavel: What were the education sessions like in those early days, especially as a young swimmer coming through?

    Petria Thomas: Oh, not much to be honest Tim. Back in the days we would have had anti-doping presentations around what we could and couldn't take and awareness around that stuff. But in terms of the other integrity areas there really wasn't a lot that I can remember, back when I was competing.

    Tim Gavel: Do you feel as though you were forced to fend for yourself a little bit?

    Petria Thomas: Um. I suppose to a degree. I suppose they weren't sort of topics or things that people thought about a lot unless something happened and went wrong. Then it became an issue but I suppose just traveling along, if everything was okay then no one really thought about that stuff and that's obviously something that we're trying to shift now, is that culture of actually really embedding those practices in our day to day operations and making sure that people are not just thinking about them when something goes wrong, but they're thinking about how we keep sport safe and fair all the time.

    Tim Gavel: And whether you're engaged in the whole process as well because that's the key, isn't it. To getting athletes to understand exactly what the education is all about?

    Petria Thomas: Yeah exactly. You've got to have buy in from people and you can produce all the online courses in the world, and you know, do all that stuff, but unless people are buying into it, it doesn't achieve what we want it to achieve.

    So, it's about finding innovative ways to get the message out to both the organisations that run sport, because they're a big part of this obviously and then obviously, the members and the participants in sport as well.

    Tim Gavel: What about you Eric? Back in that early day of getting drafted 2006, I'm sure you'll remember it well but what sort of education was around for you and how can it be shaped to help athletes these days?

    Eric McKenzie: Yeah, so I was probably lucky in that I was on the pathway from an early age. The AFL development pathway in terms of went through pretty standard 15s, 16s, 18s and was involved with the AIS as well.

    So, we did get education in and around that but the ones who only entered the pathway later and then into the AFL system, I don't believe would have got, like I still don't think I got enough. But the ones who entered that way, definitely wouldn't have got enough, and then once you're on an AFL list, trying to schedule in any time for these education sessions is next to impossible.

    There's so many different things that they have to do it and when they finally get it in it's more just of a box ticking exercise, and there's no real engagement by the players. Everyone thinks they know 'All right, well that's not going to impact me", so they'll tune out and often it's done after a main training session or something so all you want to do is just almost go back, go somewhere and go to sleep, so you don't actually take anything in.

    So, that's definitely where it can be improved, and I think how it is delivered is huge. Especially to the young guys and I actually brought this up in the last meeting was everyone learns in a different way. So, some people you just give them the information to read on a sheet of paper, others prefer pictures, others prefer especially the younger generation coming through, would rather watch videos and those type of things. So there just needs to be different methods of delivery for this education as well and then actually see and follow up to see if it's been retained.

    Tim Gavel: Almost a role-playing situation too, get the athletes engaged in some form of exercise where they would be in a situation where they need to make a decision and it's based around integrity?

    Eric McKenzie: Yeah, definitely. Role playing's good because you might think you know all the situations and all the dangers, but until we actually get exposed to them you don't.

    So, you want to be proactive not reactive, as Petria said. It's better off the education and preventing these things to happen. You look at a couple of incidents lately, there's a lot of great learnings from it, but they need to be used going forward to stop things like this happening again.

    Tim Gavel: And what have you learned already hearing from other athletes and former athletes about their experiences? I'm sure they've learned a lot from you, what have you learned from fellow members?

    Eric McKenzie: That there is a lot of similarities between the sports. Where me coming from a team sport and having doctors which did everything for us, we really got spoon fed. Whereas ones from less well funded sports, more individual sports, then it goes back onto the individual a lot more especially, when we talk about the anti-doping side of things, what they put in their body. They're the ones who are going out and sourcing it, whereas we were able to get everything batch tested and those type of things.

    So, we had a lot of protections in place to stop those things happening. But the individuals and less funded don't have those in place and that's something I definitely learnt from my ITA education as well. In that these individual sports especially smaller nations, Australia does it well, we have a lot of education in place, but these other nations which don't and rely on getting to these events and then getting the education, they're the ones where the issues certainly arise.

    Tim Gavel: Petria what did you learn from your time in the group?

    Petria Thomas: Oh look, I think, similar to what Eric said, is that a lot of the experiences are shared across the sports, and as I said, before, there's some peculiarities in some sports that do things a little bit differently. But all in the whole, the principles are the same I think, and I think it's always great, you have your own perspective and experiences that you draw from, but hearing other people's stories has been really critical I think as well.

    And you know in the AAG when I was involved as a member, we had athletes that had either tested positive inadvertently or had deliberately taken performance enhancing drugs and it was really interesting hearing their stories, and I suppose the effects that testing positive can have on someone as well, from a personal perspective.

    So, really interesting to hear that and I think it's really important to have that diverse experience as well so we can understand those differences and now we've obviously expanded to look at other integrity areas, there's a lot of passionate people out there around trying to make sport safer for people and those diverse experiences really help us from a Sport Integrity Australia perspective to shape our policies and understand how best to connect with athletes.

    Tim Gavel: Do you feel as though your voice was heard? That something you said, resulted in change?

    Petria Thomas: Yeah, I think so, yeah, definitely. I know the Athlete Advisory Group's not just a box ticking exercise for us. We genuinely want to learn from the athletes, and I think the athletes are probably the biggest stakeholder in sport let's face it.

    So, it's really important that we're listening to them as a stakeholder group and understanding their concerns and developing initiatives and things to do things better in the future as well, I think that's really critical.

    Tim Gavel: Eric, what do you hope that your voice will result in? The experiences that you have had through study, being involved in a number of sports, but as a former player is there a single thing that you'd like to be involved in that would lead to change?

    Eric McKenzie: It's probably going to be looking back on it after a period of time. This is a slow burning thing; we're not just going to be able to implement something straightaway, so it'll be leaving a longer-term legacy and reducing the number of incidents would be a big thing.

    But we can't change everything at once so it's going to be 'Alright, what's going to be the focus for this current group?', and that's probably what we're going to work out in the next meeting or two, what it is that we want to leave our legacy on.

    Tim Gavel: Have you got something in mind that you'd like to leave your legacy?

    Eric McKenzie: Oh, not particularly one thing. It's tightened up, I like the framework that's going out that Sport Integrity Australia's doing. So, it's getting all the national bodies to sign up to that would be a great start. So, if we can do that and push that out, that would be a good start.

    Tim Gavel: And you're looking forward to your time on the Athlete Advisory Group, you're sort of going to be energised by it do you think?

    Eric McKenzie: I sure am. As I said, I'm really enjoying getting to meet these people and hearing their stories as well. As Petria said, everyone there has different stories, whether they've been involved firsthand or they've experienced in teammates and those type of things.

    Everyone's there for a reason and they want change. So yeah, I'm very excited and energised, as you said, to get on this group and the discussions as well. I'm looking forward to actually getting there in person because it's the watercooler chats, which actually I think are almost better than the official formal ones as well.

    Tim Gavel: Good on you, Eric. Thanks very much for that. And Petria, you're virtually a mentor now to this new group coming through, it is great to have you involved. Thanks very much for joining us on Sport Integrity Australia's On Side, for both of you.

    Petria Thomas: Thanks Tim.

    Eric McKenzie: Thank you.


    Podcast Transition: And now for our segment ‘From Left Field’, where we answer a question from the public. 

    Annabelle Cleary: Hi, my name’s Annabelle and I’m a competitive sport climber and athlete educator. The question I have from Left Field today is “Do coaches get in trouble if their athlete tests positive?”.

    If an athlete tests positive, it’s possible that their coach will be investigated. The coach doesn’t automatically get in trouble but if it’s found that they were assisting the athlete in doping, they could be sanctioned and banned from sport. 

    Tim Gavel: Well thanks for joining us today on On Side where we looked at the Athlete Advisory Group. We’ll be back with another episode shortly. 

    Podcast Outro: You've been listening to On Side, the official podcast of Sport Integrity Australia. Send in your podcast questions or suggestions to;

    For more information on Sport Integrity Australia please visit our website or check out our Clean Sport app