Oceana Mackenzie snaffles Olympic scholarship

Oz comp climbing hopeful, Oceana Mackenzie, has been awarded a sought-after Olympic scholarship designed to help participants in fringe sports to qualify for Tokyo 2020.

In the run up to each Olympics, the Australian Olympic Committee petition the International Olympic Committee for the scholarships, which are designed to help participants in less-well funded sports to qualify by relieving some of the financial burden. Because the three Australian recipients of the Rio Games equivalent scholarship all qualified and went on to do well, this time around the AOC were given four scholarships to award.

Image by Wendy Able.

Image by Wendy Able.

Olympic hopefuls then petition the AOC who make a final decision based on advice from the governing body, in this case Sport Climbing Australia (SCA), with scholarships distributed to sports in which the recipients will have a greatly increased chance of qualifying because of receiving the money. One of the purported benefits of climbing’s inclusion in the Olympics is more cash flowing into the sport and this is an example of a direct injection.

Of the application process, Oceana says, ‘I had to put together a portfolio of all my competition climbing results and state what makes me an athlete. This was submitted and I made it to the final round (between me and another climber) and they selected me 😀 ’

Romain Thevenot, Chairman of the SCA board, said, “We sent a request for expressions of interest to our athletes in our National Team (Youth and Open) and received 11 applications. With the recommendations of our National Coach, we selected one male and one female athlete based on: them being youth athletes; having the potential for Olympic Games selection; their previous performance at National and International events; and whether the athletes competed in all three disciplines (Lead, Speed and Boulder) when they have had the opportunity.”

Every three months recipients need to report on how they have spent the money. If they get injured or lose the desire to continue with qualification the stipend is cut off. It’s not a huge sum of money compared to today’s professional athletes, though it is significant and it makes a huge difference in a sport in which Australia’s are offered little institutional financial support and athletes pay their own way.

In terms of how she will use the scholarship, Oceana says, ‘I am looking to definitely do some travelling both for competitions and training, but maybe also improve training facilities and yes coaching. The scholarship will provide the opportunity for me to get experience overseas with high level and regular competition and training, which we don’t get in Australia.’

Oceana's weakness – the Speed wall. Image by Wendy Able

Oceana’s weakness – the Speed wall. Image by Wendy Able

Perhaps most telling, Oceana will use her stipend to work on her weaknesses, Speed climbing. ‘This is where the scholarship is most valuable, it can provide me with the coaching, like bringing speed coaches from other countries to Australia. We are lucky enough to have one IFSC Speed wall in Victoria. However, it has no proper timer. Also, you cannot race anyone due to the lack of a second route, so we may try to sort that out. It can also allow me to travel to Sydney where they have two routes and a timer.’

Romain agrees that access to competition and the high cost of travel brought about by the tyranny of distance between Australia and the rest of the world pose significant hurdles to qualification. ‘All our athletes are self-funded and we are currently unable to provide a large support to them. One of the main issues for our athletes to push their performances to the next level is the lack of exposure to international events.’

Oceana portraitIn a way, the scholarship marks a new era for competition climbing. Romain agrees, ‘This is a really important change. Sport climbing became an Olympic Sport only a year ago and we have been really well welcomed in the Australian Olympic sports family. The Australian Olympic Committee has been supportive from the beginning and understands the challenges for a small sport like ours. This scholarship is a demonstration that there is a strong belief in the future of our sport. It will have a large impact on the exposure for the sport and will naturally increase the number of opportunities for financial support of all types (government funding, sponsorship, fundraising and others).’

For someone from Australia, even with some financial support, making it to the Olympics will still be difficult, although the word on the street is that qualification will be confederation-based, with regional confederations getting an athlete allocation. This is good news for budding Oz climbing Olympians as we would be pretty well placed to secure spots – all we have to do is beat out those uppity New Zealanders. Go Oceana.

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