Phil Cheetham: Flipping the Script on Sports Innovation

The University of New South Wales Sport Hall of Fame is set to welcome its newest inductee, Phil Cheetham, an Olympic gymnast, biomechanical engineer, and known as “Mr 3D”, whose achievements have revolutionised sport on a global scale. As we listened to Cheetham’s story in our recent interview, we witness his dedication to gymnastics, his unforgettable conversation with a former Australian Prime Minister and just how impactful that one interaction truly was.

Phil Cheetham's association with UNSW began in 1973, right after he graduated from high school. Settling in out in Sydney west in Merrylands, he quickly realized the university's potential in nurturing his gymnastic aspirations. Reflecting on his time at the university, he shared, "I was really happy that I had somewhere to train. One of the biggest problems being a gymnast back then was there was nowhere to train on a regular basis." The support and resources provided by UNSW played a crucial role in laying the foundation for Phil's success in gymnastics. He eventually took on the role of club president, a position that allowed him to further contribute to the development of gymnastics at the university.

As Cheetham pursued his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at UNSW (graduating in 77’), he faced a defining moment in his gymnastics career. In 1976, the year of the Montreal Olympics, Australia had to qualify for the Games. Although Cheetham had 3 Australian Open Gymnastic Championships before the age of 21, he was still left with limited resources and support leaving the Australian gymnastics team faced an uphill battle against more established and better-funded programs such as Germany and USA. As he explains, "Australia had to qualify, and we were not good enough to have a team." Phil and his fellow gymnasts had to compete in international competitions overseas to secure their spot. Despite the challenges, his perseverance paid off, and he received the long-awaited selection just two weeks before the Olympics. 

Stepping onto the grand stage of the Montreal Olympics was a defining moment for Phil Cheetham. Amidst heightened security measures due to the tragic events at the Munich Olympics in 1972, he embraced the opportunity to represent his country and showcase his gymnastic prowess. Cheetham reflects on the tense atmosphere “with armed police and soldiers on every street corner, it was scary... but at the time made you feel safe”. The Australian team's overall performance was disappointing, with only a single silver medal to their name. However, it was Cheetham's encounter with former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser that garnered attention. 

Phil recounts the seemingly candid conversation, "He started talking to me and my coach, and he asked why we weren't winning any medals." Phil seized the opportunity to shed light on the lack of government support for Australian athletes, particularly in comparison to the elite nations. Little did he know that his honest response would make headlines, with the Sydney Morning Herald headlining their front-page article “Fraser Faces Angry Athletes" with the image captured below. 

The aftermath of the incident, however, hinted at a positive change to come. This marked a turning point in the recognition and support of Australian athletes, leading to the establishment of the Australian Institute of Sport in 1980. Although Cheetham humbly rejects any notion he was the driving force for the birth of AIS, he certainly moved the needle. The AIS provides much-needed resources, funding, and training facilities for athletes across various sports disciplines. Cheetham's inadvertent role in advocating for change showcased the power of athletes' voices in shaping policy and elevating their sports to new heights propelling the country's success on the international stage. 
In the same year Cheetham made the decision to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 79’. Originally told to not go as it would upset the Australian Government this was later retracted advising they ‘would not have cared’ if any athlete had attended. The ‘boycott’ was on and off multiple times which made it hard for athletes to stay motivated to train. Cheetham mentions this was frustrating as he would have loved to have competed in his second Olympics despite nursing a shoulder injury at the time.

These days Cheetham focuses more of his attention on the field of biomechanics and 3D modelling, particularly for golf. Working out of Arizona State University his expertise in these areas has not only revolutionized the sport of golf but has also had a major impact on other Olympic sporting disciplines such as discus, javelin, and shot put. As the Director of Sports Technology for the US Olympic committee, Phil has been at the forefront of utilizing advanced technology to enhance athletic performance. Becoming “Mr 3D” he saw the benefits of motion analysis in golf measuring speed of swing, ball speed and body motions throughout the swing and realised they could be transferred to other sporting disciplines. Cheetham mentions “helping Ryan Crouser (US Olympic shot put and discus champion) break the Olympic Record in Rio and Tokyo was a real highlight for me”. 

I think it is fair to say that a simple conversation between Phil Cheetham and our former Prime Minister Malcom Fraser changed our national sporting landscape for the better. If it wasn’t for that candid conversation who knows if the AIS comes to fruition. Who knows if Australia goes on to be a top 10 powerhouse at the Summer Olympics. Though one thing is for certain is, Phil Cheetham has earned his place in the UNSW Sport Hall of Fame.