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Slumping Australia widens net in search of Olympic gold

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australia will start a nationwide search to unearth promising athletes and boost the sports-mad country's chances of winning Olympic gold in the wake of a disappointing London Games where it slumped to its worst medal haul in 20 years.

The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) would invite "physically fit" athletes between 15 and 27 years of age to compete in state-based selection trials throughout October and November, with the best to compete in a five-day AIS camp in December, the government-funded academy said in a statement on Tuesday.

"The first AIS Sports Draft will focus on boxing, judo and provide a fast-tracking opportunity for athletes who aspire to become an Olympian but who may not have had past experience in Olympic sports, or show potential to transfer from one Olympic sport to a new Olympic sport," AIS Director Matt Favier said.

The top graduates from the camp would be given further training by "world best" coaches and join national programs looking towards the 2016 Rio and 2020 Tokyo Games, the AIS said.

Future talent searches would focus on specific sport "clusters" including paddling or running sports, or take a "theme-based approach such as speed and power, target or acrobatic," the AIS added.

Australia has traditionally punched above its weight at the Olympics but posted its lowest medal haul in 20 years in London, prompting local media to slam sports authorities for wasting taxpayers' money.

Having slumped to 10th in the medals standings in 2012, from sixth in Beijing and fourth in Athens and Sydney, Australia has set itself a target of returning to the top five at the next two summer Olympics.

It is also aiming to produce at least 20 world champions annually as part of its national sports masterplan.

The Australian Olympic Committee welcomed the initiative and its director, Fiona de Jong, rejected suggestions the country was placing too much emphasis on medals.

"The medal count is important to Australia," she said. "We have all grown up with sport being a rich part of our society and I think to pretend that we don't care is just not the reality that the public expects of our athletes."

(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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