Waking Up From The Olympic Dream


You might have noticed that sport has been in the news a bit lately.

That’s not exactly a lightning bolt, is it? Sport is always in the news; indeed, sport is the only news many people care about. And that’s why this week’s release of the Rudd Government’s Independent Sport Panel Report is so interesting. Rather than sport intruding on politics, it’s an example of something far less common: politics intruding on sport.

The Crawford Report, as it is also being called (after the Panel’s Chairman, businessman and company director David Crawford), is the fruit of one of the Rudd Government’s countless inquiries into Australian public policy, commissioned by Sports Minister Kate Ellis last year. Ellis asked the Panel "to make recommendations on the specific structures, programs and reform required to ensure the continuing robustness of the Australian sport system."

And what have David Crawford and his panel found?

In policy terms, the Australian sport system is a dog’s breakfast. As the Report states, "there is no nationally agreed demarcation of the roles and responsibilities of the various Australian Government and state and territory government agencies" for sport. There’s the all too common chaos of duplication and lack of coordination between levels of government. Canberra funds the Australian Sports Commission and the Australian Institute of Sport, the states and territories fund their own state institutes of sport and elite programs, while the bulk of grassroots sport gets left to under-resourced local governments.

Not only is there no proper policy coordination, there’s little good data available either. The Report says that the statistics around participation in sport and physical activity are patchy and unreliable. The various sporting codes tend to over-estimate the number of participants by counting everyone on their register, while the ABS tracks different types of data. And merely being in a sporting team doesn’t guarantee regular physical activity, as many a weekend warrior will grudgingly admit.

Nor has anyone really stopped to ask why we spend money on sport in the first place. As with arts policy, sport is funded mainly because it’s popular, and because it seemed like a good idea at the time. "There are no agreed performance criteria for ‘success’ for high-performance sport or for social and health outcomes in ‘grassroots’ sport," the report concludes.

The current policy settings date back to Australia’s poor showing at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, where a conspicuous lack of medals dangling against green and gold tracksuits led to a national outcry and the eventual creation of the Australian Institute of Sport. As a result, the report argues that Australian sports policy "is focused almost entirely on winning medals at Olympic and Commonwealth Games but takes little account of participation numbers or social criteria". Under the current system, water polo receives as much funding as golf, tennis and lawn bowls combined.

But the really controversial part of the Report is what it says about the Olympics.

The argument generally made about funding elite sport is that it spurs participation at the grassroots. That is, kids take up sports to emulate their heroes. The report says there is no evidence for this. It observes that "while Australia has been very successful at the last four Olympics, there has also been a ‘blowout’ of adult and child obesity and little change in participation numbers in sport". In fact, the most recent survey data from the Australian Sports Commission shows that only 50 per cent of Australians participate "regularly" (at least three times a week) in sport and physical activity. No wonder we’re collectively getting fatter.

A number of social and cultural trends are having an impact on sporting participation. Not only are Australians getting fatter, we’re getting older too. The emphasis on sports and recreation in our schools and education systems is declining, our jobs are increasingly sedentary, fewer of us walk to work or school and our leisure pursuits are trending away from the beach and towards the Xbox. All of which should put Australia’s quest for Olympic glory into perspective.

Worse, the report warns we’re not even going to be able to keep up our current medal tallies. Fierce competition is emerging in the Olympic movement as other countries begin to spend more money on their elite athletes and talent identification programs. Australia will probably never beat the US, China or Russia in the medal tallies and countries like Germany, Britain and France are fast catching up. Ironically, if Olympic success really did translate into more participation, we’d have a better talent pool from which to draw potential medal winners. But it doesn’t, so we don’t.

In any case, what’s so wonderful about winning gold medals? Yes, it’s great for the television ratings and for the dedicated, talented athletes who reach the pinnacle of their sport. And it’s certainly true that Olympic success provides an unquantifiable but none-the-less important "warm inner glow" to many Australians. The problem is, just because we like watching televised sport doesn’t mean we’ll get off the couch and lace up our joggers.

If participation really is the goal of sports policy, the report observes, then we need to change the funding mix in favour of the sports most of us actually play: cricket, tennis, netball, surf lifesaving and the football codes, rather than archery, track and field or team handball. Of course, you could argue that these more popular sports already attract plenty of sponsorship and ticket sales and earn money which can then be ploughed back into the grassroots. But the reality is that those dollars earnt from sold out stadia and big ticket sponsorship deals eventually end up in the pockets of superstar players, not struggling community sporting associations.

All in all, the Crawford Report is a sensible and well-researched inquiry into an important area of public policy. No wonder it’s copping so much criticism.

Australian Olympic supremo John Coates is "pissed off". He’s assembling a cavalcade of sporting legends to back up his case for $109 million extra funding to ensure Australia comes fifth in the medal tally in London. And what politician seriously wants to stand up for less Aussie Olympic gold? Certainly not Sports Minister Kate Ellis, who cautiously advises that the Government will respond to the report next year. Trade Minister Simon Crean doesn’t like the report either, calling it a "narrow" view of sport.

If recent decisions by the Rudd Government are any precedent, buying off a noisy minority should prove far easier than tackling a difficult and potentially unpopular policy reform. In John Coates, the Government has just picked a fight with one of the best-connected and toughest backroom operators in the business. Expect Coates to get his money and the Crawford Report to be quietly buried next year.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.