Go For Grassroots Over Gold


In a week where Syria’s civil war intensified and a robot laboratory was landed on Mars, the local media debate has been dominated by one question: Where, oh where are the Australian gold medals?

As I write, Australia’s athletes have won 22 medals, including two gold and 12 silver. That puts us 19th on the medal tally by numbers of gold medals, but eighth on the tally by total medals.

Depending on how important you think gold medals are, you can slice and dice the medal count in different ways. The Republic of Korea, for instance, has the same number of medals overall as Australia, but is coming fourth with a whopping 11 of them gold. The Koreans are expert marksmen, with six golds in archery and shooting combined.

Of course, Australia’s dominant sport has long been swimming, and our swimmers struggled during this meet, taking home only one gold medal, plus six silver and three bronze. No individual gold medal had been won, meaning Australia has not produced a single champion in the pool. Swimming Australia has already announced a review into the disappointing performance, to be chaired by former head coach Bill Sweetenham and Olympic butterfly champion Susie O’Neill.

It hasn’t taken long for the sports bureaucrats and armchair critics to start criticising the government, arguing that not enough money has been spent on our Olympic preparation. Just yesterday, former Australian Olympics supremo Kevan Gosper was telling ABC radio "the money is the difference between silver and gold."

Reminding listeners of the government’s 2009 Crawford Review (pdf) of sports funding, Gosper argued that the Review had "set us back substantially" in the medal count. "We’ve been down on the sort of financial support that we were accustomed to when compared with the financial support that’s coming through from other countries, particularly here in Europe," Gosper said. "The fact is you do need more money in international sports and preparing if you’re going to compete with the world."

Unfortunately, Gosper is wrong, as Labor’s Sports Minister Kate Lundy has been trying to explain to anyone who will listen from London. Australia is in fact giving record levels of funding to our elite Olympic athletes.

A spokeswoman from Lundy’s office provided New Matilda with the figures. In the four-year Olympic period, direct Commonwealth government funding figures for national sporting organisations were $382 million for 2009-2012, compared to $266 million for the 2005-2008 period leading up to the Beijing games. Lundy’s office points out that the Australian Sports Commission spent $178 million on high performance sport in 2011-12, of which $103 million went directly to Olympic and Paralympic sports.

There is a lot of misinformation in the current debate. Rick Charlesworth, the coach of the Australian Olympic hockey team, told the ABC’s 7.30 last night that "The Australian Institute of Sport, which has 37 internationally competitive sports, has a budget less than the Adelaide Football Club. I mean, that’s obscene." That’s almost certainly incorrect. Minister Lundy’s office tells us that the AIS has 2011-12 funding of $66.5 million. I couldn’t find Adelaide’s most recent annual report online, but its 2009 figures showed a total cashflow of just over $30 million.

It’s unlikely that Adelaide has doubled its budget in two years. Of course, some AFL clubs do spend more money than the AIS: Collingwood, for instance. But it’s apples and oranges. Professional sporting franchises are funded largely by its members and fans, not the taxpayer. If Olympic sports had to fund themselves in similar ways, they would have only a fraction of the resources available to them through public largesse.

In any case, can sport really be measured in terms of money? And is funding elite sport really the best use of taxpayer’s money? The Crawford review from 2009 thought not. When we covered it here back then we thought it was a very sensible report.

Let’s remind ourselves what David Crawford said. He said that Australia’s sports funding policy was almost entirely geared to winning Olympic medals, with little attention paid to participation in grass-roots sport, let alone social and health issues like combating obesity. Further, the Review pointed out that while Australia did very well at the four Olympics culminating in Beijing, it hasn’t translated into more of us getting off the couch and getting fit and active. "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," the report said.

Crawford also predicted the current disappointing results in London. He observed that for many years Australia had punched above its weight with excellent talent identification and sports science programs, while other rich countries had committed comparatively fewer resources to elite sport. The report predicted that since countries like France, Britain and Germany had decided to invest heavily in world-class facilities, expertise and coaching, they would most likely catch up and surpass us. And so it has come to pass.

The really radical aspect of the Crawford Review was also its most sensible: its recommendation that Australia give up trying to chase the Olympic dream, and concentrate public funding on grass-roots participation and public health goals instead. And if our goals were about getting ordinary Australians fitter and healthier, we would spend most of our public funding on the sports Australians actually participate in: amateur football, cricket, tennis, netball and surf lifesaving, rather than archery, sailing, water polo, and the like.

The Crawford recommendations ignited a storm of criticism from the sports hierarchy; John Coates told reporters in typically blunt fashion that he was "pissed off" and that he wanted $109 million of extra money to ensure Australia would come fifth in the medals in London.

Well, as we’ve seen, the sports bosses got their extra money — $116 million more than the Beijing spend. It just hasn’t translated into Aussie gold. And, if you think about it for a minute, that shouldn’t be all that surprising. Lots of money can sometimes translate into lots of peak performances, but there is no reason why it necessarily should. Professional sports, in which money is no object for the multi-millionaires who play them, are still full of upsets and surprises. And if the Olympics is testament to anything, it is that local cultures of athletics in places like Jamaica and Ethiopia can turn out world-class athletes on a fraction of the sports funding available to athletes in first-world nations.

Would more funding have helped James Magnusson overcome his mental demons to win gold in the swimming? Would more funding have helped Mitchell Watt jump those few centimeters further? It seems unlikely. At the very highest level, the difference between gold and silver is as much mental as physical. It’s also about luck — as Australia’s Stephen Bradbury, the ice skater who won gold after a fortuitous crash wiped out his competitors, demonstrates.

It’s not even clear that sports funding is as popular as most of us believe. According to yesterday’s Essential poll, 58 per cent of those surveyed think Australia spends too much money on the Olympics, while only 19 per cent think the figure is "about right". Even for voters that believe winning gold is important, 49 per cent think we spend too much.

A sensible approach to government sports funding, then, would abandon the vainglorious quest for Olympic gold, and concentrate on outcomes for ordinary taxpayers. But don’t hold your breath. An opinion poll here or these is one thing. Blanket media saturation of Australia’s silver medal disappointment is another. There’s every likelihood we will probably pump even more money into the Rio games for 2016. In the meantime, ordinary taxpayers will get fatter, and our health system will get sicker.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.