Team Blog

More money in, more medals out?

Does a well-funded sport program mean more gold come Olympics time? EPA/Barbara Walton

Andrew Bolt in his Herald Sun column today argues that we, as a nation, need to work harder - not only as Olympians, but as a collective of Australians. He quotes US-based research that with an increase in Gross Domestic Product per head of population, the amount of medals won at the Olympics also increases.

If only the past Australian Olympic medal tally was a result of being a genetically well endowed people, but the reality is that with 22 million citizens, the talent pond we are fishing in is limited. I guess Bolt’s point – Andrew, not Usain – is that if we are more productive as a nation we also improve our ability to be successful at major sporting events. And in an indirect way he probably is right.

Our Institute of Sport, Exercise and Active Living (ISEAL) at Victoria University, in partnership with the Australian Sports Commission, is involved in a 16 nation study called SPLISS. This stands for Sport Policy Factors Leading to International Sporting Success. The study specifically looks at and compares a wide range of policies and programs in different countries that are put in place to achieve elite sporting success.

Factors that are considered include how well the grassroots sporting system is developed, how many community and elite facilities are available, how comprehensive is the national approach to sport coaching, do athletes have access to quality national and international competitions, and of course, how much money is pumped into the sporting system? All of these factors are considered in light of output success of the elite sporting system – so medals but also top 8 or top 16 finishes.

One of the most interesting variables emerging from the study is the absolute amount of money dedicated to the elite sporting system. Not the relative amount, for example, per head of population, but the absolute amount. There is a high correlation between the top 20 Olympic medal rankings over the past 3 Olympic cycles, and the top 20 biggest investing nations in elite sport preparation.

This implies that it takes a minimum investment to set up and maintain a proper and well functioning elite sporting system (such as the Australian Institute of Sport and the State Institutes), and that there is a point of diminishing returns when more money is unlikely to deliver significantly better results. Our research has not advanced enough (yet) to determine what the point(s) of diminishing return(s) is/are as these points, we suspect, will be a function of the size of the talent pool. This is why we probably have not seen the end of the Chinese medal growth yet.