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The price of victory: comparing the cost of Olympic gold to an elite arts prize

Mark Mangini (left) and David White hold this year’s Oscar for Sound Editing for Mad Max: Fury Road. Paul Buck/EPA

The price of victory: comparing the cost of Olympic gold to an elite arts prize

The Olympics is almost over now for another four years, and beyond the glorious highs and heartbreaking lows of participants and spectators, there’s the ritual of the cost-benefit wash-up where we calculate the public cost per medal, and collectively wring our hands at the expense of it all.

For Australia, that cost will be about A$12 million per medal. This is the cost of funding the federal contribution to Olympic preparation, largely through the Australian Institute of Sport ($380m) divided by the number of medals won (29). (Compare the 58 medals won at the Sydney games.) But when you factor in state and local government spending, the cost could be as high as $20m per medal.

All countries go through this ritual. Even after a highly successful Olympics, the British are wondering whether it’s really worth spending £5.5m per medal.

The economic argument is, of course, whether these public funds might be better spent elsewhere; say on children’s hospitals. But in a sense that’s not a fair comparison, because Olympic support will always look bad next to sick children or other essential priorities.

Chloe Esposito competes on her horse Equador Itapua in the modern pentathalon, where she won gold. Edgard Garrido/Reuters

So let’s compartmentalise and allow that this public money is already earmarked to support elite Australian performance on the ultra-competitive world stage. A better and more interesting comparison isn’t between elite sports and sick children, but between elite sports and elite culture.

What’s the comparable cost-per-medal for Australia’s elite artists and cultural producers, who also compete on world stages? And do Australia’s artists perform comparatively better or worse than our athletes? We decided to find out.

The parameters

We limited our investigation to just a few of the major cultural domains – music, film, books, and videogames – and then examined every major internationally recognised and widely known award, including the Cannes Film Festival, Academy Awards and BAFTA for film, the Grammy and BRIT Awards for music, the Man Booker Prize and the Nobel prize for literature, and the Game Awards for videogames.

The idea was to compile a suite of awards comparable to the Olympics, with most major artists represented. In order to compare the full Olympics medal count, we’ve considered nominations to be the equivalent of silver or bronze medals.

Tame Impala, who won Best International Group at the BRIT awards. Tracey Nearmy/AAP

A few issues complicate this analysis. One is the obvious skew toward English language representation. Another is that unlike sports, where competitors match-up on the day, arts awards are often for work actually done in previous years or earlier.

We considered awards just for two years – 2015 and 2016 – as unlike the Olympics, most major arts and cultural awards are annual. Obviously, we only then consider annual public funding too.

There is also the problem that Australian public funding for the arts and culture is less targeted than sports funding, so we’ve had to make some assumptions to arrive at a comparable quantum of federal funding that is directed toward elite arts and culture on a global stage.

The main vehicles for federal funding of the four cultural sectors we focus on are Screen Australia and the Australia Council. (Both organisations fund cultural activities that go way beyond our scope as in addition to their support of elite culture, they also invest in the development of young talent; initiatives intended to increase cultural diversity; and other cultural sectors and types than the ones that are in our scope.)

In total, the two organisations report funding of just over $300m, of which we generously estimate about half could be considered to support elite cultural production (i.e. of internationally recognised quality). We also added in tax incentives for big budget screen productions (like Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)). Total government support for the four sectors amounts to $273m in 2015 and $382m in 2014.

If you accept these approximations, here’s what we find.

The results

First, music and films are the swimming of Australian elite culture. Sia Furler is one of Australia’s most internationally commercially successful musicians, and was nominated for MTV Video Awards in 2015 and 2016. In 2016 she was nominated for a BRIT Award in the category International Female Solo Artist.

Sia performing in Hungary this month. Balazs Mohai/EPA

Another successful Australian musician is Courtney Barnett, who in 2016 was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best New Artist category, and a BRIT Award in the International Solo Female Artist award.

We also have 5 Seconds of Summer; a band that has been nominated and won several prestigious international music awards along with Australian acts such as Tame Impala, Hiatus Kaiyote, Keith Urban, Nicholas Milton, Chet Faker and Iggy Azalea (who we count as Australian although she moved to the US when she was 16).

Australia also excels in the film category. Over the two years we looked at the Academy Awards, The BAFTA Awards, The Cannes International Film Festival and The Golden Globe Award, the awards and nominations for Australian productions were dominated by Max Max: Fury Road.

The Australian production won six Academy Awards, was nominated for an additional four and did almost equally well in the BRIT Awards by winning four awards and being nominated in another three categories. Other Australian productions or Australian artists that were awarded or nominated are Cate Blanchett for her work in Carol (2015) and Animal Logic for The Lego Movie (2014).

Cate Blanchett at the BAFTAs this year. Jake Saville/Newzulu

Australia does okay on books and literature (we included the Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize, Man Booker Prize and the Neustadt Awards), but did less well in our sample years. Australian author Richard Flanagan was nominated for a Man Booker award in 2014. And we have only won one Nobel Prize for literature (two if you count J M Coetzee). Helen Garner also won a Windham-Campbell Prize for Non-fiction in 2016, but this prize is so recently established we decided not to include it in our study.

Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett has made a splash on the international stage, appearing on a list of Barack Obama’s favourite songs. Jose Sena Goulao/EPA

Video games are somewhat contentious to locate (we included The Game Awards, British Academy Games Awards, Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences and Prix Ars Electronica). We decided to include the video game Monument Valley, which received numerous awards and nominations in 2015. Its lead designer, Australian Ken Wong, works for game developer Ustwo in London and Sydney, and Britain would perhaps have as much right to claim those awards as Australia.

In total, Australian productions and creatives received 82 award wins plus nominations (the equivalent of gold, silver and bronze) during the two years. In these cultural Olympics, the average “cost” of a medal is approximately $8m.

This compares to the cost of an Olympic medal in Rio, which clocks in at roughly $12m.

Now a majority of Australians believe public Olympic funding support is about right or should even be increased. And proponents also point to the externalities that accrue, including Olympic success benefiting sporting activities on a grass root level and general public health; improved cultural cohesion; and strengthening Australia’s brand overseas. But similar claims also are made about elite cultural funding.

If we’re just concerned about the most economically efficient way of achieving these goals, then culture might actually be a better deal than sports.

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