Rio 2016 is over and questions are being asked about why the Australian team didn’t perform any better. Making things worse is the fact that this worsening performance comes despite a new sports funding strategy that was supposed to boost the national medal tally.
Following a disappointing performance by the national team at the London 2012 Olympic Games, the Australian Sport Commission implemented a new funding strategy called Australia’s Winning Edge. This approach projected a top-five finish on the medal table in the 2016 and 2020 Olympic Games.
Winning Edge prioritises funding toward sports that have the greatest chance of success or those that can demonstrate a capability to deliver results. These high-performance investment principles outline how the Australian Sports Commission makes funding decisions. The bottom line is that sports must contribute to Winning Edge targets in order to receive long-term investment.
Prior to Winning Edge, the national sport strategy took a “whole of sport” approach. Funding was allocated to sports with large participation numbers and clear athlete pathways into elite programs. Unlike Winning Edge, it wasn’t primarily based on international performance results.
2016 Olympic postmortem
Popular and successful sports such as swimming, cycling and rowing received significant funding in the lead-up to the Rio Games. In turn, they were expected to produce Olympic medals. But it didn’t work that way.
Swimming, for instance, received A$38 million in taxpayer funding. But performances in the pool were well below expectations. Australia’s swimming team was expected to win as many as eight gold medals at Rio; it won three.
Winning Edge seems to have added to the already high levels of boosterism already prevalent in Australian sport. Before the Games, the country was projected to win 14 or 16 gold medals.
These projections were based on athlete performances and world rankings in 2015; in swimming alone, Australia had 25 top-three world rankings in the lead-up events to the Rio Games.
Yet Australia finished tenth on the medal table at Rio, with eight gold medals and a total medal haul of 29. The national medal tally at the London 2012 Games was 35 (including eight gold) but that was so disappointing it became the catalyst for implementing Winning Edge.
The Australian Sports Commission plans to review funding based on performances in Rio later this year. While most will retain a baseline funding amount, it’ll be interesting to see what cuts are made to sports that “underperformed”.
Note: The weighted medal cost is determined by weighting the medals won (where a bronze medal has a value of one, silver a value of two and gold a value of three), then dividing the total amount spent by the total weighted value of the medals.
Works for others
But the UK Sport model – described as “brutal but effective” – has been a success; Great Britain had its best-ever result at Rio 2016, coming second after the United States.
Like Winning Edge, UK Sport’s funding investment model targeted successful sports and reduced funding or even axed unsuccessful programs such as basketball, wrestling, table tennis and volleyball. But why hasn’t targeted funding been as successful in Australia?
Compared with most nations above Australia on the medal table, sports funding here is much lower. Great Britain spent up to A$1.3 billion in the four years leading up to the Rio Games; Australia invested around A$800 million in the same period.
Great Britain funds the majority of its high-performance sport programs through its national lottery system. Not only does this give it access to greater sums of money, it removes the sort of pressure placed on athletes – and their funders – when there’s an expectation of return on taxpayer dollars.
It seems clear now that relying on “proven” sports to fulfil Australia’s Olympic targets may not be the best strategy. By excluding less obvious sports, Winning Edge has reduced the number of events Australia had an opportunity to medal in at Rio 2016.
Australia’s biggest medal haul was at the Sydney 2000 Games (58), where the nation was represented in 20 sports. In Rio, only 12 sports contributed to the final medal haul. And the Rio tally includes unexpected medals from shooting, archery and modern pentathlon - sports not targeted under Winning Edge.
It’s these surprise medals from smaller sports that may better embody the Olympic spirit and unite the nation.