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Dollars and sense: funding and Olympic success

Australia’s 4x100 metre medley swimming team with their gold medals. AAP Image/Dean Lewins

It is now more than 30 years since the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) opened in Canberra, so it was predictable that a modest, rather than overwhelmingly successful campaign at the London Olympics would spring calls for an inquiry into “what went wrong” and “how things could be improved.”

It was, after all, a far more abysmal performance at Montreal that sparked the formation of the AIS in the first place and the overarching Australian Sports Commission. Over time, both initiatives created more success for Australian sport internationally, and not just in Olympic sports – cricket, too, has drawn heavily on national investment approaches.

The London performance has produced some strange and often illogical commentary. Shaun Carney, in The Age, produced a “moral outrage” piece about athletes sponsored by taxpayers’ money needing to perform to justify the support.

That is not far from the debate that surfaces periodically about AIS scholarships needing to be funded on a HECS-type basis, with built-in repayment schedules. Perhaps the best and most astonishing counterpoint to this line so far has come from The Australian’s Janet Albrechtson.

Normally the fire-eating seeker of accountability and self-help and all the other shibboleths of a free-market, Albrechtson now stood up for the athletes’ rights to compete in their own terms and respond in their own fashions. Not a word about the public funds that put them there.

That Albrechtson role-reversal points to the abiding problem at the heart of the Australian debate about funding for elite sport. There is no logic that clearly underpins that cash injection, no philosophy about the reasoning, unlike in every other area of public funding. It is all about sport being “a good thing”.

As Richard Hinds noted in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian Olympic Committee and its leaders – such as John Coates and Kevan Gosper – have always relied on what might be called the “national ego massage” factor: sporting success makes Australia feel good, and there is international prestige involved.

Therefore, governments should dump in funds as and when required, no questions asked, and no deep-seated statements about precisely why the nation should support all this in times of economic fragility. That was essentially the AOC response to the 2009 Crawford report on sports funding that questioned the value of support for elite sport, and the government responded positively to that fuzzy AOC view in a way that would not have been brooked in any other portfolio.

One core reason why the 2012 “failure” is now likely to re-open debate is because the social and political context that produced the AIS and the ASC has changed dramatically, but the AOC still acts as if that ancient regime still exists.

Every area of government and funding policy now comes with the mandatory over-riders, “accountability,” “value for money” and “return on investment”. Just ask the university sector which has seen its operating conditions turned upside down since 1981. Even the International Olympic Committee realised that a few years ago, and produced its shambolic “legacy” policy that now, effectively, legitimates the sort of spending that we have seen in London – about GBP9.3 billion at current estimates.

So when John Coates and Kevan Gosper began making public pronouncements about the London performance, the messages were a bit mixed to begin with.

First it was that government had provided enough money, but too late. Then it was simply that there had not been enough public funding put in to athletes – this is always an awkward line to run when it is clear that the AOC has over $100m in reserve in its own coffers.

If the funding was so important, why did the AOC not spend some of its own?

That was all “old context” response, but then came a change. John Coates suddenly declared that revitalising school and community sport was now the key to future success, so national funding should be directed there. Several commentators seized on this as an Olympian triple somersault with double pike at maximum difficulty from the perennially elite-athlete-oriented Coates.

It was actually more than that. It could well be that the shrewd sports management veteran has finally seen the need to change the policy levers, to suit the “new context” of accountability and justification.

If so, then he is right, if Australia is to continue competing at the top end of international sport. The other thing that London has shown is just how much money is now required to be in the top echelons. As usual, at least one dour critic has come out and likened the increasing “spend” as the “new arms race” that further stretches the gap between the rich and the poor.

China came second on the London medal table, symbolically proving that it can do so away from as well as at home. While the cost of achieving that success is not always easy to assess, it is clearly well into the billions. In advance of the 2008 Olympiad, the Chinese constructed Project 119 (much as they had done with the 211 and 985 Projects in higher education earlier) and invested vast sums of money.

One estimate has each of their London gold medals costing US$1.6m but, if anything, the figure is probably a lot higher. The UK enjoyed great success, partly as a home town result but more especially because of its enhanced funding via the national lotteries that is pumping in enormous sums. It has spent perhaps over $US400 million on sports preparation for these Games. If that figure is close to correct, then the Australian issue stands revealed as its gold medal count has declined: 16 in Sydney and 17 in Athens, 14 in Beijing and down to seven in London.

At present Australia spends around $170m a year on elite sport, which is a lot in the national budget (the AOC would argue not), especially when the sporting heart of the country still runs along traditional lines. In light of that, at least one regional newspaper took exception to the AOC “spend more on elite sport” line, arguing that rural and regional sports organisations are operating on a shoestring and getting little or no government support, when investment would help reinvigorate those areas as well as improve performance.

That highlights the dilemma for the Australian government in both its current and possible future forms. Going into election mode, neither side wants to hint at cutting sports funds even though, as one observer points out, that Olympic funding might help solve more essential problems, like the ongoing lack of funding for our hospitals.

Yet neither side has a justified and logical position on why elite sport should be funded as it has been. Governments, too, have remained in “old context”, but this London performance might just see the Crawford report dusted off, at least, as a precursor to “new context” thinking where taxpayers see any investment in sport made “accountable,” transparent" and subject to “value for money.”

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