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Spend big to win big? Funding and success at the Olympics

When aiming for Olympic success, it’s important to get many factors right, not just funding. Gwydion M. Williams

When Naomi Fischer-Rasmussen stepped into the ring to represent Australia in the women’s middleweight boxing category last Sunday afternoon (GMT), she became the first Australian woman to compete in boxing at an Olympic Games.

This in and of itself is a story, both in the context of boxing and of women’s participation in sport generally. But what makes this story even more special is the atypical manner in which Fischer-Rasmussen found her way to Olympic selection.

Over the past 30 years, funding support has been central to explaining Australia’s success in international sport – but there are always exceptions to the rule. Fischer-Rasmussen is one such exception, having not had the luxury of the funding regime which exists in many of the mainstream Olympic sports, such as swimming, athletics, gymnastics and hockey.

She has had to fight her way to Olympic selection on the back of quitting her job and relying on her parents’ fund-raising abilities to support her quest for Olympic selection. As this is the first appearance of women’s boxing at the Olympic Games, it is possible her competitors have also confronted the same funding and support dilemma.

This is not the case for Jarrod Bannister who will compete for Australia in the javelin. He is clearly competing against a high-class international field in which the majority of athletes have been supported via funding, sport science and coaching programs designed to optimise their performance.

Due to various misdemeanours off the field, Bannister has been locked out of support mechanisms available through the sports institute network, so his efforts in the end are largely driven by his own desire and determination to compete at the highest level.

These isolated examples are not restricted to Australian athletes. In the US, female weightlifter Sarah Robles lived off US$400 per month courtesy of the US Weightlifting Association and discounted groceries from food banks and donations. Life as an elite athlete is not always an easy lot!

These three examples are interesting in that they all, in their own way, raise the question of the link between funding and success.

Naomi Fischer-Rasmussen didn’t receive the same amount of funding as women in other Olympic sports.

In Australia, as is the case in other countries with similar club-based models of sport delivery, government funding is critical to athlete support. For those in high-profile or professional sports, such as cycling or basketball, elite support via government funding is less critical due to the infrastructure provided by professional teams and clubs.

But in sports such as swimming, athletics, diving, weightlifting, rowing, canoeing, hockey, equestrian, and gymnastics, funding support is critical. This support “buys” the sport science and coaching expertise required to produce world-class performances.

Australia’s success in recent years in the swimming pool has a lot to do with the competitive edge provided through sport science expertise bundled with high-quality coaching. But, funding on its own is not the sole reason for success.

Population, climate, training conditions, national wealth, and home country advantage also explain reasons for success. In a study by a group of economists from Ruhr-Universität Bochum aimed at predicting likely medal success at the London Olympic Games, the team analysed political, economic, demographic and cultural data to show that China will head the medal tally with 102 medals. Funding support was found to be just one of the factors contributing to this outcome.

Great expectations have been placed on Great Britain as the host country. The team from Ruhr-Universität Bochum predicated Great Britain would win 57 medals, more than they have ever won, apart from the London 1908 Olympic Games where they won 146 medals.

This expectation has been heightened due to the large increases in funding support for Olympic sports in preparation for the 2012 Olympic Games and a general expectation, as found by the economists from Ruhr- Universität Bochum, that a home Olympics leads to increased success.

At the completion of Day 11, Great Britain had won 48 medals, including 22 gold. Early performances suggested a disappointing outcome, but Team GB has rallied with a string of medals in cycling, rowing and athletics. Team GB is on track to achieve the predicted 57 medals, justifying the millions of pounds spent on British athletes in the last decade. National euphoria will be such that this funding support will be seen as having been well spent.

Australia was predicated to finish fifth on the medal table with 43 medals but given performances so far, this is unlikely. The countries after China and before Australia include USA (100 medals predicted), Russia (71 medals) and Great Britain (57 medals).

Population-wise Australia is the exception, having consistently finished in or around the top five in past Olympic Games, with this projection suggesting continued success in 2012. Clearly, how the money is used is critical, especially for a small country such as Australia.

On current progress, if Australia’s “silver” Games continue then not only will we finish well down the medal table, but we will also be well down in the gold medal count. We’ll certainly be well short of the 14 gold medals won in Beijing and the 17 in Athens. The natural outcome of this result will be considerable debate about the level of government funding provided to support our athletes.

Indeed such debates are well and truly underway. Earlier this week Swimming Australia president David Urquhart announced a review into Australia’s swimming performance in London following the country’s worst performance in the pool since the 1988 Seoul Games. Swimming Australia, it seems, is pre-empting public backlash!

But the Games are not over yet. Watch out in the final days of competition for athletes to produce unexpected performances to win medals. Watch too for the likes of Naomi Fischer-Rasmussen, Jarrod Bannister and Sarah Nobles who are largely self-funded in their quest to achieve gold.

Although sports funding, bundled with expert sport science and coaching support are the typical keys to success, the unpredictability of sport and sporting talent in general will surely produce some surprises. Such is the business of sport and the reason for a few more days of sleepless nights.

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