Even if you hate sport, it’s hard to escape the Olympics. Every second ad on TV is Cadel Evans cycling in front of Big Ben or those two charming buffoons from McDonald’s re-enacting various events to sell a product that’s suspiciously similar to the Simpsons’ fabled Ribwich.
And if you’re not one of the thousands of Australians risking sleep deprivation by staying glued to Nine’s coverage of the Games over the next two weeks, chances are you’re pretty annoyed that the government tips so much money into athletic pursuits rather than any number of valid alternatives – schools, hospitals, roads, welfare, tax cuts, or if funds are directed towards extra-curricular activities, the neglected arts sector.
Like it or lump it, that’s never going to change. Politicians love votes about as much as Australians love sport. My concern isn’t that sport gets money. It’s that the wrong sports get money at the wrong levels.
This is a well-worn argument that comes sharply into focus in the lead-up to London. David Crawford’s 2009 report won many admirers for its blunt rejection of the AOC’s ambition to shore up a ‘top five’ Olympic ranking. I’m certainly a disciple of the Crawford bible.
The government does not directly finance our Olympians, but via the Sports Commission and the Institute of Sport, John Q. Taxpayer shoulders a huge portion of the expense. Academic James Connor conservatively estimates that a gold medal costs $40 million. With the greatest of respect to the hard work those athletes pour into their craft, that is an abject waste of money when you consider what $40 million can buy.
I’ll be sitting in front of my TV in the wee hours cheering the green and gold on to Olympic glory – but that only lasts two weeks every four years. Since James Tomkins carried the Australian flag into Beijing’s Bird’s Nest in 2008, our famous Baggy Greens have represented the country in 48 Test matches. The Kangaroos have run around 22 times and the Wallabies have notched 55 caps. The mighty Swannies have run through 93 crepe-paper banners and the Roosters have skated through 101 patchy performances. With 22 million other Australians, I’ll be raising a glass to Sally Pearson’s gold medal or James Magnussen’s world record, but they mean nowhere near as much to me – or the Australian population – as the mainstream sports we celebrate on a weekly basis. $40 million is too high a price for a once-every-four-years treat when you consider how that coin could be spent elsewhere.
How the NRL can centralise income and distribute funds more generously to their franchises – a la AFL – is a discussion for another day. What the government must take more responsibility for is sport in rural areas, which is currently under immense strain. Bush footy clubs’ coffers are creaking under the pressure of increasingly expensive insurance policies, in particular, while support from sponsors and pools of players dry up. The social benefit that sport derives in rural communities is obvious, but additionally, the health of regional participant sport is absolutely crucial to top-level competitions.
In last year’s All Australian team, 15 of the 22 AFL footballers selected (Scarlett, Glass, Enright, Murphy, Reid, Davis, Thomas, Pendlebury, Franklin, Goodes, Cox, Ablett, Kelly, Dal Santo, Petrie) hail from the bush. In this April’s Anzac Test, eight members of the Australian outfit (Slater, Inglis, Hodges, Uate, Thurston, Taylor, Thaiday, Hannant) cut their teeth in the country. If bush footy didn’t exist, these players mightn’t have ever picked up a Steeden or a Sherrin. Mainstream sport owes so much to regional areas but sport in the sticks is struggling at the moment, and while millions are being tipped into niche Olympic events, country football is being left to fend for itself.
The Olympics are fun but there’s no doubt that the major football codes – Australian rules and rugby league – generate the most social benefit for Australia, both from a spectator’s point of view (just ask the 4 million who tuned into the Origin decider), and from a participant sport perspective. So when you bring to mind the enormous contribution rural areas make to those codes, and their current lack of funding, you’ve got to query the government’s decision to finance minnow events in the hope of Olympic Gold, rather than supporting the meat-and-veg sports that we love to play and watch every week.
Crawford acknowledges how difficult it would be for the government to shake up their sports funding in light of the heavyweights in the AOC’s corner. But if you look at the social good, sending some cash the way of the West Wyalong Mallee Men or the Yarrawonga Pigeons seems like a no-brainer.