The teeth gnashing over Australia’s “poor” performance at the London Olympics has been unedifying, to say the least.
Quite apart from the unfair pressure placed on individual athletes, it makes me wonder how we have come to focus so narrowly on Olympic gold medals as the measure of our sporting prowess, and indeed of our worth as a nation.
For years now, we have been pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into a quest to make the top five in the Olympics medal tally, an ambition that seems frankly ridiculous for a nation of our size.
Meanwhile, we calmly accept our top five ranking among developed nations in another, far more important, international league table — the one that measures rates of overweight and obesity.
The fatter we get, the more eager we appear to be to pour vast sums of money into that often futile quest for Olympic gold.
It’s hard to put a precise figure on the cost of an Olympic gold medal, but the federal government’s 2009 Crawford report on the future of sport in Australia conservatively estimated the cost of each gold medal earned at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing at $15 million.
The cost in London would be even higher, given there were fewer medals between which to share the increased funding.
I’m not suggesting medal counts are the only way to measure the value of elite sport, but imagine how many bicycle paths and Nippers programs you could fund with the money we put into our Olympic efforts — and the impact that might have on the health of our increasingly overweight children.
The president of the Australian Olympic Committee, John Coates, last week blamed what he considered to be a disappointing Olympic performance in part on a lack of government focus on sport in schools, a claim that seemed, to say the least, disingenuous.
If there’s one thing the Australian Olympic movement deserves a gold medal for it’s lobbying for government handouts, often at the expense of less glamorous or grassroots sporting endeavours.
The Crawford report, which seems to have been largely ignored by a government unable to resist the lure of Olympic gold, made the point eloquently:
“If we are truly interested in a preventative health agenda through sport, then much of it may be better spent on lifetime participants [rather] than almost all on a small group of elite athletes who will perform at that level for just a few years.”
An often-touted benefit of elite sport is that it can inspire the rest of us to get up off the couch in an effort to emulate our heroes, but Crawford and colleagues could find no evidence that high-profile events like the Olympics, Wimbledon or the AFL Grand Final had a “material influence” on sports participation.
In any case, their report said, if raising participation was one of the aims in funding elite sport, then that should be a factor in funding decisions: rather than skewing funds towards sports that happen to be included in the Olympics, we should focus on sports that are popular with Australians and ones we are likely to participate in.
“The bias towards funding Olympic sports leads to outcomes that make little strategic sense for Australia,” the report said, citing data that showed archery received more government funds than cricket, despite the latter attracting more than 100 times the number of participants.
You certainly have to wonder if we wouldn’t do better directing funds at a non-Olympic sport many of us actually participate in, like, say, surfing rather than pistol shooting or synchronised swimming.
Even more fundamentally, we need to reclaim the idea of sporting performance as something that belongs to all of us, not just to a small group of elite athletes.
Yes, John Coates, we need more money and more attention paid to sport in schools and in communities — not so that we can win more gold medals, but so that we can build a fitter, healthier nation.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer
Posted 13 August 2012