AUSTRALIAN Olympic Committee CEO Matt Carroll recently warned Australia’s medal tally at future Olympic Games was at risk unless the government pumped an extra $60 million a year into elite sports.
Carroll welcomed the federal government’s recent announcement of an extra $50 million for high performance sport, but said it was not enough.
“I am saying to Australia, with the appropriate investment into Olympic sports, we can be a successful nation,” Carroll told the National Press Club. “If investment continues to decline, then I have to say it will be very hard for us to win many medals at a Games. It’s just going to be tougher and tougher.”
In its report of Carroll’s speech, the Sydney Morning Herald said funding for high performance sport had declined by 12% in real terms since 2010.
I had a French exchange student living with me during the Olympic Games a few years ago. When I told him Australia had one of the biggest teams at the Games, he looked at me blankly.
Why, he said.
It’s a good question. Our obsession with the Olympic medal tally seems to me at best tacky, and at worst harmful.
It puts enormous pressure on individual athletes, who can end up feeling shamed by a performance that is fractions of a second outside a world record.
But, perhaps more importantly, it skews our focus – and government funding – away from the kinds of sporting initiatives that might provide real benefits to us as a nation.
In his speech, Carroll claimed that, without increased investment in elite sport, “the only gold medal won will be the race to the most obese nation and social mediocrity”.
“This is not hysteria, this is fact,” he said.
Can Olympic gold really deliver the implied fix for obesity and social mediocrity (whatever that is)?
There really isn’t much research to support the first claim and the second seems well beyond the bounds of anything you might call “fact”.
It’s often said the achievements of elite athletes inspire the rest of us, and especially children, to try to emulate them. If that’s true, you might be able to argue for a flow-on effect in reducing obesity.
But one of the many problems with our focus on medal tallies is it can end up directing funding away from the sports people are most likely to engage in towards less widespread activities that just happen to be included in the Olympics.
I have nothing against shooting, weightlifting or the various equestrian events, but I do struggle to see them as weapons in the war against obesity.
Even for more mainstream sports, the Crawford Review on reform of the Australian sports system could find no evidence high profile sporting events such as the Olympics, Wimbledon or the Australian Football League Grand Final had a “material influence” on sports participation.
“If we are truly interested in a preventative health agenda through sport, then much of [the funding] 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,” the report said.
Perhaps the evidence for the public health benefit of elite sport has strengthened since that report came out in 2009 – though, if so, I haven’t been able to find it.
It would be interesting to see a comparative study of the health benefits of various kinds of public funding: elite sports, community sports, the arts, scientific research, etc.
It’s not a zero-sum game of course, but I doubt elite sports would come out all that well in such an exercise.
The Australian Institute of Sport spent around $332 million on Olympic sports ahead of the 2016 Rio games, the ABC reported.
Dividing that amount by the total number of medals of all colours (29) gave a cost per medal of just below $11.5 million, the report said.
You could argue about whether that’s a fair way to assess the impact of the funding, but one thing’s for sure: $332 million would buy you a lot of cycle paths and junior soccer clubs.
Jane McCredie is a health and science writer and editor based in Sydney.
The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or MJA InSight unless that is so stated.