Olympic Committee (AOC) is confidently predicting a record medal haul
for Australia at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. Punters watching from the
sidelines or their lounge rooms can cheer as Australia claims an
expected 60 medals, 20 of which will be gold. Australia could rate third
in the medal tally. On a per-capita basis that will make us number one
and confirm Australia, at least in our own view, as the greatest
sporting nation in the world.
Such sporting glory has not happened by chance. Successive federal
governments have maintained an extraordinary commitment to funding elite
sport. Elite sport policy provides an interesting example of what
happens in public policy when there is long-term political commitment
matched by appropriate funding.
Research by Kieran Hogan and Kevin Norton of the University
of South Australia published in The Journal of Science and
Medicine in Sport (Vol 3, Iss 2, June 2000) found that Australia has
spent $1211 million on elite sport between 1976/77 and 1996/97.
The catalyst for federal commitment to winning gold medals was the
1976 Montreal Olympics. Australia failed to come home bathed in athletic
glory. In fact, we didn’t bring home a single gold medal. Given that
our national identity is so heavily tied up in sporting glory the
failure to win gold was a disaster. Hogan and Norton point out that the
public outcry following Montreal created a political environment that
enabled the federal government to spend big on elite sport.
Gold medal winners aren’t born – they are made. A talented
athlete needs a lot of support to make it to the top. Australia, unlike
the sporting super power of the United States, provides that support to
its athletes through direct government funding.
Following the Montreal disaster, the federal government established
Institute of Sport – a state-of-the-art sports institute that
provides Olympians and potential Olympians with the very best
infrastructure, coaching, sports medicine, nutrition, and sports
science. State governments followed suit, and most states now also have
their own Institute of Sport.
In order to ensure that potential gold medal winners are not
distracted by full-time employment, Australia has an elite athlete
program that provides some income to athletes plus, if they reside at
the AIS, accommodation and meals. This ensures that a full commitment to
training can be made.
Access to money has not really been a problem for elite sport since
Montreal. Australia’s potential medal winners have access to all the
support, coaching and science needed to turn them from potential winners
to actual winners. As a result not only do our athletes flourish, but
Australia has become a world leader in scientific research relating to
Hogan and Norton translate Commonwealth expenditure on elite sport to
around $50 million per gold medal. That is a heck of an investment –
and given our expected medal haul at Sydney, it’s a heck of a success
too. Hogan and Norton found a significant linear relationship between
the money spent, and the number of medals won. In other words, this is
public policy that works.
Research shows that investment of money and leadership in elite sport
pays off. Gold medals capture the imagination of the nation and make us
all proud to be Australian. Backing gold medallists is a political
winner. But, to be quite honest, sporting glory doesn’t actually
improve the wellbeing of the general population, or return any
significant savings down the track to the Commonwealth.
So what would happen if the same level of the commitment and relative
funding were applied to other elements of public policy? There are
certainly other areas of public policy that would benefit from long-term
bipartisan commitment and a decent amount of money – and maybe even
deliver us more return for the investment.
The concurrent example that applies to this case is the level of
physical activity among the general population. Funding to elite sport
has not only been justified by winning gold medals. Successive
Governments have argued that if Australian sporting heroes are bringing
home gold, then the rest of us will be motivated to get off our
backsides and get active. This ‘trickle-down’ effect has always been
the secondary target of elite sports funding.
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