If there is only a limited pool of funds available for sport, is it
justifiable for Government to spend millions of dollars on Olympic sport
if it means that thousands of ordinary Australians may miss out on the
chance to participate in sport altogether?
I don’t think so.
Striking the right funding balance between community sport – be it
competitive or recreational – and elite sport, is the major challenge
for the Federal Government. This elusive balance will only be found if
measuring the relative value of sport to our society goes beyond medals
and winning and into issues of healthy lifestyles and even Australia’s
The Sydney Olympics is stealing the limelight, albeit not always for
the right reasons. Understandably there is increasing tension within
community sports as political attention on Homebush pushes their
aspirations and concerns to one side. Questions about whether the
concentration on medal tallies and elite sporting programs is coming at
the expense of community-based sport need to be asked. In fact, there is
an increasing level of uncertainty about the future of sport in light of
the mooted broad funding cutbacks post-Olympics.
Cynics would no doubt claim that elite sport will always be supported
because its high-profile success and mass-spectator audiences carry far
more political weight than does a small community of sporting people.
My fear is that if this holds true, then our mighty sporting ethos
has a very limited future and our obsession with elite sporting success
may in fact undermine our sporting ethos.
Australian sport has traditionally been socially inclusive and ‘elite’
sport meant that you were good at it, not that you went to an exclusive
sporting institution. We are known and respected for playing hard but
We cheer loudest when the underdog wins and we still rejoice in the
notion that regardless of where you are from, no matter how rich or
poor, you still have a chance of ‘making it’ in sport. That’s what
made the America’s
Cup win so important. It wasn’t just a yacht race. It was about
Australia beating the might and money of America.
These reflections on our national character reinforce how closely
sport is linked with Australian cultural identity. We embrace all comers
with our strong multicultural spirit – a spirit that in turn has led
to community sport becoming a powerful social ballast in times when job
security is diminishing and people are feeling uncertain about the
Our heroes and heroines are the sports people who achieve national or
international success. Our gossip columns are filled not with movie
stars but sporting celebrities. Through our interest and devotion, we
urge these sports people to take their rightful place on the top of the
list of people Australians most admire.
However, our ability to feel a bit of community ownership about our
collective sporting success is now under pressure. Unfortunately many
sports have evolved in ways that have alienated sporting communities
from their elite associations. Big business and the corporate
sponsorship dollar now shape most major sports and their respective
public ‘events’. The sporting community from which they derived is
abandoned, or at best, given mere token attention.
Our sporting culture has grown a new dimension – one governed by
the ability to extract advertising revenue from sporting events. This
has changed the economics of elite sport and led to some mighty power
struggles within corporate sport, often at the expense of community
This paper first appeared as a discussion paper in May 1999. It was written before the current budget reduced sports funding.
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