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Community vs elite sport: the elusive balance

By Kate Lundy - posted Tuesday, 15 August 2000

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 cultural identity.


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 fair.

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 future.


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 sport.

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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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About the Author

Senator Kate Lundy is federal Shadow Minister for Information Technology, Sport and Recreation, and the Arts. She is a Senator for the ACT.

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