Beware when elite sports administrators of any persuasion begin invoking the nation to justify spending taxpayer money. This is a key lesson that emerges from the release of the Crawford Report into “The Future of Sport in Australia” and hostile responses to its 39 recommendations.
The report’s authors claim a need to “prioritise those sports which capture the country’s imagination and represent its spirit and culture”. In an extraordinarily petulant outburst, John Coates, the President of the Australian Olympic Committee, states he is “pissed off”, claims the report’s contents to be “un-Australian”, and then delivers the punch line, “This funding is vitally important to the entire nation”.
It appears unwise to stand between an Olympic official and a bucket of government money. Even a whip-smart journalist like Jacquelin Magnay at the Sydney Morning Herald cannot resist the siren call of nationalism, claiming the report’s panel of experts have “misread an entire nation’s love of the Olympics”.
If it were only as easy to generate this level of emotional support and hyperbole for the nation’s well-being in relation to schools, universities, hospitals, aged care, the homeless and Indigenous health. When people speak on behalf of the nation - somehow magically having found a direct line to the hearts and souls of 21.4 million different people - they are seeking legitimacy for their preferred version of how the world should work.
All speakers in this debate agree that elite sport should be funded. They disagree about how much and the weight given to other spending priorities such as community sport and recreation. No one is willing to confront the awkward question of why elite sport of any type should receive taxpayer support. And, following from this, what leads people to assume that sport matters so much in Australian culture?
Estimates vary, but publicly funded elite sports programs cater for less than 1.5 per cent of the population, or, in Australia’s case, a pool of about 280,000 athletes. The past 30 years have seen increasing amounts of funding directed to the identification, training and success of this small group, while grassroots sport and community based recreation have, in many instances, struggled.
To place this situation in historical perspective, the Australian Ballet Foundation received approximately the same amount of government funding in the 1978-79 Federal budget as sport throughout the entire country - about $1.3 million.
The Australian Sports Commission received $216 million from the Government in 2007-08, and spent only 20 per cent of its total income on community sport. Despite such funding arrangements, which accelerated after Sydney won the right to host the Olympic Games in 1993, there is no evidence that overall participation rates in sport have done anything but decline at worst, or remain stagnant at best. The drop-off in sports participation for post-school age Australians remains marked. There is no “trickle-down effect” from elite sport to the general population.
Supporting high profile elite sport programs does contribute to profits for television networks and sponsors, and provides handsome revenue for the Olympic Movement. Successful athletes benefit financially, although, for many, this windfall tends to fall away after a few years when they are replaced by fresher faces and victors.
These facts speak to a truth that is rarely, if ever discussed in government commissioned reports. Much Olympic and elite sport in the contemporary era receives support because it is great entertainment and, for the briefest of moments, allows interested viewers to enjoy a spectacle that comes wrapped in the flag. It is fantastic populist politics and any government that removes the funding feeding tube risks electoral backlash.
The issue then becomes why is it that Australian audiences desire sporting entertainment, especially because the spectacle has little to do with motivating people to stand up and do some exercise. Sporting success has been central to the Australian experience since the 19th century, operating alongside war as a fulcrum upon which a national self-image has pivoted. Early success in cricket, the football codes and international competition created an appetite for more success. But Australian culture has continued to evolve and with maturity comes greater complexity and nuance.
The national audience for the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics peaked at 5.9 million viewers. According to the ABS, approximately 5.3 million people visited botanic gardens over the 12-month period of 2005-06; 3.6 million attended art galleries; 5.4 million visited libraries; 2.7 million went to the theatre; and 10.4 million attended the cinema. Australia is much more than a sporting nation. If only people on the inside of the sporting system could understand this reality and stop using the nation to justify their claims for financial support.