$10 million per medal? Let’s invest for equity, participation and less medal-shopping

So Australia’s Olympic medal tally has cost us ten million dollars per medal.

Now, I believe sporting activities and achievements, like all cultural pursuits, do give benefits back to society. Having winning athletes brings attention to sport and encourages people, especially young people, to play. In my case, watching the amazing US women’s gymnastics team – Mary Lou Retton and Julianne (“Julianne truly can!”) McNamara at the 1984 summer Olympics got me into gym classes when I was a kid.

I don’t have stats to back this up, but after Pat Cash’s 1987 Australian Open and Wimbledon victories, I’d be surprised if we didn’t see an increase in kids playing. His Wimbledon victory was the first by an Australian man in 16 years, since John Newcombe in 1971. (Of course, Evonne Goolagong Cawley had won in 1980).

I have to admit that given Australia’s sports mad reputation, I was a bit surprised to read in Crikey on 6 August poll results that:

When provided with the numbers on spending on elite Olympic sports, 58% of voters think we spend too much, and only 19% think it’s “about right”. Even voters who believe it is important that we win gold medals thought we spent too much: 49% versus 25% who thought current levels were “about right”. (Essential: We’re relaxed about the Olympics)

But I’m not seeking to just be anti-sport and say, we’re spending too much on sport. What I would like to see is more equity and less medal-shopping in our spending, and way more of an emphasis on everyday participation in sport and active recreation.

I would also note  that in the same Crikey report, Greens voters were reported to be the least interested in the Olympics:

30% of Greens voters say they have no interest in the Olympics compared to 14% of all voters, and 37% of Greens voters think winning gold medals is “not at all important” compared to 17% of all voters.

So perhaps the suggestions I’m making here might be relevant to Greens policy on sports and recreation funding.

What I would like you to consider is:

 1. Invest more in the participation of the 99%, not the elite 1%

Investing in young people’s participation in sport (and active recreation, eg orienteering) across the board, not just those who have Olympic potential. Let’s reallocate some of the money we currently use to train our elite Olympic athletes back into schools, and aim to increases more sporting participation across the board, and especially in a way that would encourage and enable female participation.


2. More equity in the funding of elite sport, less determined by chances of medals

Go look at the funding chart in The Age article linked to at the start of this post (seriously, go look) and tell me why swimming should be so grossly overfunded compared to the rest? If you were any athlete outside of swimming, wouldn’t you feel disheartened?

The Australian Institute of Sport made a call about 2 years ago that their current girls gymnastics cohort weren’t Olympics chances so they defunded their program and the girls who’d moved to Canberra, whose families had shifted their whole lives around to accommodate their girls’ sporting training, were chucked out and had to try to find places in other gymnastics programs in order to try to keep training. How is that fair? Call me crazy, but can’t we invest more evenly, and just field our best athletes in each sport, rather than defunding the ones who might not be medals chances, because we want to ensure we get a swag of gold medals in the pool?

3. Female participation

It drives me nuts that Australia is so devoted to sports which exclude women and pays relatively little attention to female-dominated sports even when we excel. One of the reasons tennis was my chosen sport (apart from the fact that I loved it and was reasonably good at it) was that mens, womens and mixed games are part of all elite tennis competitions. It seemed much more inclusive, although I know that inequality of prize purses has been an ongoing bone of contention for women in the game.

AFL is perhaps Australia’s favourite male dominated sports, and it does provide a female participation pathway for mixed and single sex participation for girls. I note they recommend that after 14, girls move into girls-only competitions.

I wasn’t even aware that AFL excludes girls, until I read a letter to the editor in the weekend paper in Melbourne a few years ago in which a mum said how crushed her daughter had been when she reached the cut-off age and couldn’t play with her (presumably mixed, maybe Auskick?) team anymore. It’s just not right. 🙁

(I note that a little research shows me that there is a modified Women’s Australian Rules Football game. Have you ever heard or it or seen it on telly? I certainly hadn’t, but I’m not a footy fan.

3. Legislation to ensure more equal opportunity and funding for girls sport in school and uni

Let’s consider the way the US has addressed female participation in sport – through the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act law (commonly known as Title IX), which mandates that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance”.

When introducing Title IX in 1972, President Nixon spoke mostly about how it would stop racial segregation on buses, which was still happening (!) but it seems to have had its most public and most ongoing impact on school and college sport. Wikipedia tell us:

One study, completed in 2006, pointed to a large increase in the number of women participating in athletics at both the high school and college level. The number of women in high school sports had increased by a factor of nine, while the number of women in college sports had increased by more than 450% (Unfortunately the citation leads to a dead link in Wikipedia).

An amusing sidenote for the feminists in the audience: I learned of the existence of Title IX last year through a recent episode of a TV show (I believe it was the Matt Perry comedy Mr Sunshine) in which an elite basketballer or footballer pisses off the female protagonist he’s on a date with by bellyaching about how Title IX has taken money away from real (men’s) sport.

So anyway, that’s a lot more than I thought I’d have to say about sport and the Olympics. I admit that I don’t follow any sport anymore, and I would welcome being corrected on any factual errors or assumptions I’ve made in the above. But the overall point I’d like to leave you with is this: If I have a daughter, I want her to be able to play any sport she wants, whether for fun or to excel. I’d love to see our funding, support and participation in sport to reflect this goal. 🙂

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