How much support — financial, medical, coaching, training — would you need to reach the pinnacle of your profession? If you are an athlete in Australia, then about $40 million. That is a conservative estimate of what each Olympic gold medal in the last 20 years has cost Australian taxpayers.
Tamsyn Lewis may be fed up with running against all those alleged drug cheats. But let’s spare a thought for the countless athletes around the world who will never get to compete at the Olympics and never have the chance to complain that it isn’t fair. The “level” playing field in sport is as shonky as China’s promise to allow media freedom.
Sport, especially at the elite level, is not fair, has never been fair and will never be fair. Global inequality is mirrored in the medal tally rankings. Elite sport long ago moved away from the amateur athlete, training in their spare time with a non-professional coach. It is now an industry, with athletes merely being the sharp point of a massive sporting-industrial-medical complex that trains, tests, tweaks and manipulates the athlete almost to death. And this of course requires a lot of money. If you are from a poor nation then your only hope is to be lucky enough to get noticed by a rich one, then you can sell out your country of origin and sign up for them.
At a global level there is a simple reason why African athletes perform well at track events, but not field events or swimming (no, its not just genetics) — it is because running requires very little in the way of material resources. Conversely, a single Olympic quality pole for pole vaulting costs at least US$500 (typically a vaulter would have a dozen poles which break quickly), to say nothing of the bar, uprights, pit, bags and run up track. Similarly, the capital investment and maintenance cost of an Olympic standard 50 metre pool is beyond the means of many countries, while our swimmers got a pool specifically built with bio-mechanical testing equipment embedded at a cost of $17 million.
Drugs do make a difference in sporting performance, but the difference is marginal if you are not already at the pinnacle of your sport. Of course, in the case of Tamsyn Lewis, who is 1.6 seconds off the world pace in the 400m, drugs might just help her claw a second or two from her time. But, she would not have even scraped into the Olympics if she had not been an Australian elite athlete — with all the support that entails.
So the next time an elite athlete whines about it not being “fair”, ask them how many years of assistance they have got from the Australian public purse, how many coaches, physios and sports scientists helped them, how often they get special high altitude training at Thredbo, how many times their technique has been mapped and analysed at the AIS to micro-manage it. Let’s remember the other athletes, the ones not lucky enough to be born in a wealthy country obsessed with sporting success.
Dr James Connor is an academic who researches in the area of performance enhancement, sport and drugs. The views expressed are his alone.