The great quadrennial summer sports-fest has concluded with the snuffing of the Paralympic flame. It was a sense of déjà vu when no sooner had the flame been snuffed than the calls for extra funding were made to ensure that our Paralympians could do better in London. This gives our Sports Minister an interesting problem — who should get the lion’s share of public funding — the Olympians or the Paralympians? Who is the better investment? Would Kate Ellis be better off betting on the Paralympic team in 2012 and avoid the ignominy of British track suit time brought about by our apparently under-funded Olympians?

In Beijing, Australia’s Paralympians won 23 gold, 29 silver and 27 bronze, compared with the Olympic haul of 14 gold, 15 silver and 17 bronze. Our Paralympians ranked 5th, winning 79 of the 1431 (5.5%) medals on offer, while our Olympians came 6th, winning 46 of the 958 medals (4.8%). There’s only a little bit separating the two teams in these terms — they are both doing about as well as each other. So, let’s look at the funding each team receives.

Using the same methodology, we calculated the value of direct, Federal funding to each of the teams over the past four years. This system grossly under-estimates the true cost of Olympic medals when we allow for State, organisation and sponsorship funding as well. Conversely, Paralympians get little additional support in comparison. Thus, in reality, the comparison of total funding is much worse.

Each gold medal that the Olympic team won cost Australian Taxpayers about $15.6 million* in direct Federal funding. With $26 million in direct funding from the Australian Sports Commission, each Paralympic gold medal cost $1.1 million. Even in these crude terms, it looks like Paralympic medals are a bargain, red spot special compared to grossly over priced Olympic accolades.

You might correctly object that the Paralympics has about one-and-a-half times the number of medals on offer (302 versus 471), thus making it theoretically easier to win Paralympic gold (we dare anyone to argue that point with our Wheelchair Rugby team). To even the playing field for our Olympians, our Paralympians have to win three gold for every two our Olympians win. Adjusting the figures for the pro-rata cost of gold medals means that a Paralympic gold costs about $1.7 million. That means it costs around nine times more to win Olympic gold than Paralympic gold.

To put this in perspective, let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the Sports Minister faced with the choice of reallocating public funds between Olympic and Paralympic sport. If we were to take all the money away from Paralympians ($26m) and invested it in Olympic athletes we would have won one, possibly two more gold medals — still behind the Pom’s 19 gold, relegating the Minister to more tracksuit time.

Conversely, if we re-directed all Olympic funding to our Paralympians we would win a whopping 345 gold medals (73% of the available) and be the most successful Paralympic sporting nation on Earth. Of course, we may well encounter a problem with the supply of athletes to win 345 gold medals, but perhaps the Australian Sports Commission can develop some novel approach to increasing Paralympic athlete numbers, as they do with current talent identification for the Olympics.

The Government and Opposition are committed to funding the sporting bureaucracy, to the tune of $300 million a year. Let’s practice the same rules they apply to hospitals, police and education — if they can be outcomes funded and compared, lets do it to elite sport too and put the money where we know we will get results. Where is the best return on investment for public money supporting elite sport in our sports mad country? Let’s back the likely winners — our Paralympians, and give the Poms the flogging they deserve.

*$15.6 million is below the oft cited $17 million, as the $17 million was calculated before the diving gold was won – the problem of old media deadlines.

Drs James Connor and Jason Mazanov are academics (with [email protected]) who research in the area of performance enhancement, sport and drugs. The views expressed are theirs alone.