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The long-awaited Crawford Review of Australian sport has in effect called the bluff of successive Australian governments and proposed a re-weighting of sports funding away from elite Olympic sports toward grassroots participation.

Since 1976, when a mortified Fraser Government dramatically increased sports funding in the wake of the Montreal Olympics, Federal Governments have invested heavily in elite sports with the aim of maximising the number of Olympic medals. In 2007-08, most of the $90m handed out by the Australian Sports Commission went to Olympic sports as part of this national inferiority complex. Increasingly, however, governments have dressed up sports funding with social policy goals, claiming it helped address obesity, or encourage participation by marginalised groups like indigenous communities.

The Crawford Review has brought that contradiction out into the open, suggesting “the funding imbalance between Olympic and non-Olympic sports should be questioned. More emphasis should be given to sports that are popular with many Australians… The bias toward funding Olympic sports leads to outcomes that make little strategic sense for Australia.”

Many Olympic sports, like archery, have minimal community participation compared to popular sports like netball and cricket, or “whole of lifetime” sports like golf and tennis.

The Review avoids an explicit recommendation that funding be re-weighted but proposes a “national sports policy framework” with actual measurable objectives and evaluation processes. There is currently, report chair David Crawford said this morning, no national sports “vision” of what we are trying to achieve with funding. We also need to reconsider what Olympic success means, the Report suggests, particularly where medals come from individual rather than team success.

Sports funding is not a small business. The Federal Government is only the smallest funder. In 2001 — amazingly, the most recent year for which figures are available — $2b was spent by all governments on sport, with half coming from local government alone, primarily in maintaining sporting facilities. Funding arrangements are also extraordinarily complicated. There are several state-based Institutes and Academies of sport in addition to the Commonwealth Institute.

The report recommends ending this absurd duplication and establishing a national group of Institutes of Sport. It also recommends — as expected — that the Sports Commission divorce itself from all program administration — like running the Institute of Sport — and become a pure policy adviser and sector representative and coordinator, and recommends that sport and physical education become key learning areas in school curricula.

The tenor of the report is unlikely to go down well with the Federal Government. Sports Minister Kate Ellis was insisting this morning that the Government thought elite sports funding was “incredibly important” and that it was concerned we were “letting the rest of the world get closer and closer” in sporting achievement. “We want to remain a leader in international elite sport,” Ellis insisted.

And one of the most influential sports figures now is Australian Olympics Committee boss John Coates, who is very close to Labor and particularly powerbroker John Faulkner. Coates got in a warning shot several weeks ago that “Australia could be an Olympic also-ran” if funding weren’t maintained. A line-up of former Olympians like Grant Hackett dutifully stepped up to claim that success in sport helped create role-models in the fight against obesity.

The Crawford Report went out of its way to demolish that, saying “importantly, the Panel can find no evidence that high-profile sporting events like the Olympics … have a material influence on sports participation.”

Even so, there seems little chance of this Government cutting funding for elite athletes in low-participation sports — not just because of its closeness to Coates but because the national inferiority complex remains as firmly entrenched as ever. Instead, it will probably try to find some more money for mass-participation sports and schools programs.

That way no one will complain, which is how this Government likes it.

Peter Fray

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