David Crawford’s long-awaited report into Olympic funding yesterday created the sort of impact — and yelp of pain — in the corridors of the Australian Olympic Committee that Dean Lukin’s 240kg-loaded barbell might have done had he dropped it on John Coates’ foot.

For Crawford’s recommendations that the Federal Government cut back on the funding of some smaller Olympic sports — weightlifting among them — in favour of encouraging greater public participation in sport, and boosting ‘national psyche’ sports such as tennis, cricket, cycling and surf lifesaving, are dramatic and far-reaching.

Essentially, the report is saying to the Government: get serious, it’s time for a rethink on Olympic funding; the AOC’s demand for $109million to maintain a top-five position in the medal table is unrealistic because we are competing in a race with much bigger, more powerful rivals that we cannot hope to win; and the bias towards some Olympic funding — at the expense of other more popular, mainstream sports — made little strategic sense.

Coates, the AOC president, was immediately on the front foot — the one Lukin’s barbell didn’t crush — saying the report insulted everyone who worked hard for the Olympic movement since its nadir in 1976 when the Australian team came back from Montreal with not one gold medal. He said Crawford’s five-person panel was ignorant and disrespectful of Australia’s Olympic traditions and it was un-Australian that we settle for second best.

But on the surface, it’s hard to take issue with the thrust of Crawford’s report. In fact, most of it makes perfect sense.

At a time when we’ve just emerged from recession, when childhood obesity in Australia is at an all-time high and when some state schools have little or no sporting equipment — let alone PE teachers to supervise that sport — it’s a great moment to be having this debate. And posing the question: as a matter of public policy, should government sports funding subsidise elite athletes and the pursuit of Olympic medals in minor disciplines, or encourage junior sport and popular community team sports such as cricket, the football codes, netball and hockey?

The report says Olympic medals come at great cost — perhaps $15 million per gold medal. That’s an awful lot of money to spend just so the nation can bask in a fleeting moment of glory. How many cricket sets, or footballs, or netball rings would $15million buy for neglected state schools in the country?

I’ve written about sport for 20 years and covered two Olympic Games — in Sydney and Athens — but I have to say there’s not much in the report with which I can seriously quibble. We all got very excited about the gold medals won by Simon Fairweather (archery), Lauren Burns (taekwondo) and the women’s water polo team in Sydney, and then Suzie Balogh’s trap-shooting gold in Athens, and we shared in their joy. But the brutal truth is for the other 3.9 years in between Olympic Games, we wouldn’t have known, or much cared, how these individuals or teams were performing.

In saying Australia should stop trying to over-achieve on the Olympic medals table — a top-10 finish was more than satisfactory — Crawford’s panel urged a review of the funding of these smaller sports such as taekwondo, archery and water polo. It said the money saved on them would be better spent on projects which benefited the greater sports-playing community. Water polo, for example, received as much high-performance and AIS funding as golf, tennis and lawn bowls combined.

Coates countered by describing the recommendations as an insult to “great Olympic champions” of the past. He asked whether Crawford was suggesting that the gold medals won in Beijing by diver Matt Mitcham, pole vaulter Steve Hooker and kayaker Ken Wallace meant nothing to the Australian people.

Of course they were significant achievements and they did mean something to Australians. But not everything. Once upon a time, our sense of self-worth as a nation might have been tied up in our lofty position on the Olympic medal table. How we consistently punched above our weight and reveled in the vicarious pleasure of giving those Yanks and Russians and East Germans a bloody nose. Not anymore. We’re past that and I reckon most people understand that there are more pressing priorities for government funding.

Coates and his Olympic brethren have clearly been taken aback by this 240-kg reality check. And they’re now behaving like the spoilt child who’s had a toy taken away from them in the sandpit. Their sense of entitlement is breathtaking — and, it has to be said, winning them few new friends in the court of public opinion.

Peter Fray

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