It didn’t take long for the Olympic establishment to respond to the clear and present threat posed by yesterday’s Crawford Report. It mobilised quickly.

AOC chief and Labor mate John Coates was straight out of the blocks and was punching every button he could. The report suggesting a reweighting away from Olympic sports toward sports that large numbers of Australians actually play was “insulting” to Olympians, Coates said, and, far worse, “unAustralian.”

“I’m pissed off,” Coates declared.

Coates, apparently, is in mystical communion with the Australian soul. “Is Mr Crawford suggesting the gold medals won in Beijing by Matthew Mitcham, Steve Hooker and Ken Wallace meant nothing to the Australian people?”

Behold the fury of a parasitic industry facing the threat that taxpayers might stop handing them money.

Quite apart from his Labor connections, Coates has a powerful media presence. Former Olympians and sports journalists — who rely on good relations with the Olympic movement to do their jobs — were quickly mobilised against the threat.

“Don’t deny us chance to be world-beaters,” warned The Australian’s sports editor Wally Mason.

“Crawford Report misses target,” wrote former Olympian and News Ltd journalist Mike Hurst.

Fairfax’s Jacqueline Magnay made the serious accusation that the panel was biased, specifically toward AFL.

Take anything you read by sports journalists on this subject with a grain — or perhaps a kilogram — of salt. Getting the Olympic mob offside is a career-threatening move in their field.

Coates is angry about two things — the overall tenor of the report, which proposes we stop throwing money at elite sports which simply salve the national ego, and start directing money to mass participation sports and getting kids more involved, and the specific rejection of his proposal to lock in an extra — extra — $109m a year so that we can do better in minority sports that happen to be on the Olympic calendar. Because, horror of horrors, we might come fifth rather than third in modern pentathlon.

If Coates thinks there is such an urgent case for spending more money on Olympic sports, perhaps the AOC can spend more of its own money. According to its own figures, over the last five years the AOC has raked in over $40m in sponsorship alone, and been given a further $74m in grants from the Australian Olympic Foundation, a trust with a $100m+ worth of assets under management. But the AOC has only spent $35m on funding for Olympic sports and athletes in that time, and another $29m on sending teams to Summer and Winter Olympics.

Where, once you take away other costs like interest charges on earlier borrowings, has the other $40m+ gone? Not to Olympic sports that get the best part of $90m of taxpayer assistance a year. In fact, in 2008 the AOC gave to national sports federations the same amount of money it gave in 2005 despite attracting double the corporate sponsorship money.

In truth, though, the Crawford Report fails to fully embrace the logic of its own position, that sports funding should be structured around specific and measurable policy goals. Sports funding, like any other public expenditure, must have some benefit to the community. Switching funding away from elite sports to mass participation sports would only reward sports that are already financially successful because of their popularity, whether through participant numbers or through commercial sponsorship and revenue from broadcast rights. The football codes and cricket don’t need any money from taxpayers and there would be no public benefit if they got it.

If we’re serious about sports funding for public benefit, we should pouring it into programs that get all children — all of them — playing a sport. Apart from helping address child fitness, it would lift participation numbers in mainstream sports and expand the talent pool available for elite sports. A mass program enabling every school to participate in weekend sports programs would yield far more benefits than money for either elite or mass participation sports.

What it wouldn’t provide is the warm inner glow that apparently burns in the hearts of many Australians whenever we win a meaningless piece of metal at a sporting frolic. And that, ultimately, is what Coates really has on his side — the certain knowledge that no politician will dare incur the wrath of sports obsessives by taking funding away from the Olympics and using it for something worthwhile.

That would be unAustralian, see.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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