If ever there was an assumption that athletes are not overly interested in politics, the political interest displayed by athletes in Olympic sports on Budget day suggests otherwise.

Budget day is like the day of reckoning after begging your parents for a pocket money raise for months on end. We sit there in eager anticipation, wide pleading eyes eagerly waiting.

At face value, we were happy with our piece of the pie. Minister for Sport Kate Ellis’ “Australian Sport: The Pathway to Success” will be backed by $195.2 million in new funding — the biggest funding injection to sport in our nation’s history. There is no mention of adjustments for inflation, but this certainly sounds good.

Working out exactly whether, for us, this means an extra gobsucker (or protein bar!) a week is a little more difficult. Besides being a little scratchy on the details, the precise distribution of this money will likely be largely dependent on our performances in upcoming major competitions. High-performance funding is specifically mentioned to target athletes ranked in the top three in the world, with some available for those ranked in the top 10. This is like pocket money contingent on a straight A+ report card and a high distinction in the Westpac maths competition.

World rankings are not always the best way to allocate funding. David Crawshay and Scott Brennan, for example, did not make the final at the World Championships in 2007, but went on to win an Olympic gold medal in 2008. Funding must be competitive, but it also risks being too transient to offer any sense of stability necessary for success.

Having said this, we know our sport will not be a money-earning career. It makes sense, as high-performance athletes, that our funding stream is at least to some degree performance based. If we do not perform, we cannot expect to receive the little support that is available. It is a dog-eat-dog world, but so are Olympic finals. We choose to do this.

What is more important than whether individually we can access this funding for the “cream of the crop”, is whether the Budget provides sufficient funds and clarity for our organisations to plan, to employ coaches and to fund competition travel. Reliable planning gives us the required stability in our lives to train to the best of our ability and, in turn, achieve our high-performance goals.

In an Olympic sport, funding is more often than not semi-decent in the lead up to the Olympics, at least if we are considered a medal shot (translation: we are funded enough to pay rent, food and maybe a DVD on Saturday night). Most of us still hold down part-time jobs if there are other expenses to pay, such as travelling expenses for those of us who have to move away from our families to train or, for others, the costs of child care or paying off a mortgage.

In the years following the Olympics, life is much more difficult. Post-Beijing, the strategic direction of rowing was in limbo purely because all funding allocations were put on hold pending the release of the Crawford Report. It is two years on now, and the government has only just issued its response to this report. Making decisions such as where to base crews, how many crews it may be able to afford to send overseas to major championships, how long crews may be able to train overseas and who can be employed to coach these crews are all finance dependent. Not knowing where you will be training in a couple of weeks’ time, or when you will be travelling, makes planning difficult.

This is especially true in our sport where nearly all of us work or study (or both) full- or part-time. Planning work or study is particularly difficult in a climate of uncertainty. I study full-time at Melbourne University, but was moved mid-semester last year to train in Canberra. I had to leave my job at Athletics Victoria.

Hannah Every-Hall is a mother with two children who has been living in Noosa and has moved her family to Canberra to train with lightweight doubles partner Alice McNamara, who has moved to Canberra while completing a commerce/science degree in Melbourne. Karsten Forsterling is leading a major engineering project in Melbourne, but has handed over his caseload to workmates to commit to a move to Hobart. Olympic gold medallist Crawshay has moved from Hobart to Melbourne to Hobart to Melbourne to Canberra to Hobart in the past two years alone.

Make no mistake, this is no AFL, rugby or soccer. There are no contracts and no salaries. Our only certainty comes when our leadership can see the pie they’ve been given, and then work out how they’re going to divide it up. It’s only then that they can give us a semi-clear guide of when, where and what we are required to do.

It follows that the proposal in the Budget for $324.8 million funding to the Australian Sports Commission to create a secure platform beyond Budget cycles is a positive move, although it is a little unclear what impact this funding will have on high performance programs.

An ongoing commitment to the European Training Centre is exciting, and will undoubtedly lower long-term costs for training between major competitions in Europe. Big tick.

As a side note, the outline of the Budget also suggests that AIS scholarship holders will be required to volunteer at local sporting clubs or junior sports programs. Other than being a little offended by this recommendation — we do often go back to our schools and clubs to offer assistance without any “requirement” — the practicalities of implementing compulsory “service” are a little concerning. A typical day for an AIS rower involves 5-8 hours training, 1-2 hours of meetings or appointments and the rest of the day is filled with work, study or both. As much as we would love to join in many of the programs run by AFL clubs and rugby clubs giving talks in schools and helping out at a community level, if we do not use our spare time to work, it is not so easy to make ends meet.

But all in all, we are very grateful for what looks to be a little bit of extra pocket money to help us reach our Olympic dreams.

*This was first published on  Back Page Lead, a sports opinion website that provides sports content to Crikey.

Peter Fray

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