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SPORT

Jul 26, 2012

What price gold? Tallying up Olympic success

When your heart swells with pride as the canned anthem plays and the flag rises for a gold in London, that twitch in your back pocket is what that moment just cost you, writes Dr James Connor.

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When your heart swells with pride as the canned anthem plays and the flag rises for a gold in London, that twitch in your back pocket is what that moment just cost you.

The cost of a gold medal is an extremely difficult thing to “price”. At its simplest, we can say that taxpayers paid (roughly) $588 million to the Australian Sports Commission for Olympic sport. Divide that by the likely number of gold (let’s be generous and say 12) and we get $49 million per bauble.

What this figure does not take into account is the money spent at state level, the sponsorship dollars and expenditure of national sporting organisations — such as Swimming Australia — the cost of the infrastructure to have elite athletes (pools, fields, tracks) and the individual sacrifices that the athletes and the family and friends make to send 410 people to London.

Then there are the athletes who didn’t quite make it, and they are not part of any funding model. The vested interests might argue that this pays for the Commonwealth Games and world championships as well. But we all know which one really counts — Olympic performance.

What do we get for our investment? National pride, if you believe in that sort of thing — and a plethora of commentary on how great at sport we are and how we “punch-above-our-weight”. Politicians of course love it — photo opportunities abound.

A more difficult question is that of their worth as role models — do we really want our kids looking up towards elite athletes and aspiring to be that? Aspire to break another’s jaw, threaten officials, take drugs at the worst end of the spectrum and endanger their health through over-training at the best?

The most problematic claim of all to justify the millions is the trickle-down participation effect on kids. Cue the obesity “panic” — elite sport spruikers will tell you that a gold in London means more kids running, jumping, throwing and swimming and thus being healthier. Sadly, we buy into this panacea, despite no international and weak Australian evidence for any elite-to-grassroots participation effect.

If you want more kids running around, then fund that directly by improving access and ease of exercise and physical activity. Build more parks, ovals, playgrounds and bike paths. Subsidise sporting activities for the young — boots, balls, bats and free swimming lessons — instead of giving the elites a free ride.

The biggest cost is the message this sends about what is important: sport before science or art. You can be the elite of sport and get a fully funded scholarship to the AIS, with access to the very best sports science and facilities we as a nation can buy. And the best bit is you never have to pay a cent back — unlike our future doctors, nurses, teachers and scientists.

Inevitably, when the medal haul is lower than Beijing, the sporting lobby groups will demand yet more money, facilities and support.  Sadly they will probably get it given the history of funding arguments and the ability of the vested interests to bury the very sensible recommendations of the Crawford review into sport funding.

Sport at the elite level is a very expensive, commercialised and professional activity — just remember — it is your tax dollars up on that podium.

*Dr James Connor is with the University of New South Wales in Canberra and researches sport

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16 comments

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16 thoughts on “What price gold? Tallying up Olympic success

  1. Steve777

    It’s not how you play the game, it’s whether you win or lose. Elite sport is all about winning, glory for the winners and vicarious glory for the supporters of the winning team. Elite sport is war conducted by other, less harmful means.

    Encouraging fitness in young people is something entirely different. Some are highly competitive, some aren’t. Some have the physical and psychological attributes to excel at sport, some don’t. But our bodies have evolved over eons to a world where food is scarce and physical activity is essential. But in developed countries we find ourselves in a world where food is cheap and plentiful and exercise basically optional. But physical activity is essential to good health and we need to develop appropriate strategies to maximise the chance that young people will be able to make healthy lifestyle choices. Sport works for many but by no means all. Competition in physical activity motivates many, but demotivates others.

    We need a range of strategies to promote good health in the young, including sports participation. But that needs money to be spent at the grass-roots level, not on elites. Money for the Olympics is a sort of national promotion and entertainment. It could also be argued to be like money spent on cultural and artistic activities. And if our side wins, it makes a lot of people feel good.It may even contribute to the promotion of fitness, but there are far more efficient ways to do this.

    P.S. @SB – for once I agree with you.

  2. Suzanne Blake

    Who cares about the Olympics, money spent better elsewhere on every child’s fitness

    Its money for the elite.

    WASTE

  3. Simon

    the message is simple, but still missed by this article.

    sport is important, elite sport is not important.

  4. Rohan

    A virtually identical series of articles to this are wheeled out every time the Olympics come around.

    Yet if the main gripe is with wastage of taxpayer dollars, there are innumerable examples more deserving of attention.

    Perhaps its because, like articles bitching about New Years Eve fireworks, they’re too easy to write.

  5. mikeb

    My – what a sour, thin lipped and cynical article. So elite sportmen “Aspire to break another’s jaw, threaten officials, take drugs at the worst end of the spectrum and endanger their health through over-training at the best?” I think that says it all about the writers attitude so any other worthwhile comment included can be taken with a grain of salt. The human desire to compete and succeed should be encouraged in all its forms. If our ancestors had spent all their time gazing at the sky and contemplating why leaves fall then we wouldn’t be here today. Totally agree that funding for science and the arts is essential but let’s not throw the baby ut with the bathwater. Sport is part of the human psyche and we need a rounded lifestyle and heroes to salute. A healthy body is a healthy mind and theres no doubt that Olympic success encourages young people to take up sport.

  6. Novak

    Here’s something to help simplify this “argument”. $588m to the Sports Commission. 22m people in Australia. Divide the former by the latter, and we obtain the cost, per person, of the entire national Olympic funding program. And how much is it? $27. I think most people in this country wouldn’t have any qualms with paying $27 for the ability to follow and enjoy the Olympic experience. (Especially given that it’s already being paid for them via their tax contributions). :).

  7. AR

    Is there any chance that this will the last Olympic article? No, i thought not. Oh well, it gives me more time to clean out the privy.

  8. michael crook

    Obesity “panic”, more kids running around, but, wait a moment, isn’t one of the main causes of kids obesity, McDonalds, a major sponsor?

  9. zut alors

    Olympics, yawn… a patriotic beat-up. As for the AIS, too much funding for too few.

  10. Samuel Pendergast

    Your argument implies that Olympic gold medals are the sole reason and outcome for investing in sport at any level above the grassroots.

    ‘What this figure does not take into account is the money spent at state level.’

    Of course it doesn’t, that’s money spent on amateur sporting participation which encourages confidence, cooperation, a healthy lifestyle and dear I say it competitiveness among a significant portion of the population.

    Don’t worry about the trickle-down argument, or connections between elite success and junior participation, it’s irrelevant. Participation at all levels costs and it’s worth investing in regardless of the medal count.

  11. IC-1101

    I don’t like the tone of this article at all.

    The Olympics are one of a few outlets of peace and fairness in a very corrupt world. Poor countries even have the capacity to dominate particular sports, as they do quite often.

    The author suggests that “we buy into” the notion that elite sport encourages kids to get off their bum, despite no evidence to suggest as such. I recommend that Dr Connor’s look into soccer participation rates following Australia’s 2006 World Cup appearance.

    Generally, though, this article reflects an opinion of hostility towards wealth and the obvious “elitist” organisation of professional sports and competition.

    I look forward to the bombardment of similar articles by Crikey’s apparent intellectual elite.

    Sport brings people together.

  12. Alank52

    These days sport (not religion) is the opiate of the masses.

  13. donkeyotee

    Couldn’t agree more. It also wouldn’t bother me so much if the sports weren’t universally bloody tedious: Fifteen thousand minor variations on swimming, obscure track & field events like shotput that nobody in their right mind would care about apart from 2 weeks every 4 years. And all of the sports that people have a general interest in — golf, tennis, football etc — have their own non-olympic tournaments that carry far more cachet.

    But we’ll keep forking out billions, because “elite” is only a dirty word in Australia when it’s applied to intellectual pursuits, not sporty ones.

  14. puddleduck

    What proportion, if any, of their sometimes very lucrative sponsorships, do supported athletes return to the public coffers?

  15. Paul Liddell

    It’s laying it on a bit thick when you state that as role models, all we get from our elite athletes are people who “Aspire to break another’s jaw, threaten officials, take drugs at the worst end of the spectrum and endanger their health through over-training at the best?”.

    I don’t disagree with the theme of the article, but to impugn our elite athletes as examples of “over-training” at best is a pretty emotive analysis. There are many great role-models in elite sport. Whether or not the money could be better spent is more the issue.

  16. jj

    Worst of all – the Australian Olympic Committee claiming to represent the view of all Australians and beating the govt around the head for more dollars every time the budget allocation comes around- then the govt – any govt swallowing it hook line and sinker!!!

    A the very least introduce a HECS style payment method for the so called elite. I mean what really is the benefit of us winning gold medals – we feel good about it for 2 weeks and then move on – 588million ???? The games are corrupt anyway – usually leave cities broke eg Montreal Athens. Go to http://www.oobject.com/category/12-examples-of-decayed-olympic-sites/
    for a good look – and I like watching sport

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