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.
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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