I nearly choked on my porridge this morning to see that guardian of fiscal rigour The Australian urging more funding for Olympic sports. At least it suggests News Ltd doesn’t regard all élites other than conservative politicians as sneering chattering class latte-sippers, but what happened to the usual small-government rhetoric?

“It is our success at the Olympics — overall fourth in Sydney and Athens and sixth in Beijing — that helps to inspire Australians to get involved in all sports,” declared The Oz, by way of explanation for its enthusiasm for adding to the nearly $600 million spent on Olympic sports in recent years.

Now, The Oz is the in-house journal of the assertion-based community, but this claim looks more than usually suspect. After all, the Crawford Review concluded:

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“Importantly, the Panel can find no evidence that high profile sporting events like the Olympics (or Wimbledon or the Australian Football League (AFL) Grand Final) have a material influence on sports participation.”

One of the problems, the review found, was the poor state of data about sports participation. But the conclusion sounds pretty sensible. Let’s compare a related statistic — levels of obesity. While Australia’s success at the Olympics surged through the 1990s — from 15th in Seoul to 10th in Barcelona to seventh in Atlanta to fourth in Sydney and Athens, Australian levels of obesity have surged as well. The number of overweight and obese Australians has gone from 4.6 million in 1989-90 to 7.4 million in 2004-05.  And rate of obesity for boys went from from 5% in 1995 to 10% in 2007–08.

If anything, there’s seems to be a correlation between investing in élite sports (like archery, which the Crawford Review found received more funding than cricket, despite having less than 1% of the participants cricket has) and Australia getting fatter.

As the Crawford Review noted, one of the problems is that we don’t really know what impact anything has on sports participation because we don’t have consistent, reliable data, not even for programs specifically targeted at increasing sports participation, like the Commonwealth’s Active After-school Communities program. When it comes to properly measuring the impact of sports funding, it seems, no one is keeping proper score.

This isn’t just a minor point about program administration. The Crawford Review wasn’t the screed against élite sports funding that some portrayed it as. Its very first words are its least controversial and most sensible: “Australia does not have a national sports policy or vision. We have no agreed definition of success and what it is we want to achieve. We lack a national policy framework within which objectives for government funding can be set and evaluated.”

This is in part one of the reasons for the media’s obsession with “what went wrong”: it’s not clear exactly what we’re trying to achieve, or how it should be measured. And what happens when other countries, like the UK, pour more money into élite sports than us? Do we adjust our expectations about performance, or do we as Kevan Gosper and, presumably, The Australian think, simply engage in an endless fiscal arms race with other countries over élite sports funding? Why not $1 billion for Olympic sports? $2 billion?

On the logic advanced by the sports rent-seekers and empire builders and backed by News Ltd, we’d simply go on pumping more and more money into obscure sports such as archery in the hope of getting that sweet, sweet sugar rush of gold once every four years — while Australians get fatter and fatter.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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