Despite Australia’s national sporting obsession and the excitement in the weekend’s upcoming grand finals, the bulk of our sports funding literally accomplishes nothing of any public benefit and could be redeployed to other areas of the health budget to achieve far better outcomes.

The federal government is planning to spend nearly a billion dollars on sports over the next four years, with the bulk of the money flowing to the Australian Sports Commission, which administers both mass participation programs (like the “Sporting Schools” program) and elite sports grants, with the current split one-third for the former and two-thirds for the latter. According to the ASC’s last annual report, last year, over $200 million was paid to elite sports. Athletics, basketball, cycling, hockey, rowing and sailing were the biggest recipients — all received over $5 million in funding last year, while swimming topped them all, with $12.6 million.

Why do we fund elite sports to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars? Simple-minded jingoism isn’t the best-sounding public policy rationale and, in any event, most people forget about high-profile sports like swimming in between major events like the Olympics. So elite sports funding has long been justified on the basis that it isn’t only about winning Olympic gold medals, but that success in elite sports encourages all Australians to participate in sports, with ensuing health benefits. But the last major independent review of sports funding, the Crawford Review in 2009, was unable to find evidence to back up that link:

“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. So if sports are to be funded in part to encourage wide participation, some priority should be given to those sports played throughout the country …”

The Crawford Review pointed out it was very difficult to obtain data to verify what the impacts of sports funding were. Six years later, in the Australian Sports Commission’s 2014-15 annual report, that body was admitting there’d been little progress on that:

“the target of establishing benchmark participation data has not been achieved this year. Work will continue to establish this benchmark data in 2015–16. In the interim, the ASC will continue to use ABS participation data …”

Problem is, the ABS data, based on a semi-annual survey, confirm the Crawford Review panel’s scepticism about any link between elite sports funding and mass participation. In 2005-06, the ABS found 66% of Australians engaged in sporting or recreational activity at least once in the preceding 12 months (not exactly a high benchmark for participation). Despite over a billion dollars in elite sports funding in the interim, in 2013-14 that figure was down to 60%.

[Why didn’t we win more medals in Rio?]

And in swimming, the biggest recipient of all that elite funding, as well as a healthy dollop of mass participation funding ($1.3 million in 2014-15) — and a popular activity across the country — participation is down from 9% to 6.4% in that period. Elite sports funding has failed to encourage mass sporting participation — and, in fact, participation has fallen in spite of it. However, this has had little impact on the health of Australians — we’re actually healthier now than in 2005.

The pointless spending on elite sports isn’t the only way Australia wastes money on sport. Every year, the Victorian government — no matter which side is in power in Spring St — wastes $60 million a year staging the Formula 1 Grand Prix. Queenslanders will pay $2 billion for the dubious privilege of hosting one of the lesser events of the international sporting calendar, the Commonwealth Games, in 2018.

Such events are invariably accompanied by Major Event Mathematics, that strange branch of maths in which negative signs turn into positives, magical multipliers generate vast economic benefits that exist only on paper and massive costs are wished away as much-needed infrastructure. Special mention should, of course, be made of Kevin Rudd and Frank Lowy wasting $43 million in a failed effort to secure the soccer World Cup from FIFA — the world’s most blatantly corrupt and criminal sporting body.

We also devote around $14 million a year to anti-doping, with a specific agency, the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority employing 50 people to test sportsmen and women, on the basis that sports need a “level playing field” (finally, a circumstance in which that cliche is justified). This body has quite extraordinarily intrusive powers for what is a purely self-harming activity, and can impose draconian penalties on athletes falling foul of its testing procedures, none of which are related in any way to the public interest. It should be a matter for sports themselves as to whether they are “clean”; at the very least, ASADA should operate on the basis of full cost-recovery from the sports it oversees, including a capital use charge for a return to taxpayers.

[How to deal with drug cheats at the Olympics]

In every area of sports funding, it’s difficult to find a public policy rationale. Funding for mass participation programs and the local infrastructure and equipment that supports them might slow down the decline in sporting participation, although we don’t appear to be suffering too much from our lower level of sporting exercise. And there are hard-to-quantify but nonetheless very real benefits to fostering local sporting communities in terms of social capital and community cohesion. Funding for paralympians might help end our weird tendency to treat disabled Australians as mysteriously different to the rest of us. But elite sports funding appears to be about wasting billions on national self-aggrandisement — and not a particularly effective form of it, either. It would be far more useful if directed to our hospitals, primary healthcare system or Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

Peter Fray

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