Something just shook to the core Australians’ boundless confidence in their own manifest destiny: the Poms creamed Australia in the medal count in the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. For the first time since 1986, the Australian team is not cock of the Games walk and the English, fresh from their Ashes humiliation last summer, have regained bragging rights over the old enemy. Not even Tony Abbott’s rediscovered statesmanship can cushion this low blow to our national pride.
But apparently more public funding can. Even before the Games finished, Australian Commonwealth Games Association chief Perry Crosswhite said the nation is at serious risk of being left behind beyond Glasgow; and a government funding injection of at least $25 million is needed.
“I’m not happy,” Crosswhite told 3AW’s Neil Mitchell, and any other media outlet who’d talk to him. “If the Australian government and Australians expect Australian athletes to perform at the highest level and to compete on the world stage; we have to have significant funds,” he said.
Listening to Crosswhite, you’d think that coming a strong second at the Commonwealth Games is the end of the world as we know it. Yet this post-imperial holdover is a third-rate event, even to those in the athletics community. Jamaican sprint champion Usain Bolt, who made only a cameo appearance in Glasgow, told the hosts that the Games are “a bit shit”. Only the Olympic Games and world championships matter for the serious athletes: for them, the Commonwealth Games merely are match practice. Only the tiddly winks sports that have virtually no other international exposure, like lawn bowls, take them seriously.
The only other beneficiaries are the Australian media. TV networks buy Commonwealth Games rights for saturation coverage of curiosity sports because it’s the one international competition where it’s guaranteed gold, gold, gold to Australia. And for those breathlessly reporting on the Games there’s always some excitement on and off the track to justify their expenses: just look at the front-page coverage of the feud between golden girl hurdler Sally Pearson and the grumpy Australian head athletics coach, Eric Hollingsworth. To the media that’s great copy, even if it’s really just one self-obsessed over-pampered diva prevailing over some grumpy bloke who dared criticise her attitude and performance.
Beyond that, the reality of Olympic and Commonwealth Games so-called “elite” sports is that they matter for a fortnight every other year; when we obsess over the Australian medal count, and make Greek gods out of egotistical prats. Then forget them for the next two years.
Yet, the rent-seeking of the CGA and the juggernaut that is the Australian Olympic Committee ensures that those on to the elite sport gravy train do very well. Public funding, administered by the Australian Sports Commission, averages $170 million a year, not including contributions from state governments promoting their own elite sportspeople and facilities. That whopping subsidy was barely touched by the Abbott government as it swung the Budget axe in May. In the Age of Entitlement, some entitlements are more sacrosanct than others.
In 2009 businessman David Crawford’s review of sports funding recommended that funding elite sport and Olympic medals take a back seat to grassroots participation. Crawford rightly questioned treating elite sport as a public good subsidised by millions of battling Norms and Normas struggling to pay household bills, raise children and keep their jobs.
But the jingoistic politics of sporting patriotism was brilliantly exploited by the Godfather of Australian sport, AOC supremo John Coates, and consequently more public money was invested in elite sport, not less. Coates told us then that if we didn’t get our act together and increased investment in pursuing Olympic gold we’d face national embarrassment and even “shame”. Both Labor and the Coalition swallowed Coates’s bullying line and ran from Crawford as if they were Cathy Freeman at the Sydney Olympics. Lures of photo opportunities with gold medallists and ministerial overseas junkets were simply too great.
Yet Crawford was right. Professional elite sport is not a public good: it’s a private benefit to a select few hundred athletes, their trainers, other hangers-on and institutions such as the Australian Institute of Sport. Vested interests such as the AOC, the CGA and sport administrators also get their cut. But above all it benefits commercial interests – the sponsors, advertisers and broadcasters – who seek huge dividends in not only product sales and ratings but in enhancing, by association, corporate reputations through “soft” marketing of their brands with relatively little direct investment.
It’s high time political leaders called the bluff of exploitative rent-seekers like Coates and Crosswhite. They should make it clear that funding elite sport is the private sector’s job, and that over-generous government subsidy will end. Given that they profit very handsomely from their Olympic and elite sport associations, broadcasters, advertisers and sponsors must take much more responsibility for investing in developing and supporting elite athletes as profitable talent essential to their corporate goals, and stop freeloading on taxpayer largesse. Coates in particular then can use his Don Corleone lobbying skills to put the hard word on corporate Australia.
If public subsidy stays, individual elite athletes should give back too. While Australians are encouraged to revel in their achievements and respect their dedication, Games success allows athletes to cash in on product endorsements, appearance fees, lucrative sponsorships and the many fringe benefits of celebrity status in Australia’s sport-worshipping society. As for mere mortal university students with their HECS debts, elite athletes should be required to repay their fellow Australians the costs of their support from after-tax earnings on income derived directly from their elite sporting status. Surely that’s a fair exchange for our far too generous investment in them.
Either that, or make them do a few lamington drives and chook raffles.
But athletes, Coates and other elite sport rent-seekers needn’t worry about such threats to their narcissistic, taxpayer-funded existence. They’re socially useless but politically useful: the smell of liniment is an aphrodisiac to pollies who love basking in the reflected glory of sweaty, medal-winning athletes. As long as politicians of all sides are on the nose, they will never hesitate to divert jaded voters by continuing to bankroll the five-ring circus.
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