Thursday, November 19, 2009

Olympic medals don't come cheap

Australians can be proud of our Olympians' performance at the Beijing games, our athletes coming fifth in the overall medal count. Those medals did not come cheap, however, the federal government investing huge sums in programs cultivating Olympic athletes. It was recently suggested that a further AU$100 million should be invested in Olympic programs; not doing so would likely see Australia perform less spectacularly at subsequent games.

The Independent Sports Panel, chaired by businessman David Crawford, was tasked with investigating sports funding - go here for the terms of reference. The Panel's lengthy report basically suggests that broader funding of community sports programs is a better use of tax dollars than is spending the money on the development of a select few elite athletes. Those connected with non-Olympic sports are delighted; those with Olympic connections are aghast.

Now since huge slabs of cash are involved, a take-no-prisoners battle looms between powerful, well-connected opposing teams, with the goverment caught in the middle. Dan Silkstone covers this developing stoush in today's Age, noting the mobilization of powerful pro-Olympic forces. He also notes that Crawford was well aware of the strong reaction the report would likely elicit:

They will set their big Olympic machine on me.

And a big machine it is. But do we need or even want a machine that cranks out elite athletes, many of these select few achieving personal fame and fortune? Are we getting value for money? Most importantly, how does Olympic achievement benefit me and other "average" Australians? 

Personally, I couldn't care less about the Olympics. Don't get me wrong, it's really great that there are Australians who can jump higher, swim faster, dive more athletically or whatever. If that's what they want to do with their time and they're good at it, great, but they should do it on their own dime.

The Olympics aren't really about sporting achievement anyway, they're about organizational effort. Sure a natural talent like Usain Bolt will occasionally come along but the games will continue to be dominated by the countries with the best resourced Olympic organizations.

Australia won 46 medals at Beijing, India three. Are Indians a bunch or unathletic dorks, or what? Far more likely India (and lots of other countries) would trounce Australia if their per capita Olympic spending matched ours.

Olympic athletes are nothing more than surrogates in a battle of bureaucracies. Really, who cares?


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