Which To Fund: Olympic Gold For The Few or Fitness for The Masses?
By Bernard LaganAugust 9, 2012
Amid the great achievements of Australian athletes in London, the medal tally is short of the forecast haul. The 2009 Crawford Report urged funding for more sports, for more people, rather than the back-a-winner formula that has brought Australia disproportionate success for the past 32 years.
At first it seemed Logan Campbell's hardscrabble story of how he funded his journey to the London Olympics with the New Zealand taekwondo team by opening a brothel was just another piece of the national grit that saw New Zealand athletes race away with three early Olympic gold medals — gleefully trouncing the single gold that was Australia's until day 10.
Campbell, 26, who finished in the top 16 among the taekwondo fighters at the Beijing Olympics, sold his Auckland brothel in 2010 — and used the proceeds to train fulltime. He made the New Zealand team again for London, but not before the country's Olympic chiefs had made known their displeasure at his methods. That didn't stop Campbell's story making headlines around the world as an example of ingenuity for Olympic funding, aided by Campbell's re-telling: "I think it finally put a spotlight on our sport — as soon as I was in the media and stuff. We had never had funding, ever, ever in the history of taekwondo, and all of a sudden, it was like, bam! There was this funding, so it was sweet."
As the country enjoyed an early gold-medal shower — its rowers were the victors — not seen since the New Zealand runners Peter Snell and Murray Halburg blitzed the track at the 1960 Rome Olympics, the taunting of Australia's stunning misfortune at the London Olympics became ever louder. It was helpfully fuelled by Australia's Deputy Chef de Mission in London, Kitty Chiller, who admitted that while it was probably impossible for Australia to catch Britain on the medal table, she couldn't stomach trailing New Zealand.
And while Australia has, at the time of publication, eclipsed New Zealand's gold medal count (by one), the agony of Australia's sports fans, coaches and competitors over what is portrayed as a dismal gold-medal tally compared to the 14 won in 2008 at Beijing, continues.
The Australian Olympic Committee Chief, John Coates blames the swimmers, but has eased off his criticism of funding. For Kevan Gosper, Australia's senior member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the roughly $588 million in Federal funding that has been poured into the preparations of Australian elite athletes — mostly for the London Olympics — over the past four years has been inadequate. "We've been down on the sort of financial support that we were accustomed to when compared with the financial support that's coming through from other countries, particularly here in Europe," Gosper told ABC radio. "The fact is you do need more money in international sports and preparing if you're going to compete with the world."
Swimming great Susie O'Neill blames the athletes' work ethic. And the great Australian runner Robert de Castella points his finger at the London Olympic village which, he says darkly, has degenerated into a zoo.
Of course, the finger-pointing, blame-shifting and back-knifing are only to be expected when Australia's gold-medal results in London, thus far, are so short of the forecasts. In April, the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) was predicting, based on its annual benchmark study, that the Australian Olympians would depart London with 35 medals, 15 of them gold. Goldman Sachs, in its much-hyped Olympics forecast, predicted that Australia would finish at number five on the medal table, taking home the 15 golds that the AOC had also forecast. (Goldman Sachs said it was sure that gold would go to the growth economies and to those where the overall growth environment was best.)
Perhaps the answers for the off-beam results are held in the enormity of Australia's past Olympic success. Before Australia was pilloried for its London performance it was poached, photocopied and parodied around the world by competitor nations impressed by Australia's efforts to cast off the dejection of the 1976 Montreal Olympics in which a slovenly Australia was left at 32nd on the medal table. Those efforts saw Australia lift to 15th on the medal table for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, 14th in 1984 at Los Angeles at 15th at Seoul in 1988. It cracked placement in the top 10 nations in Barcelona in 1992 — and has finished in that illustrious sector in every Olympics since.
The Canberra-based Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), of course, was established as a direct result of the dismal performance at the Montreal Olympics, and now has an annual budget of about $170 million.
Dr James Connor is a senior lecturer in the University of NSW's school of business with a special interest in the funding of elite national sports programs, and the cloning of Australia's elite sports strategy tops his list of the reasons for Australia's poorer-than-expected showing in London.
Says Connor: "Generally speaking the rest of the world has finally cottoned onto what we've been doing for the last 25 years — so that every one of them is copying the Australian Institute of Sport. So the Chinese in particular, the Americans, Team GB copied exactly the system that we employed since setting up the AIS in terms of elite funding, elite support, sport science, the whole-of-athlete approach to getting gold medals. And because we have lost that competitive advantage, we are back in the pack again."
Across the ditch in New Zealand the most recent copying of Australia's strategies for elite sport and Olympic success is in plain view. A year ago New Zealand opened its equivalent of the AIS. The New Zealand Government created the Auckland-based National Training Centre for High Performance Athletes with the largest government cash injection for sport in New Zealand's history (it has a total spend of around NZD60 million a year), and Canadian swimming great Alex Baumann was poached from his position as chief of Canada's high-performance sports program to run the New Zealand equivalent. Logan Campbell, the former brothel owner, was an early beneficiary of its aid.
Next, Connor identifies the torrent of Australian coaching and sports science talent that has leached away overseas as other nations have sought to capitalise on those with inside knowledge of the Australian rise at the Olympics since the turnaround prompted by the embarrassment of Montreal.
Says Connor: "Our sports scientists and coaches are now training everyone else on the planet. When you look at for example, the Chinese swimmers, there is a whole cohort of Australian coaches and support staff. The same for cycling in the UK. So there are lots of people who were part of our system on the inside and knew what the tricks were, and now they've been poached by someone else. One of the arguments you hear from the sporting elite is that this is horrible, that we have to have more money so we can keep them here. But, you know, that is just not how it works. In the real world you can't just keep people locked away at an institute or somewhere just because you want to keep their knowledge."
One who didn't leave is the fabled Australian swimming coach, Ken Wood who past success stories include Olympic medallists Geoff Huegill, Leisel Jones and Kylie Palmer. But these days the bulk of 82-year-old Wood's swimmers are Chinese, including 20 on the current medal-chomping Chinese Olympic swim team. They're coached at a pool at Redcliffe, near Brisbane. Their costs are paid by the Chinese government. Two-hour training sessions, designed by Wood, begin at 5 am each day and, Wood told Brisbane's Courier Mail newspaper, the details of each session are emailed back to China for use by other swimmers even before each training session finishes at Redcliffe.
"Our job was to educate the coaches. They don't know anything about physiology, energy systems, biomechanics. They think 'threshold' is a doorway," Wood said.
Wood stunned the swimming world when he admitted after the Beijing Olympic Games that he sold to the Chinese the top-secret swimming program he had developed for the Australian butterfly world champion, Jessicah Schipper. China's Liu Zige used the program to smash Schipper's 200-metre butterfly record and win China's only swimming gold at the Beijing Olympics. China took the race again in London last week when Jiao Liuyang beat Liu Zige who came eighth.
John Coates raised the poaching issue again this week whilst seeking to defend Australia's medal performance in London. In reverse. He made the very salient point that the rest of the world were merely doing to Australia what it had done to lift its own Olympic medal tallies years ago. Coates said that between 1981 and 2000 Australia head-hunted no fewer than 200 coaches from overseas. They included Chinese and Russian diving coaches, Hungarians for water polo and more Russians for track and field.
Said Coates: "That is the way to fast-track, coming from nowhere as we were in 1981 post-Montreal. So we can't complain too loudly about other nations taking our coaches. Australians like to win and are accustomed to winning."
James Connor's third explanation for the disappointment of London is what he terms the Olympic-cycle issue. It's all about managing funding for both the Commonwealth and Olympic games and dealing with retirements so that there is a supply of talent for the cycle of games: "I think we seemed to have stuffed this one up in not having anyone particularly amazing [in London]. I mean whether there just wasn't the talent out there over the past five years or whether they were missed or too many people injured or what it was, that's hard to say. You know this was the big fear that we had — that so many people had retired after Sydney that we had lost a lot. We did not do particularly poorly in Beijing because we still had the legacy effect running but now we've certainly got to the point where there are none of those athletes left."
Five of Australia’s 14 Beijing gold-medal event winners are absent from London. Most retired. The New Zealanders, however, have been seeking to keep their London Olympic gold-medal-winning rowers stroking away by offering them an Audi car each for the next four years — all expenses paid. They will lose their Audis after two years unless they commit to keep rowing in the run-up to the 2016 Rio Olympics — in which case the cars are theirs for four years. It's a modest enough incentive to try to retain Olympic-medal-winning talent. James Connor points out that other nations do far more to try to retain exceptional talent — notably Malaysia which, he says, hand Olympic gold medallists hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money.
Finally, on Connor's list is the long-vexed issue of trying to pick the sports and competitors most likely to win Olympic gold and favouring them with the bulk of the public funding from the Federal Government's Australian Sports Comission (ASC). "The ASC tries to pick the sports that are going to get the best results and they fund them disproportionately to other sports," says Connor. "And if they fail to deliver, like swimming in these Olympic games, then it looks like we've done very poorly. So there is the picking-the-winner problem."
It's a strategy long favoured by Australia's Olympics chieftain, John Coates and it has been wildly successful — until, it seems, now. Leaving London aside, Australia has been able, in recent Olympics, to convert its comparatively small talent pool into Olympic medals at the highest rate in the world; around six times better than the United States and 27 times better than China. It is a strategy that has focused almost entirely on winning for Australia Commonwealth and Olympic games medals, but one that has taken only little account of the numbers of people participating in the very sports favoured for the most generous Olympics funding. The social implications of delivering big money to only the likeliest winners include the fact that while Australia had lavish medal success at the four Olympics leading to Beijing, there was also a huge increase in adult and child obesity over the period back home and hardly any lift in the overall numbers of Australians participating in sport.
It's a debate that Australia had — or sort of had — when the Rudd Government commissioned the Melbourne businessman and blue-blood company board director, David Crawford to investigate and report on Australia's public sports funding. Crawford infuriated John Coates by bringing down a report in 2009 that slashed away at Coates's winning strategy. The Crawford Report, entitled The Future of Sport in Australia, instead urged that the spending of taxpayers' sports dollars be opened up in way that put far more emphasis on lifting the overall numbers of Australians engaged in sport not on the Olympic calendar. Crawford argued that while the ever-increasing amounts of public money for Australia's Olympic efforts might keep Australia within the AOC's goal of being at or near the top five medal winning countries for the London games, such a performance could not be maintained over the longer term. Especially when something akin to an international arms race was breaking out among the most powerful nations — witness China — for Olympics supremacy.
The Crawford Report concluded: "We can only maintain our place by increasing the number of people playing sport, by increasing the talent pool from which to choose talented athletes to mould into champions." And just in case John Coates and the AOC didn't get the message, the Crawford Report added: "The panel does not believe the medal count is an appropriate measure of Australia's performance or that a 'Top Five' position is a sensible target."
John Coates, who is undoubtedly Australia's most powerful sports administrator and a man few politicians dare to offend, declared himself "pissed off" by the Crawford Report. It failed to recognise, he said, the international cachet that came from Australia winning at the Olympics, nor the importance of Olympians as role models to young Australians.
We can expect that the Crawford Report will be revived in the soul-searching that will be inevitable once the London Olympics end. The first question will be: how come the predictions for Australia's gold medal tally turned to so wildly astray? Perhaps Crawford's prediction Australia would not be able keep buying its way to the top was right. But it is the second question that will make for the most interesting and possibly rancorous debate: what does Australia do about it?
Does Australia stick with its narrow pick-the-winner strategy which, if accepted, might see the more-money argument win out. Or does it accept David Crawford's view that ultimately we can only lose by sticking with the Olympic arms race and that Australia would be far better advised, and its population better served, if it broadens the funding for sport and physical education, for the non-elite as well as Olympic hopefuls.
Says James Connor: "I think we will have some pretty interesting discussions after the Olympics about this because on the one hand we have sunk all this money in to get this result and it makes the sports look pretty bad. Now, if they're going to come and bleat for yet more money, how do you justify giving people more money who have not performed with the money they were given? Particularly when on the basis that you already have your Australian Institute of Sport, you already had this system which was meant to produce world-class, elite athletes. I think they are going to have a fairly hard time convincing people, particularly in a fiscally tight environment, to get more money."
Except, as John Coates says, Australians expect to win. And for politicians who want to win, the temptation is to plough resources into meeting those expectations on the world stage, even if it's at the expense of the population's greater good or, in this case, well-being.