Higher, Faster, Costlier: The Price Of Olympic Gold Is Too Great

Malcolm Fraser opened the Australian Institute of Sport in 1981 by saying we were “no longer going to let the world pass us by”.

Since then the performance of Australian sportspeople on the world stage has been not just a matter of pride, but an essential matter of government policy.

Just this week the Rudd Government announced plans to allow foreign athletes to fast-track (I daren’t say “queue-jump”) our laborious citizenship process so we can claim them as our own as quickly as possible. For all the Government’s lyricism about the romance of becoming a citizen of this great, wide, red-brown land, it is happy to toss aside its sacred citizenship rites so we can clock up one or two more medals at the next Olympics.

Indeed, Australia’s relatively weak performance in Beijing – Australian passport holders came a dismal sixth place on the gold medal tally – has panicked senior sports apparatchiks. The $220 million the Federal Government gives each year to the Australian Sports Commission is an embarrassingly small amount of money, according to athletics officials, and risks Australian athletes being trounced by better-resourced foreigners.

So maybe it is better we import athletes rather than hand the Australian Institute of Sport the extra few hundred million bellowed for after Beijing.

Australia is a sports-obsessed country, according to Lonely Planet. That’s fine. But all this political energy, tax money and policy directed towards the four-yearly achievement of a few medals by Australian athletes has to make you wonder – why bother?

It’s anachronistic, for one thing. When Fraser directed the government to mine Olympic gold, he was responding to a Cold War fear that free countries could not compete with socialist ones. Having watched the success of Russia and East Germany at the 1976 and 1980 Olympic Games, Australia’s athletics bodies were convinced they needed state central planning if they were ever going to win medals again. (Not a bad theory, perhaps, if you believe the superiority of your political system can be demonstrated only in a water polo pool. Of course, we now know that a key part of the Eastern Bloc’s sporting plan was performance drug binges.)

It’s been 20 years since the Berlin Wall came down. Now might be a good time to abandon the state-subsidised jingoism embodied in elite sports funding.

Perhaps we could start thinking of sport like we think of any other industry. Competitive sport is like a competitive market. We import things which are uneconomical to produce in Australia. So too we could appreciate the skill of – and morally support – athletes from around the globe. The political insistence that our national honour is tied up in our domination of sporting contests is quite similar to the belief that we must have a home-grown Silicon Valley or green manufacturing industry if we’re going to have a self-respecting economy.

After all, globalisation has changed irrevocably our sporting allegiances. Many Australian soccer fans are just as likely to be interested in the fortunes of Real Madrid as they are in the Socceroos. Cricket fans might be more eager to watch the Rajasthan Royals compete in the highly competitive Indian Premier League than watch the Victorian Bushrangers. The traditional Australian constellation of swimming and tennis on the world stage, and football and cricket at home, is being undermined – in a good way – by our increasingly diverse ethnic make-up, as well as the accessibility of international sport on pay television and online.

These multicultural sports surely hold more appeal than the millions of dollars we spend on highly subsidised, niche elite sports such as volleyball. Most people care about volleyball for only 10 minutes every four years – and even then only if the sport rises above the din of other Olympic events. (Can anybody name an Australian volleyball player?)

Popular sports can afford to support themselves, and sports that are unpopular do not necessarily deserve to be propped up by taxpayers’ money. Australian athletes will continue to dominate many international competitions. As consumers of sport, we will be drawn to their success. Let’s leave it there. Why subsidise Cold War-style nationalism?