Going for Gold

By Legal Eagle

Well, the Olympics are over. One of the primary news items here for the last two weeks has been Australia’s comparatively lacklustre performance in the gold medal stakes in the Olympics. Australia won 16 gold medals at the 2000 Olympics, 17 gold at the 2004 Olympics and 14 gold at the 2008 Olympics. In the end, we “only” won 7 golds in the 2012 Olympics, far fewer than expected. (New Zealand neared us with 6 gold).

On the one hand, I’ve found the Australian press’s  attitude to failure to produce gold medals pretty unsporting. When an athlete gets a silver, the press starts deconstructing it and talking about the “devastating disappointment” of only coming second in the world. I mean, for goodness sakes’, it’s second in the world, guys, and one is not going to come first all the time, every time. I stopped watching most of it on TV because I found Channel 9’s coverage so irritating (no, we don’t have Foxtel). It just doesn’t seem very sporting to complain like that. Perhaps we need to be reminded of that famous poem by Grantland Rice:

For when the One Great Scorer
Comes to mark against your name,
He writes—not that you won or lost—
But how you played the game.

Incidentally, I was having a conversation with my daughter about drug cheats (a chat necessitated by certain news items concerning allegations made against athletes). She said, “But why would you want to take drugs just to win?” (imagine a little nose wrinkle here). Then she continued, “And it wouldn’t be worth it: you wouldn’t be proud of your win if you did that!” She’s a dear darlin’ girl of only 6 – I hope the world doesn’t knock her sporting sense out of her.

It is also true that sometimes, under immense pressure at big events, you don’t do as well as you hoped. (Sometimes you do better than you expect too – it can work both ways). Anyway, I have some sympathy for athletes who don’t do as well as expected. Guess what, no one is superhuman, and sometimes the planets just don’t align. I have a friend who was a World Champion in her sport but didn’t manage a medal in the Olympics when she competed despite her dedication and undoubted skill. Her reaction was typically modest and sporting – she said to me, “The others were just better on the day. I was so pleased just to be there and to represent my country.” And no, she’s not one of those athletes who received heaps of government funding or anything like that – it was all her own hard yakka on her own dime, as far as I’m aware. She’s an amazing person.

But there we come to the heart of it with the mention of funding: as Shaun Carney said eloquently in The Age the other day, perhaps the disappointment is not so surprising after all: we’ve paid for many of these athletes to do their best via our taxes, and when you pay for something you want some bang for your buck. He commented:

Every athlete who makes an Olympic games deserves to be respected and revered. But if they accept public underwriting of their sport, they should not kid themselves: the money comes with strings attached. Let’s get it clear, that $300 million that Australians contributed to the London games effort comes from the sweat of millions of workers and managers.

At the very outset of all of this, Samuel J at Catallaxy argued that it might be better to get rid of government funding for sport all together and use that money to fund the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and I have to confess that I was quite taken by the suggestion. When the Australian medal count started looking less healthy than the previous three Olympics, my first thought was, “Let’s see how many milliseconds elapse until they start asking for money: can I bet that it will take less time than it takes Usain Bolt to finish the 100m sprint?” Interestingly, my own reaction was pretty much the same as Andrew Bolt on this ($). Zounds, can it be? Bolt started his article by saying, “I feel the pain of our Olympic athletes, flopping at the Games. Me, I’ve got this stabbing feeling, right in my wallet.” I think that is revealing, because I wouldn’t often say that my views are the same as Andrew Bolt’s. Meanwhile, by 6 August 2012, Kevan Gosper was calling for more money to be poured into Australian sport by the government:

Australia’s most senior Olympic official has blamed a lack of government funding for the dearth of gold medals in London and declared “money is the difference between silver and gold”.

Kevan Gosper, Australia’s senior representative on the International Olympic Committee, this morning said in a radio interview from London that the Australian team had performed well in the circumstances but had been hamstrung by a lack of public funds and government focus.

“I think there was something wrong with the degree of support that the Australian team got this time round,” Mr Gosper told ABC Radio’s Jon Faine. “Normally it gets very strong focus from the government. It probably hasn’t been as good this time round for whatever reason.

“We have been down on the sort of financial support that we were accustomed to when compared to the financial support that is coming through from other countries, particularly Europe and specifically the UK.

“The team has done extremely well at the silver medal level but that is the difference; the money is the difference between silver and gold. As a result, we are down about 18 in ranking overall – 24th now in ranking. We have never seen that ranking before. In fact New Zealand is ahead of us in gold medals. So it is not happening.”

Australia has won 12 silver medals and one gold medal after nine days of competition in London. The Australian Olympic Committee set a top-five finish on the medal tally as Australia’s team goal at these Games.

I wouldn’t mind betting that there were many in the community who felt pretty sour about this. And, if our athletes want less scrutiny and less criticism, maybe they need to think about this link between performance and use of public money. If you essentially pay for someone, you expect them to perform. So, do they want the money, or do they want to avoid that kind of pressure and expectation? It’s difficult to have it both ways.

Yes, it’s nice to win. It’s also good to be sporting and to be generous when others beat you fairly. To be honest, I’m not disappointed with our medal performance in the least; you can’t always win. I’m really pleased for our athletes, as long as they tried their best. Isn’t that what the Olympic spirit was supposed to be about, anyway? What I am disappointed about is the lack of good sportsmanship some Australians have displayed (athletes, members of the press and Olympic hangers-on).

But in a broader sense, one of the things which has always bothered me about Australia is the sheer emphasis we put on sport and sporting performance. I like sport, don’t get me wrong, but the question is how much? How much would I personally be willing to pay for Australia to get gold medals? In a thought experiment inspired by the Catallaxy post, I asked myself, To whom would I prefer my money to go, to disabled people or to swimmers? I’d pick the former hands down if someone forced me to choose. If I were an Olympic sporting body, I’d be wary of blaming lack of money for the recent Australian Olympic performance. It may end up backfiring tremendously, if the spectrum of public sentiment is any indication.

16 Comments

  1. Polybius
    Posted August 14, 2012 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    Interesting post. Coming from an arts background, i don’t begrudge the money that gets spent on sport, however I do get very irritated by Mr Gosper and his valiant attempts to shove both front trotters as well as his snout in the public trough.

  2. Posted August 14, 2012 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    It’s hard to strike the balance of sportsmanship and personal disappointment at not winning, because that’s what one aims for in these things, right, winning? I don’t really follow sports news but I enjoyed RRR’s reporting – always very positive: “And well done to James Magnussen for his silver in (whatever it was he got it in – forget now)!” And I really felt for the young woman who apologised for disappointing her family and coach etc. We (the public) should be saying, “Well done! Great achievement!”

    Go your daughter! What awesome attitude.

    I agree with you though – spend more money on NDIS, not sport!

  3. Mel
    Posted August 14, 2012 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Spend public money on schools, hospitals, NDIS yes. But not on elite sport or elite entertainment. I don’t begrudge the latter but I don’t see why sport and arts groups can’t sizzle sausages out the front of Bunnings like every other community group.

  4. Posted August 14, 2012 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    My understanding was that we spent something like $700m in aggregate on the AIS and the Olympic team proper. So that’s about $100 million per medal.

    Look, it’s very simple.

    Australia is tiny.

    There are 15 Americans for every Australian.

    There are more than 50 Chinese for every Australian.

    Modern mass-production sport is about matching phenotype to task demand. If you have more feed stock that’s easier. Full stop.

    (It doesn’t help that our medal expectations are inflated by the ten billion medals that swimming has on offer. Athletes in almost every other sport get one and only one chance to medal, but god forbid we have anything less than 100 variants of every splishy event).

  5. derrida derider
    Posted August 14, 2012 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    As a sports lover I have no doubt that excess money – both public and private – has simply destroyed much modern sport. Our East German approach is a good example.

    I’m not nostalgic for the gentleman amateur era here. You need a certain amount of money from somewhere to fund wide participation and interest and there are worse things a little government or corporate pocket money could be squandered on (the health benefits alone are enough to justify it).

    But you need serious money to win rather than just participate in modern “sport”, and serious money is seriously corrupting. For a start it creates a riposte by a drug cheat to your dughter’s sentiment – “bugger pride, I want the cash”.

    The price in lost perspective is just too high – “what doth it profit a man … “.

  6. JC
    Posted August 14, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    So DD, you currently have the East German perpetual 4 year plan to win gold medals but you think too much money has gone into it. However you don’t like the amateur strategy.

    Here’s a unique idea. If you really like sports, pass the tin around. Other than that I despise the Olympics and the statist corrupt hovel it’s become. I don’t want to pay for it.

  7. Ripples
    Posted August 14, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know if sports fan is the right term to describe my position. I like competition and the thrill of the game. Seeing people compete to achieve their sporting goal and being amazed at the dedication to reach that level is something I like to see. One year I remember the Paralympics was broadcast concurrently with the Olympics and I loved every minute of it.
    The question of money and sport is crucial as money really does underpin the sporting world at the more advanced levels. Advanced in this context is the level where you are competing against world class competition.

    The Olympics are a special case in that there isn’t private sponsorship of athletes to compete in the event unlike in other world events. Imagine the Tour De France without the private sponsorship. Try buying a cycling jersey without it being some conglomerate of advertising and sponsorship. I actually buy my cycling gear from a small New Zealand company that sells plain cycling jerseys and it was tricky to find them at first.

    Therefore from my much uninformed understanding, development of athletes for the Olympic Games falls to the taxpayer as there are no private sponsorship deals. I am sure that winning in the Olympics has a huge impact on an athlete’s sponsorship potential in other world events.

    Of course the cost of the Olympics is greater than just training a representative team and paying for the development of the team. You occasionally have to host one of these events and at a rough guess that comes at quite a big price.

    So in some ways I wonder if we should just privatise the Olympics and see if the IOC can survive as a business enterprise on its own. We could even require the IOC to pay us to send a team as it wouldn’t be very Olympic if everyone didn’t show up.

    I am a bit unsure if I just made a free market argument to privatise the Olympics. I am going to take 2 Karl Marx and call someone in the morning.

  8. derrida derider
    Posted August 14, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    Ah, me old mate JC, did you not notice I spoke of “a little government or corporate pocket money”?

    Does corporate money smell as bad in your book as government money? Are you a true anarchist?

  9. Posted August 14, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    I’m surprised that there’s this much concern across the spectrum (and that post & thread at Catallaxy provides serious food for thought). I was discussing this issue with Yobbo on Facebook the other day and basically threw my hands up saying that while I disliked govenment sports factories as much as government arts factories, this was an argument I was never going to win.

    So colour me surprised.

  10. Posted August 14, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    I don’t mind the government financially assisting athletes who are good enough to compete in order to ensure they can afford to show up and compete. There’s a reasonable case to be made that the potential diplomatic, cultural and health (as DD points out) gains are worth the investment. However, this idea that we ought to (or even can) funnel piles of cash towards the sporting bodies in order to manufacture the best athletes in the world is a bit wrong headed. Anything short of some ideal outcome would seem to switch the bipolar media from positive support to a frenzy of despair regardless of what was achieved (or spent).

  11. JC
    Posted August 14, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    Does corporate money smell as bad in your book as government money? Are you a true anarchist?

    No, of course “Corporate money” doesn’t smell like “government money”.

    Secondly I’m, no anarchist DD and never have been.

    Look DD, Australia is a sporting nation. It’s in its blood. I have little doubt that if you passed the hat around it could help finance the Olympics. However this statist strategy just sucks big time.

    I don’t mind the government financially assisting athletes who are good enough to compete in order to ensure they can afford to show up and compete.

    Well actually I do mind. This is freaking government spending run amok. Lefties say we need to spend money in order to improve the lot of those relatively less fortunate. There is no case to be made to support spending money on elite spprts people other than nationalistic pride.

    There’s a reasonable case to be made that the potential diplomatic, cultural and health (as DD points out) gains are worth the investment.

    What diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea would there be by an Australian winning the Sailing comp. What to you care if this year’s Bulgarian wins weightlifting? Would it entice you to go to Bulgaria or try out their food etc?What health benefits are there? People know that they need to walk around more and do some exertion to avoid a heart attack.

    However, this idea that we ought to (or even can) funnel piles of cash towards the sporting bodies in order to manufacture the best athletes in the world is a bit wrong headed. Anything short of some ideal outcome would seem to switch the bipolar media from positive support to a frenzy of despair regardless of what was achieved (or spent).

    Then defend the Mebourne Grand Prix. Tell me how forking over $50 million a year to make Bernie E richer than he already is could be justified in any possible way. But don’t dare agree with me because you don’t like motor racing. Funding the Olympics is basically the same thing.

  12. JC
    Posted August 14, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    Anything short of some ideal outcome would seem to switch the bipolar media from positive support to a frenzy of despair regardless of what was achieved (or spent).

    At Cattallaxy people were ecstatic we hadn’t won a gold medal and positively downbeat when we did almost brought to tears.

  13. Posted August 14, 2012 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    I always thought there was something misanthropic about libertarianism…

  14. JC
    Posted August 14, 2012 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    No, not at all. There are some great sports lovers over there. It’s the east German team people despise.

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