Games success a balancing act

Illustration: Jim PavlidisFINAL WORD
Nanjing Night Net

Australia estimates that it will have to win between 14 and 17 gold medals at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics to fulfil its mission, and says it already knows, more or less, the identities of those prospective winners. But it also knows that it is unlikely to get more from the government for its cause in the interim years than the $120 million annuity announced this week.

It knows that commercial and philanthropic funding for sport has fallen from around 20 per cent of the total at the time of the 2000 Sydney Olympics to less than five per cent now, and that until sport has fully leached the Lance Armstrong effect from its system, that also is unlikely to grow. And it knows that Great Britain, still basking in the afterglow of London 2012, is likely to spend around three times as much as Australia in pursuit of more honour and glory in Rio.

”We know it’s not going to be easy,” Australian Sports Commission chief executive Simon Hollingsworth said this week. ”It’s going to be challenging. But we believe we can do it.”

The truth is that, in the three years between now and Rio, Australia has to make up its mind about its hitherto sacred Olympic sporting vocation. Since the euphoric high of Sydney, its Olympic spoils have steadily and inexorably declined. In Sydney, it was 58 medals, including 16 gold. In London, it was 35 medals, including a meagre seven gold. Measured by overall medals, Australia finished sixth, by gold medals 10th.

It knows already that the competition between sixth and 10th is fiercer even than the competition in the top five, which tends to have a natural order. Yet Australia’s bald ambition, reiterated this week, is to return to the top five. Further, incorporating paralympics, Commonwealth Games and world championships, it is intent on a ”decade of dominance”.

To this end, it is streamlining the Australian Institute of Sport, and more than ever, it is targeting winnable medals. In this round, there is more money for sailing, yachting, canoeing, rugby sevens, golf, triathlon and diving, but less for swimming and athletics. It is all a matter of scale; swimming is still more lavishly funded by government than any other sport, and athletics is in the top five. The ASC denies that it is putting all its eggs in one basket. ”But we do need to prioritise,” Hollingsworth said.

This business of picking winners inevitably poses philosophical questions. Viewed through one lens, it is cynical, a matter of identifying sports and events Australians can win at and trying to culture them: sailing, but not martial arts, for instance, and jumping, but not running.

Reflexively, it creates ”losers”, those in less winnable pursuits, who may feel disenfranchised. It is also entrenches the notion that Australia can only ever measure its sporting worth by its tally of Olympic medals, though the Olympics themselves comprise an arbitrary and ever-changing selection of sports, ranging from soccer to archaic.

Might-as-medals is shallow self-assessment. In a country that likes to think of itself as mature and a middle power, the punching-above-our-weight trope looks dated. All that is gold does not glister. But this is government money, doled out in beans, whose counters expect in return something that can be bitten into while the cameras flash, and entered in a ledger and flaunted in an annual report.

Alternately, it might be thought that Australia still is not concentrating its resources as it should. Professionalised sport is not quite coin-in-the-slot, but money does make a radical difference. Extravagances of scale make it certain that Australia will be out-spent by every other country in the top 10 in the prelude to Rio, so it can be argued that Australia’s focus should be narrower too.

The commission says that by its calculations, Australia will need to win medals in at least 14 different sports if it is achieve its goal, so it cannot close too many doors. But it will at least have to be more efficient, even ruthless. In London, Australia had the third largest team, behind only Great Britain and the US. The US’ return was a gold medal for every 11.5 athletes, Great Britain’s one for every 18, Australia one for every 60. In Rio, the South American countries will swamp the Games, further stiffening the task. Again, Australia will have to decide for itself what matters most as a country, to give as many as possible an Olympic experience, or as few as is economically prudent an enhanced medal chance.

Plainly, it is not the sports commission’s remit to think small. It makes no apology for this. ”The bar keeps getting higher,” commission chairman John Wylie said. ”We’re conscious that it is a tough target. But the only way to achieve success is to set yourself tough targets.”

Refreshingly, Wylie says the commission will not beg more government money, has schemes to raise funds independently – including a dedicated TV channel – will make no excuses if Australia falls short of its goals, and is happy to be held accountable. On your marks …

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.