The myth is that sport adds social cohesion; that elite sport helps national identity... All contestable.

The myth is that sport adds social cohesion; that elite sport helps national identity... All contestable. Photo: Andrew Meares

Treasurer Joe Hockey needs to look further afield in his quest to make industry stand on its own two feet.

Some rigorous, economically dry eyes should be cast over government subsidies to Australia’s sports industry.

About $270million of federal government money a year goes to the Australian Sports Commission – nearly two-thirds of it to elite sport.

More goes in other sport funding.

It makes the one-off $25million grant to upgrade machinery at the SPC fruit cannery to save 5000 jobs look paltry.

The myth is that sport adds social cohesion; that elite sport helps national identity and inspires youngsters to emulate heroes; that sport improves fitness and wellbeing; that sport improves health and reduces medical costs and so on.

All contestable, and even if true, do we need government money to do it?

Why can’t the sportspeople stand on their own two feet?

And do all these benefits really flow? What about the costs?

The sports hero stuff is not especially healthy.

Elite sportspeople have to be obsessed verging on the mad. For every quiet achiever there is a drug cheat; sexual assaulter; brawler; drink driver, serial adulterer and so on.

And it is precisely because these people are seen collectively as heroes that when one falls the media attention is much greater than needed and more destructive of the idea that team spirit and physical exercise are ‘‘good things’’.

Then we have the unseemly attachment of unsavoury advertisers to the sporting heroes and their teams.

That was so superbly illustrated a couple of years ago by the Australian cricket captain with a VB logo on his cap apologising for the drunken behaviour of one of his players.

The AFL has a $50million deal with Carlton United beer. I am not quite sure whether that will enable the AFL to stand on its own two feet, but it certainly invites the question of why any government should contribute one cent to that industry.

It verges on the obscene that the junk food industry latches itself on to children’s sport. Children’s sport is often further spoiled by the overbearing offensiveness of parents who are past it themselves and seek glory in their children’s achievements.

For all the money thrown at participation in sport for children and elite sport to inspire them, Australian children are fatter, lazier and less active today than ever before.

In adult sport, the gambling industry flocks to the websites and clubhouses of football teams, preying on the stupid, vulnerable and addicted.

Aside from this, the relationship between elite sport and good health escapes me. Look at the knackered knees and shattered shoulders of football players; the heart attacks in later life of marathon runners; the deaths from boxing and motor racing (though hardly sports) and the general injuries that come with pushing the body far beyond what it was made for.

At the national level, sport is marred by jingoism and triumphalism, as if sporting prowess made one jot of difference to the long-term wellbeing of a nation’s people.

And the more money governments put in to prop up the elite performance, the less credit a nation’s people should take from any improved result. After all, the East Germans used to throw millions of roubles at their Olympic team in a vain attempt to prove the Fatherland and communism as superior examples of nation and government. But all it proved was that drugs help sport performance in the short term while destroying health in the long-run.

Of course, the resort to drugs means that the Australian government has to spend another few tens of millions trying to catch drug cheats. The fact it has to do this shows that elite sport is hardly example-setting for our youth.

The Chinese Communist government also spends vast amounts on sport to prove the value of its political system.

The US federal government, on the other hand, spends exactly nothing. Why is it that Australian governments slavishly follow the US in virtually everything, but not in this worthwhile policy?

Elite sport does not need this money. The competitive spirit and the financial rewards for success should be enough. In 2012 the top sport earning list tells the story. Andrew Bogut (basketballer, $13million); Mark Webber (formula one,  $12million); Adam Scott (golf, $10.5million); Casey Stoner (motor sport, $8million); Michael Clarke (cricket, $5.5million).

Since when did a cricket captain need $5.5million to put on the baggy green cap (complete with VB logo)?

Moreover, why does a public broadcaster, SBS, need to sponsor a sport. If you are going to have a go at public broadcasting, start there.

Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews talks of an unsustainable growth in welfare spending.

Well, sport outdoes it, albeit on the smaller scale.

The feds stayed out of sport almost totally until the Whitlam government. But before it could put into effect the grand sport vision with accompanying bureaucracy it lost office.

Only after the gold medal-less Montreal Olympics in 1976 was the Fraser government prodded into creating the Australian Institute of Sport.

It is almost a pity it was not set up by a Labor government so this government could get great joy in  abolishing it.

Millions of dollars later, we may have got more gold medals, but little seems to have been achieved in the public interest from government spending ballooning out from about $25million at the end of the Fraser government to the $300million (give or take) today.

But my guess is that the Commission of Audit will not go near it. And even if it did, can you imagine a prime minister whose travel to an ironman contest was paid for by the government would do anything about the wasteful, counter-productive government subsidisation of sport.

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