Date: April 14 2012
I get a little drunk with excitement at this time of year. This weekend, I'll be among more than 2000 Canberra blokes kicking off the men's soccer season, a moment I've waited for all summer. It's a newish ritual for me: I fell in love with the sport in my 30s, having never played it before. Indeed, part of this complex game's beauty is that it's accessible even to ageing, soft-bellied fellows, because it involves so much more than just athleticism. And playing does a lot more for my health than a gym or a jog ever could, because while I struggle to exercise for its own sake, I'll joyfully run around on a soccer pitch for hours.
This is why community sport is such a crucial public good. It motivates sedentary desk jockeys like me to become fitter, and thus less likely to fall prey to a stroke or heart disease. It creates social networks, bringing us into touch with neighbours we wouldn't otherwise know. Plenty of studies show playing sport also makes us happier and healthier mentally, and even improves academic outcomes.
Yet, for all of these benefits, I can't help but feel that the federal government would prefer we watch a handful of elite athletes on television rather than take part in any physical games ourselves.
This year, the Commonwealth will spend about $355 million on its various sport and exercise programs. For every $1 spent on high-performance sport and the quest to win international medals, only 53c will be spent encouraging the rest of Australians - you and me - to get involved.
The argument behind this focus on Olympians is that their success builds a strong sense of ''national pride''. That may be true, even if the line between useful pride and jingoism isn't always clear. But there is no research to back the often-repeated claim that gold medals result in a healthier and more active population.
Two-and-a-half years ago, David Crawford completed a comprehensive inquiry into these issues. His report, The Future of Sport in Australia, pointed out that about 80 per cent of the Australian Sports Commission's national grants went to Olympic sports, and over 90 per cent of that money was spent on high-performance programs. It said the bias towards funding these sports, especially niche events that lacked popular appeal, made ''little strategic sense for Australia''. ''Water polo receives as much high performance and Australian Institute of Sport funding as golf, tennis and lawn bowls combined - even though these sports can rightly claim to be 'whole-of-lifetime' sports and significant contributors to the Australian government's preventative-health agenda.''
The Crawford report tried to encourage a broader debate about our nation's sport and exercise priorities, and how we fund them. ''If more money is to be injected into the system then we must give serious consideration to where that money is spent. If we are truly interested in a preventative-health agenda through sport, then much of it may be better spent on lifetime participants than almost all on a small group of elite athletes who will perform at that level for just a few years.''
Yet what happened? As expected, the Australian Olympic Committee savaged the findings. And, sadly, the government effectively caved in. Today, the proportion of taxpayers' money it spends on grassroots events compared with elite sport remains largely unchanged.
In the meantime, Canberra's soccer enthusiasts continue to pay up to $400 a season for the privilege of playing. I don't mind this price, but I know it's high enough to stop many potential players from joining in. And if, one afternoon, a few mates and I decide to kick a ball around in an empty park, we'll risk being fined by a ranger for not paying a grounds fee (yes, it's happened several times). I realise there are good reasons for this - not least the threat that an injury could lead to litigation - but it's another sign of how skewed our community's priorities have become.
Come July, many Australians will cheer on our athletes in London, perhaps not realising the extent to which we've paid for them. (Crawford estimated that the ''price'' of each Olympic medal was $4 million, and possibly much higher.) But while I wish them every success, I doubt I'll be watching this year. I'll focus instead on my own club's games, and my own health, even if the government thinks we amateurs aren't worth the trouble.
Markus Mannheim edits the Public Sector Informant. Send your tips to email@example.com
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