How our pollies can get us to “medal” again
Julia Gillard must be very glad she resisted the urging of Australian Olympic Committee president John Coates to attend the London Games.
John Howard benefited politically from the flood of Australian gold medals at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Kevin Rudd flew to Beijing in 2008 to bask in the glory of our athletes’ performances there.
Gillard was accused of snubbing London. Coates called her decision to stay at home a “missed opportunity” and “a disappointment to our team”.
But it proved to be smart politics. If Gillard had turned up in London she would have been associated with disappointment, and she can’t afford that.
As it is, there are those doing their best to lump her with at least part of the blame for the Aussie team’s failure to live up to predictions of a top five finish in the medal table anyway.
They claim inadequate federal government funding made out athletes less competitive, despite Coates’ statement as the London Games wound down that greater funding is not necessarily the way forward.
“We believe that there has been enough funding for the team to do well here,” Coates said -adding that elite sports authorities in Australia need to reassess whether they’ve been spending money provided by the government in the best way.
So far, the funding issue has not blown up into a serious political problem for Gillard. This is largely because the federal opposition - like the government - is committed to a tight-purse-strings economic policy.
Tony Abbott - cyclist, swimmer, marathon runner, former boxer - might be a one-man Olympic team himself, but he is stuck with the coalition’s spending restraint mantra.
He is not in a position to demand that the Gillard Government agree to big increases in spending on sport, or to promise such increases himself after next year’s election.
But, as the various Olympic post-mortems get under way, pressure will build on both sides of politics for action to bring back the glory days. Australians have got used to seeing their sporting heroes triumph every four years.
What is needed is a politician like Bob Ellicott, the Sports Minister who made Australia’s Olympic ascendancy possible in the first place and did it with sufficient cunning to conceal much of the cost.
I wrote about Ellicott’s role back in 2000, when the results of his labours were there for all to see. Australia won 58 medals at the Sydney Games, 16 of them gold.
Perhaps it’s time for another reminder now that our Olympic fortunes have apparently started to ebb again.
When Australia came away from the 1976 Montreal Olympics without a single gold medal, it came as a shock to the relatively new prime minister Malcolm Fraser. He approached some of the athletes personally to find out why they had done so badly.
“The answer was very simple,” Fraser said later. “A whole lot of countries - not just the East Europeans and the Russians - backed their athletes with government funding and resources. Techniques and practices were developing so fast that, unless you had the best and most professional people and facilities, you could not compete any longer.”
Then, like now, was a time of financial stringency and spending cutbacks as the Fraser Government dealt with the economic impact of the big-spending Whitlam years. It was hardly the ideal time to start pouring money into sport.
The then Treasurer, John Howard, was certainly against it.
But Fraser called in Home Affairs Minister Ellicott, one of the country’s most eminent lawyers before he entered politics, and said: “We’ve got to get this fixed, Bob.” He added sport to Ellicott’s portfolio and gave him the job of rebuilding Australia’s international sporting reputation.
Ellicott got the idea of a national Institute of Sport after visiting Beijing and seeing an institute, set up as part of a college, where students from all over China came to train as physical education teachers. The same thing, he realised, could work for athletes.
Because he was also Minister for the Capital Territory, Ellicott was able to build his vision of an Australian Institute of Sport on the cheap - “a sort of cut and paste job”, was the way he described it to me.
He allocated land for the Institute next to a stadium that had recently been built in Canberra for the Pan-Pacific Games, ordered work to start on a sports hall and administrative centre, used rooms at a half-empty College of Advanced Education as accommodation, upgraded a suburban swimming pool with a roof, heating and weight-training area paid for out of the ACT budget instead of the Institute budget, and so on.
The entire cost - including construction of tennis and netball courts - was less than $6 million.
The Australian Institute of Sport was opened officially on Australia Day, 1981, and has underpinned much of our Olympic and other sporting success since then.
As Coates acknowledges, money is not everything. Imagination, determination and a bit of cunning can achieve a lot, too - as Ellicott showed.
Laurie Oakes is political editor for the Nine Network.
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