Sport helped me fight cancer
According to the Minister for Sport, Kate Lundy’s office, the estimated government funding of sport for 2011/2012 is estimated to be $348.1million.
Those funds are dispersed through various avenues including grass roots to elite level, anti doping deterrence and education programs for athletes.
Meanwhile according to the Cancer Council of New South Wales, the overall government funding of cancer research in 2011 was $159 million nationally with a further $56million from the Cancer Institute in New South Wales.
Look at it in black and white and cancer research receives half the funding of sport in Australia. But it is clearly not a simplistic case of sport versus science or research because we can all find and spin a statistic in the favour of any argument. Trust me, I have a vested interest in both “sides” having played for The Wallabies and received treatment for brain cancer.
Many recipients of public spending in any avenue compete with each other for a finite dollar. I can only imagine the dismay of the amazing people that work on the frontline of cancer care delivery and in research fundraising when the figures of diabolical government waste have surfaced over the last few years. The money wasted on pink batts alone could have funded current levels of cancer research for the next twenty five years.
When thinking of spending on science there are many concrete tangibles that can be measured. Researchers come up with amazing new vaccines, understandings and direction for future research. Leukemia has apparently gone from a one in ten survival rate to a nine in ten survival rate thanks to cancer research. But the problem with spending on sport is that it is impossible to equate the effect that sport has on society in similar terms.
This, in my view, is where critics of sports funding come in with overly simplistic arguments. “Why do we define ourselves by our sporting prowess?” is one argument, “Aren’t we more sophisticated than a sports obsessed country?” and pointing to a raft of amazing achievements in the arts and sciences which are well founded.
However, in my opinion, sport remains the simplest and easiest mechanisms to impart life lessons on youngsters and to deliver health benefits throughout one’s life. In my own experience, my sporting career was instrumental in the way that I was able to cope with brain cancer.
Rugby had taught me I had to focus only on things I could control, performing my role within the team. Doing that would ensure the best chance of success. This approach, and full trust in my doctors, allowed me to accept what was happening to me, do what I could, and let the cards fall where they may. I still remember the time of my surgery and treatment as one of the most peaceful in my life.
Developing self-efficacy in our youth through sport gives them confidence to achieve in other areas of life. This is all well and good but what does that have to do with the money heaped on elite sport?
I believe it’s this. Seeing gold medallist or world cup winning teams through the starry eyes of children is inspiring. Watching the Wallabies win the 1991 world cup and wanting to be David Campese was a dream I committed to until twenty years later I played for my country.
But elite performance is not what counts. A desire to participate is the key. Kids trying to emulate their Olympic champions, whether they do or not, remain healthy and develop healthy lifestyles. With the worldwide obesity epidemic growing everyday, promoting active lifestyles is an important challenge.
Another point that I believe is largely overlooked is that of mental health. Sport is something you do with other people. Sporting clubs are community based and bring people together.
Research on social connectedness has revealed some important statistics. Poor social connectedness in young people means they are two to three times more likely to suffer depressive symptoms, (Glover et al, 1998).
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics doctors have found that the use of exercise in treating older patients with depression was just as effective as the use of anti depressants. Studies have also shown an improvement in feelings of wellbeing and lower levels of anxiety and depression through cultural and sporting attendance.
I am not proposing that sport is the only way to foster meaningful relationships in society, although it is a major one. Stories of disenchanted youth turning their lives around through community based sporting programs abound. Interaction with people through sport is a major reason. Learning to trust and work with others, amongst other things, enables people to reconnect with society in numerous other roles.
So money spent on sport is not just money spent on sport, it’s money spent on mental health and community. Sport provides an opportunity to improve mental health by enhancing social networks, while participants also experience the health benefits of regular exercise. Money spent on facilities and successful Olympians that encourage and inspire people to get involved, lifts an intangible burden off the public health system of the future.
There is just a strong argument for scientific funding. In the world of cancer there are strong links between research funding and improved survival rates so we simply must keep up the fundraising effort. It can’t just land in the hands of the silent generosity of many philanthropists who are consistently godsend to charities and scientists. Without their support the cancer landscape would be infinitely worse off, so if any of you are reading this, thank you for saving my life.
Ultimately the question is not one of science versus sport, but a question of the need to maximise efficiency in all government spending. Australians have a history of punching above our weight in almost every discipline know to man, a source of justifiable pride, it’s time we add another to the list.
Join in ROBUST discussion and rigorous debates like this one at The Cure For Life Foundation free lunchtime ROBUST discussion series for Brain Cancer Action Week today in Martin Place. Visit www.cureforlife.org.au/robust for details. Follow the discussion on twitter #CFLROBUST @cureforlife
Watch Dr Charlie Teo, Keri Huxley and Andrew Penman debate the topic of sports versus science funding on YouTube
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