Taxpayers at ready to restore Aussie pride, oi oi etcetera
As far as missiles go, James “The Missile” Magnussen is a bit like the rocket they tried to launch in North Korea a few months ago which made a fizzing sound and ended up lying on the tarmac.
If the Olympics are meant to teach us life lessons the lesson from Magnussen’s failure is a very old-fashioned one, that pride comes before a fall. Not only did Magnusson fail to “medal” in the relay – to use that ludicrous verb – he is also unlikely to win any medals for being gracious in defeat. In the lead-up to London he acted as if he had one hand on the gold, grabbing the microphone and declaring “brace yourselves” after the Olympic trials back in March.
On Sunday, like that ill-fated North Korean missile, Magnussen had a hissy fit of his own with a display of pursed-lip poolside churlishness where he said he had “no response” and “no idea” as to what went wrong, before wandering off leaving his three better-performing teammates to face the music.
About the only thing you could say in Magnussen’s defence is that it probably wasn’t his idea but the media’s to christen him The Missile, in keeping with our obsession with giving overblown nicknames to our sports stars.
The rest of his PR was wholly self-generated, and it came back to bite him on his Speedo-clad bum.
We are not quite at the point where we need to hold a Royal Commission into the failure of James Magnussen but one thing is for sure – if our Olympic team has a dud overall performance at the London Games, the debate won’t be about whether it’s the athletes who need to lift, but the taxpayers.
In this sports-obsessed nation of ours, it is now taken as given that our sporting performance is so inextricably linked to our national psyche that Canberra must dutifully pour millions and millions of dollars into elite sports, however obscure the sports might be.
We are now spending more money on sport than at any time in our history. Total sports funding was increased by an unprecedented $195 million to $1.2 billion a few years ago, with an extra $23.3 million being handed to high-performance sport funding for the Olympics and Paralympics under a total outlay of $120 million.
In February last year, amid dire warnings from the Australian Olympic Committee about the apparently alarming downward trend in our medal tally (58 in Sydney, 49 in Athens, 46 in Beijing), the feds reallocated another $2.5 million under the Green and Gold project.
Of that money, $1 million went to swimming, meaning the taxpayers could help fund things like Ian Thorpe’s non-comeback, and $50,000 went to equestrian sport, even though it seems to be most popular with the landed gentry.
One feature of the rhetoric around federal funding for sport is that people such as the AOC chief John Coates and Australian team chef de mission Nick Green are so up-front as to be almost shameless in their demands for an unchallenged stream of public cash.
The $120 million earmarked for high-performance sport was criticised by Coates as being $100 million short of what was required, while Green reflected darkly before the London Games on the fact that Australia was still being outspent by its chief competitors, principally Great Britain, but also Italy, Japan, Germany and France.
It is odd that in a country like Australia we will be freely judgmental about communist nations such as China, accusing them of effectively “buying” medals in an act of state-sponsored national pride, when in policy terms there is no real difference to what we do here.
After the Sydney Olympics there was some interesting research done by the penny-pinching neo-conservatives at the Institute of Public Affairs which found that every single medal we won had cost the taxpayers about $1.5 million.
I am not trying to rain on the parade here, as I love sport, love the Olympics, and like almost every other Australian get pretty excited when we “medal”. But I would really question the extent to which our sports chiefs have been able to mount a successful argument for a guaranteed and ever-increasing bucket of cash courtesy of the taxpayers.
The chief thing I would question is the assumption at the centre of this demand – namely that sport is so intrinsic to our national identity that the prospect of failure is too hideous to contemplate.
I don’t know about you but I still managed to get out of bed yesterday morning and go to work despite the fact that James Magnussen had failed in the pool. I don’t feel physically sick recalling the apparent humiliation of Montreal, where our failure to perform created the impetus for the establishment of the Australian Institute of Sport, and is still held up in sporting circles as a “never again” moment which we simply cannot afford to repeat.
More pertinently, given that there is always a finite amount of public money which can be spent, I reckon it’s pretty interesting that we have come up with an unchallenged model by which able-bodied people can play sport at the highest level, and travel the world having a hell of a good time doing so, but we still haven’t got a solution to fund the care of people with disabilities so that they can simply live their lives with dignity.
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