Should we call the whole thing off?

The spectacle of the Rio Olympics has raised a raft of questions, from whether it is at all ethical to spend public money on elite sport, to whether Australia’s performance is bad and getting worse, and the difficulties of being a host city.

The morality of funding elite sport

Rio has brought forth a couple of ads on Gruen that cut to the chase (thanks, John D for the link). Logically the Group Hug video comes first. It introduces us to a thief in Rio dedicated to stealing any gold medals our athletes might win. So they should aim for bronze. The Mr Mumbles video comprises ironic comments from the bereft and the homeless, essentially pointing to the pointlessness of the whole exercise.

I can’t seem to link directly, but The Pitch by Mr Mumbles and The Pitch by Group Hug at the Gruen videos site is what we are after, plus discussion on Facebook, where there are links to both videos plus others.

The notion is that $377 million has been spent in the pursuit of Rio medals in the last four years, and it would be better spent on the homeless, domestic violence and other social ills.

In the commentary many agree, saying they can’t bear to watch the Olympics without thinking of what a waste it is and how the money could be better spent.

On the face of it that’s a hard argument to counter. However, those who put the argument should also argue against spending money on the arts, and should certainly themselves forgo overseas trips and other frivolous pleasures, giving the money instead to charities.

My own view is perhaps prejudiced by starting life in a small community of about 10 families, in a one teacher school which peaked at an enrolment of 31. Not big enough for cricket or football, but we played “rounders”, a version of baseball, I think, tennis, table tennis, athletics, tunnel ball and a range of similar ball sports where we joined with the girls and cleaned up at the inter-school carnival, rudimentary gymnastics on a set of parallel bars and a horizontal bar my elder brother built and all kinds of vigorous games.

Sport occupied a huge part of our leisure time and was and important part of our self-concept.

I derive aesthetic pleasure from watching most sports and continue to marvel at what human beings are capable of. Sport, I would argue, is an avenue of creating and expressing our humanity. A decent society should provide avenues which allow individuals to achieve all that they can be.

That said, commercialisation majorly distorts many sports and the amounts some sports people earn is obscene. Michael Jordan, for example, was paid by Nike more for an advertisement than the entire manufacturing workforce earned in a year.

How well did we do?

Not bad, I think, for our population, but a fail in the media and in relation to the AOC predictions. Back in December the AOC had us down for 13 gold, 14 silver and 10 bronze to make 37 in all.

This is how the table looks:

Rio medals wik_cropped_600

That’s ranked according to gold medals won, then silver, then bronze. There are other ways of doing the calculations.

All the nations above us have larger populations. Canada with a population of 36 million came in 20th.

Still, with the Russian team depleted through the track and field doping ban, some medals should have been freed up.

John Coates expressed his disappointment:

    Mr Coates told 7.30 two weeks ago at the start of the Olympics he hoped the medal tally would be “somewhere in the 35-40 range, maybe a bit more”.

    “We didn’t do well in London. We got 35 medals, just seven gold, but it was essentially in swimming,” he said then.

    “In Beijing we got 46 medals, 20 of those were in swimming. In London we got 35 medals, 10 in swimming. We lost 10 in swimming; we finished 11 down on Beijing. Our swimmers are, I think at the moment, they have eight current number ones in the world. We are looking for a very strong performance by swimming. As is traditionally the case, that will largely determine the outcome for Australia.

He says we have to look realistically at what others are spending:

    He said the so-called “winning edge” strategy adopted after London, which targets sports Australia’s already good at, was not working at a time when money was limited.

    “You have to look at who we’re competing against and how they’re being funded. Basically we’re at about $800 million over four years for elite sport. The Brits, Germans and French are up to $1.3, $1.4 [billion], and I suspect that Japan is up there now,” he said.

    “I’m not getting out there saying we need to go to those levels, that can’t be justified in the economic situation that Australia faces at the moment, so I’m not entering that debate. All I’m saying is that behind these results if we haven’t achieved what was expected, and we haven’t, someone has to look at the system.”

In placing tenth we’ve slipped two places since London in 2012:

London medals_cropped_593

Historically our nadir was reached in Montreal in 1976, when we won one silver and four bronze. This was deemed unacceptable to our self image, so the politicians acted. In 1980 the Fraser Government set up the Australian Institute of Sport, largely as a result. I do recall the Brits later coming to study what we’d done to see what they could learn. Whatever they learnt it seems to be working.

Our zenith was reached in the home games of Sydney in 2000 where we won 58 medals, 16 gold, 25 silver, 11 bronze and placed fourth. Britain was 10th.

In Athens in 2004 we won 50 medals, 17 gold, 16 and 17 bronze. Again we were fourth and the Brits 10th.

In Beijing in 2008 we won 46 medals, 14 gold, 15 silver and 17 bronze. The Brits and the Germans edged past us, making us sixth.

In London in 2012 the South Koreans and the French moved past us also. We won 35 medals, 8 gold, 15 silver and 12 bronze. We came eighth and the Brits third.

So in Rio the Japanese and the Italians also moved past us. We won 29 medals, 8 gold, 11 silver and 10 bronze. We came 10th while the Brits moved to second.

From 2000 to 2016 we slipped from 16 gold to 8, while the Brits went from 11 to 27. In overall medals we slipped from 58 to 29 while the Brits went from 27 to 67.

I do think we should have a look at what the Brits are doing.

The BBC has a site where you can check which sports countries won in and by sport which countries won the medals. The Brits carted off 12 medals in cycling including 6 gold, when their rankings before the games were quite ordinary.

That site also shows that we won medals in 13 different sports, more than some of those ahead of us.

If we are spending around $200 million each year, as Coates claims, that is about as far as I would be prepared to go. An amount of that size will not as such cure homelessness or any other social ills.

I think they should look beyond obsessing with medals and look at all finalists, perhaps score the placings 1 to 8 in reverse value, and then see how we did compared to previous efforts. We seemed to place fourth quite a lot. Alana Boyd in pole vault was 1cm off her personal best at 1.8 metres, but lost on a count-back to the Kiwi who cleared the same height. Nine seconds from full time the Boomers led Spain by one point in basketball, then a foul was called and they lost by a point. So the story went, on and on.

We should also look to see at how our athletes performed in relation to their personal best. Some fell well short.

And we should invite US swimming legend Michael Phelps to tell us the secret of how he manages to mentally prepare for each event and get the best out of his body.

Realistically, though, as living standards improve around the world other countries will win more medals. This site shows that 48% of medals went to Europe, 22% to the Americas, 21% to Asia and 5% each to Africa and Oceania. Asia is emerging and has a long way to go; Africa has barely started.

We should also realise that many of our best athletes play sports that aren’t in the Olympics, like AFL, netball, cricket, rugby league and union.

The cost of hosting

Recently I heard a radio interview on the cost of hosting the games. Can’t find the link but some of the same information is contained in this article.

To host the Olympics you need 35 venues, a village to house about 20,000 people, and a communications centre. You need masses of volunteers, increased security and a significant boost to transport infrastructure.

The games seem to regularly cost multiples of the bid price. Tourists stay away before and after the games and the disruption of commerce during the games is a factor. Some locals are likely to go somewhere else.

Apart from Los Angeles, where the host city was the only bidder after the commercial disaster of Montreal and the boycotting disaster of Moscow, only Barcelona has come close to even. That’s because the city was overdue for an infrastructure makeover.

The IOC could run out of cities silly enough to bid for the games:

    Potential host cities increasingly view the Olympics with skepticism. In 2014, Stockholm, Lviv, Krakow and Oslo all bowed out of their bids for the 2022 Winter Games, citing ballooning costs as a primary concern.

The IOC went back to Beijing where typically it doesn’t snow on the mountain that will host downhill skiing events.

For the summer games generally a city of 3 million is required to provide the requisite infrastructure. Unfortunately much of the money comes from TV where the American market is king. That’s why in Rio athletes were competing after midnight.

So perhaps if a permanent site is chosen it should be in North America. I’m sure that won’t happen, so we’ll bumble on.

21 thoughts on “Should we call the whole thing off?”

  1. Give up? I don’t think so. Just get better at it.

    Sydney should host again. all of the infrastructure is in place, it would be interesting to see if a games turns a profit second time around.

  2. Well written, Brian.

    Physical activity, including team games, are vital for all youngsters. Being able to swim can be lifesaving, for oneself and , perhaps, another.

    For physical development and fitness and sheer enjoyment, games are terrific. We all benefit.

    The gulf between general community wellbeing and fun, and commercialised sporting competitions, seems to me the difficult point.

    Victoria’s sports-loving and active and knowledgeable Sports Minister of decades ago, Brian Dixon, felt so strongly about general fitness that he led an ad campaign, Life – Be In It to get “Norm” the couch potato off his couch (watching footy on TV?) and outside, walking.

    I don’t care much for govt ad campaigns, but that one pointed to something important.

    Walking, swimming, running, bushwalking, gardening, strolling, bike riding; most are within the capability and budget of everyone.

    Gesundheit, Freunden!!!

  3. Thoughtful comment, Ambigulous.

    BilB, Sydney is a much better prospect than a current idea floating around that SE Queensland should put in a bid. We don’t have the population base and infrastructure, and it’d unlikely the venues created could be used enough to be maintained.

  4. Walking, swimming, running, bushwalking, gardening, strolling, bike riding; most are within the capability and budget of everyone.

    Yep, without Gold medals, a cent of subsidy or ” social fame “

  5. A decent society should provide avenues which allow individuals to achieve all that they can be.

    What ? like MMA fighter, greyhound trainer or astrologist ?

  6. Should the Olympics follow Marx ?

    “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”

  7. Brian: I am all for encouraging people to take up and like physical activities that will help keep them fit and happy during their lives. But this doesn’t mean that we should spend money on elite sports people or stadiums that will get people sitting down doing something active.
    We also should be aware that many sports lead to long term damage to bodies and health. It is not just rugby. The surgeon who replaced Hazels knees said he loves netball because it is just so good for his business.
    It all needs a rethink.

  8. That’s a fair enough point, John. Netball is a classic, because the player has to prop and pass from a stationary position. I understand that in athletics if you want to compete at elite level you will need to put your immune system under pressure. Ballet is beautiful, but not for some of the joints.

    Also I when I said $200 million will not as such cure homelessness or any other social ills I was thinking that there are over 100,000 homeless and $2000 each pa is not going to change their lives. Then tonight we had a news item on Orange Sky, a charity service initiated by two young Brisbane blokes to provide mobile laundries to wash the clothes of the homeless. Now they have launched their first mobile shower.

    It would be hard to argue that funding elite sport is more important than something like that. Of course we are rich enough to do both, but it would turn some heads if we announced that as our priority.

  9. Jumpy, you won’t get far, I think, if you take a Marx aphorism and try to apply it. Better to Google ‘karl marx theory on sports’ and go for it.

    Susan Ferguson has an interesting piece in the New Socialist Marxist Theories of Sport: Nation, Commerce and Pleasure. There’s a lot wrong with elite sport, but she says:

    The problem is that the Left tends to treat the ideology of sport as “false consciousness,” and doesn’t appreciate some of the inherent values that draw people to participate in and watch sports.

    Be sure to read it all the way through.

    If you are really going for a rethink, then William John Morgan’s Leftist Theories of Sport: A Critique and Reconstruction should be on your list. There is a prize for anyone who can last the Introduction, but he reckons a civil and more humane form of sport is essential not only to the rehabilitation of sport but also to the rehabilitation of society itself.

  10. Excellent article, Brian.

    There is wisdom in what you said, “

    Sport, I would argue, is an avenue of creating and expressing our humanity. A decent society should provide avenues which allow individuals to achieve all that they can be.

    Perhaps we would stand a better chance of winning medals if the Institute Of Sport changed its narrow focus from pushing athletes and swimmers beyond their limits to the broader and far more profitable focus of understanding how the human body and psyche works in various situations.

    I’m all for improving the overall fitness of the populace rather than sending good money after bad in boosting elite and celebrity sports. Thanks for reminding us of the “Life, Be In It” campaign, Ambigulous.

    John D: You are damned right about sports injuries. Its the one topic everybody dodges. A similar thing happens in our (dis-)armed forces with training and sports injuries. The really annoying thing is that most sports injuries are preventable – but the obsession with winning(??) at any cost overwhelms any duty-of-care and common sense.

    My wife reckons the Rio Olympics might be the last ever.

  11. A pleasure, Graham Bell.

    These problems have been around a long time. Brian Dixon was a good man, a champion Aussie Rules player when younger but also a high school teacher, with a joie de vivre and intelligence not dampened by his political experiences. Strong, resilient. A good outcome of his competitive team sports abilities? Or have I got cause and effect round the wrong way?

    Doesn’t matter.

  12. It was really boring and I didn’t watch a single second of it. Switched channels on the news when it came on the ABC. I’d rather watch commercials.

  13. Paul B, your commentt reminds us of some people’s complete disinterest. Phillip Adams I think joined some anti-sport group that had a square football as a badge.

    Catalyst last night reminded us that the three pillars of health are diet, exercise and sleep.

    Many people like their exercise at least in part as participation in sport, such as a social game of tennis once a week, which is not by itself enough.

    Community-based organised competition is another level, and elite sports something else again, and even there international competitions such as the Olympics, world championships and the Commonwealth are something apart and should be considered separately on their own merits.

    In schools, competitive sport and physical education are quite different phenomena. The former is largely the province of enthusiastic sporty teachers who don’t necessarily know anything about Phys Ed and often work against its aims. They tend to encourage early specialisation and competition rather that broad personal skill development.

  14. Jumpy, going back to your comment about whether whether becoming an MMA fighter, a greyhound trainer or an astrologist “provide avenues which allow individuals to achieve all that they can be”, it’s clearly not the case that anything goes.

    Any way, I don’t know what an MMA fighter is, questions about greyhound racing rest essentially on animal welfare, and I don’t see astrology enlarging our humanity as a serious question.

  15. Brian – maybe a typo for “astronaut” ??

    Paul Burns: good to hear from you! I sympathise. By the way, much of the TV coverage was ‘watching commercials’ .

  16. In 2009, the Crawford report recommended reprioritising sports funding away from medals, and towards mass participation (of the kind the OP nostalgically remembers). Those recommendations seem to have disappeared without making a ripple. ..

  17. David Donovan has a punchy look at the whole issue. He reckons we are doing pretty well. And:

    So don’t despair about where Australia is on the Olympic medal table. There are more important things to worry about. Despair more about why we care.

    And this:

    And if we really want to skyrocket up to the top of the medal tally, how about we stop gaoling the most athletic of our citizens — our First Nations people. Australia, to its shame, tops the international charts for incarcerating our Indigenous, both young and old. And after we put our potential sporting stars in prison, we then torment and assault them — not just in the Northern Territory, but all over the country. Which is perhaps why we also top the international standings for Indigenous suicide.

  18. Back to my obsession about our Olympic performance and how we see it, this article pointed out:

    In 52 individual swims (when counting a swimmers final swim in any event) the US saw an improved performance in 27. There were 15 performances that regressed, while ten swims were equivalent to those done at trials.

    By contrast, in the 49 individual swims performed by Australians only eight performances improved. There were seven equivalent efforts while an enormous 34 swims had regressed since our April selection trials.

    It is obvious our athletes were in better form four months before the Olympics began.

    Not sure we can extend our swimming season into the winter, and hold selections then.

    What we don’t want as an outcome is Cate Campbell being “overwhelmed with embarrassment and shame”. This is the young woman who swam the last leg of the freestyle relay, putting a body-length on the American champ, Katie Ledecky, to win gold.

    The in the last leg of the 4 x 100 medley she swam us from fifth to second.

  19. When i was younger I used to think of sport as a “good thing”that supported values that went beyond just winning as well as encouraging people to live healthier lives.

Comments are closed.