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:
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:
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.