Medals cost money. This is the cold financial truth at the heart of sporting success: glory is not cheap. While it may take a leap of imagination to go from the voluminous budget papers released on Tuesday to the Tokyo 2021 Olympics, they are intimately linked. Buried deep in the health portfolio budget statements is the funding that Australia’s sport administrators hope will propel our athletes to gold in Tokyo and beyond. The ambition is plainly stated in the document, standing out for its emotive language among the dense accounting tables: “The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) will strive to deliver national pride and inspiration through international sporting success.”
This year, the Australian federal government will spend about $350m on sport. While that figure is split between high-performance and grass-roots participation, across the AIS and Sport Australia respectively, the majority is spent in the pursuit of medals. Each year the AIS hands out about A$150m directly to sports and athletes for high performance purposes, across summer and winter Olympic and Paralympic disciplines. More money is then spent by the AIS itself, including on staffing and site costs. Although it is difficult to put a precise total on how much goes to high performance (as there are various shared costs between the AIS and Sport Australia, both subsidiaries of the Australian Sports Commission), a fair estimate puts federal government spending in the search for national pride at about a quarter of a billion dollars each year.
After unprecedented medal success at Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004, Australia’s performance at summer Olympics has been in structural decline. The country has slipped down the medal tally at the three subsequent Olympics, finishing 10th at Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
To critics, the dollars distributed by the AIS to individual sports in the past four years is funding enough. If the Australian Olympians repeat their performance of Rio in Tokyo – eight gold medals, 11 silver and 10 bronze – that would equate to around $16 million per medal. A 2014 headline in the Sydney Morning Herald was explicit: “Stop wasting taxpayers’ money on sport funding”.
Others believe government funding for elite sport in Australia is woefully insufficient. In October 2018, 41 past and present elite athletes signed an open letter pleading for greater investment. Luminaries including Ian Thorpe, Anna Meares and Lauren Jackson criticised a “broken” funding model, bemoaning that Australia sports “slip further behind the rest of the world and we wonder why”. The same day, Australian Olympic Committee chief executive Matt Carroll identified a 12% funding decline in real terms since 2010, telling the Press Club that “if investment continues to decline … it will be very hard for us to win many medals”.
Following the post-Rio outcry, the Australian Sport Commission’s controversial “Winning Edge” strategy was quietly scrapped, while the AIS has undergone “painful but long overdue” restructuring “to regain its position as a world leader”, according to its director Peter Conde. In the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics, several additional pots of ad hoc funding were announced.
Will these changes be enough to prevent a repeat of the disappointment of Rio? Sport Australia’s Sport 2030 plan, published two years ago, warned that “high performance sport has become an ultra-competitive ‘arms race’ where countries pour hundreds of millions of dollars into elite programs aimed at landing gold medals”. Other nations have emulated Australia’s past “innovation and investment”, it said, and eclipsed us. One of the plan’s pillars was “achieving sporting excellence”, but the document was heavy with buzzwords and light on concrete strategies.
With Tokyo just 10 weeks away, renewed scrutiny on the return on investment for Australia’s sporting dollars is imminent. Whether the country spends too much or too little on high performance sport may be a perennial question, but it was not answered definitively by the latest budget. Despite the Morrison government hailing its sports spending on Tuesday’s budget – sports minister Richard Colbeck described it as “significant and growing investment” – in real terms funding levels have remained about the same.
Speaking to Guardian Australia two days later, AIS director Conde was upbeat. “We are extremely pleased,” he says. In 2019, the government announced an additional $27m for athlete pathways and wellbeing, and $25m as a top up for high performance ahead of the Olympics (both offered annually for two years). Those amounts have been renewed moving forward, meaning that while the headline figure remains about the same, a looming funding cliff has been averted.
More importantly, says Conde the government has given him and his sports certainty about funding until Paris 2024. “The government has recognised that the system works on a four-year Olympic/Paralympic cycle, and extended both those tranches of funding through to 2024,” he says. “Sports have to make commitments for the long-term, to coaches and support staff. It is really important to be able to align that with our funding.
“Sport could always use money and the athletes could always use more support – there is no doubt about that. But particularly in the context of all the other demands at the moment, around health and aged care in particular, I believe this is a good outcome – a really good step from the government.”
AOC boss Carroll, whose organisation has long called for more funding for high performance sport, is equally diplomatic. “Certainly there is money in the budget and that is always very welcome – we are appreciative to the government and to Minister Colbeck,” he says. “We didn’t ask for anything additional for this budget – we took a modest and sensible view.”
But Carroll has his eye on broader structural change to funding models. “The AOC, our member sports and Commonwealth Games Australia will soon launch a report, which we are going to put in to the government’s intergenerational report, looking at a 10+10 horizon – the next decade and then the decade thereafter,” he says. “About how to invest in sport and the power of sport – what sport can bring to the community and the economy.”
For the heads of each sport, funding is an ever-present consideration. Simon Jones, high performance director at AusCycling, receives about $10m annually from the AIS, spread across road, track, BMX and mountain bike for Olympic and Paralympic athletes. “I am constantly tracking and reviewing our budget,” he says. “Things happen, plans change, events unfold. We are constantly monitoring. That comes with stress, trying to be as efficient as possible. It’s very much like running your house, really – you make choices about what you eat, where you go on holidays. It’s exactly the same, just on a bigger scale.”
Few sports would say no to greater funding, but Jones is philosophical. “Do we need more money? I don’t think saying yes is a good enough answer. We could always do with more, but I think having limited resources makes you think hard about what you’re trying to do. It makes you prioritise, it makes you frugal. I am very careful about how we spend our money. More funding does not guarantee more medals. If we were to receive more investment, I would want to direct it to sustainable underpinnings.” Jones says that AusCycling is well-funded, compared to international rivals, with the exception of British Cycling, who “get two or three times more than any other nation”.
Ultimately, Jones – an Englishman – believes that Australia needs to have a wider national discussion about why a quarter of a billion dollars is poured into elite sport each year. “The question is why we fund sport,” he says. “We need to have more of a conversation about the benefits of sport to the community and our health. There are clear benefits. If we can have more conversations about the why, then the investment follows.”
These themes will be central to the AOC’s forthcoming submission to the government. “Investment in real terms has declined and our international performances have declined as well,” says Carroll. “But the basis of the submission we are putting to the intergenerational report is that an investment in sport is not just about medals. it is about community health, it is about our kids’ mental wellbeing. It is about bringing communities together, about the opportunity for international events in Australia – which drive tourism and jobs. An investment in sport is not just about medals, but certainly an investment in sport will certainly generate international success for Australian athletes and that inspires the nation.”
The primary meeting room at the AIS High Performance Centre is named “Tokyo”. Nestled at the heart of the sprawling campus in leafy northern Canberra, between a synthetic football pitch and tennis courts, it feels a world away from the concrete jungle that is Japan’s capital. But it is in this room, with memorabilia from the Tokyo 1964 Olympics on the wall, that AIS officials plot Australia’s medal success.
The AIS is the physical manifestation of the billions of dollars spent on high performance over the past four decades. Despite the success that has followed, the institute and its position at the peak of Australian sport were the consequence of failure. Australian athletes returned from the 1976 Olympics dejected, languishing 32nd in the medal tally below the likes of North Korea, Belgium and Trinidad and Tobago. “Australia’s Golden Days Have Gone” cried one newspaper headline.
The idea for a national institute of sport was not novel, with inspiration coming from the United States, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, but the Montreal failure and subsequent national soul-searching offered political impetus and money. Opening the AIS on Australia Day in 1981, then-prime minister Malcolm Fraser predicted that it would “carry Australia’s name high”.
In the subsequent 40 years, the AIS has certainly done that. Almost every medal won by an Australian at subsequent Games has had a link to the AIS’s campus in Canberra – whether through the athletes residing there, visiting during training camps or making use of the AIS’s sports scientists and allied health professionals.
But despite this longevity, the future success of Australia’s high performance model is not guaranteed. The decline of the past decade points partly to a demographic reality: as a nation of 25 million people, Australia’s ability to compete with nations like China (1.4 billion) and the United States (330 million) will always be reliant on disproportionately high funding levels. Following a decade and a half of funding stagnation, Australia’s medal tally at recent Olympics may well be a more accurate reflection of relative national ability than the highs of Sydney and Athens.
Yet no matter how Australian athletes perform in Tokyo mid-year, there is a bright spot on the horizon. Brisbane is likely to host the 2032 Olympics, having been announced as “preferred partner” by the International Olympic Committee in February. Host nations almost always receive a boost up the medal tally; an analysis of Olympics since 1988 showed that seven of the eight host nations received their best-ever medal haul at the home Games. Whether that effect is attributable to the typical increase in funding, boisterous crowds or larger athlete delegations, Australian fans hoping for Olympic glory can look forward to 2032.
“Success at the Brisbane Olympics will be judged not so much on the facilities or whether people have a good time, but how successful our Australian athletes are – there is no doubt about that,” says the AIS’s Conde. “The entire [sporting] system will look to the government to make sure – particularly for our younger athletes, those who are barely in their teens right now – get the opportunity to perform at their very best in 11 years’ time.”