How do we put a price on Olympic Success?

Just admit it: watching a gold medalist, tears streaming down their cheeks, standing on the podium to the sound of “Advance Australia Fair” elicits a feeling of pride in most Australians.

Yet how, might we ask, does one put a price on gold medal glory? What trade offs do we face by allocating millions to our few sporting champions? And what are the opportunity costs involved in subsidising an athlete’s preparation for an event held once every four years?

The figures show that we as taxpayers pay roughly $588 million to the Australian Sports Commission for Olympic sport to send a team of approximately 400 to the Olympic Games. If we divide this by the likely number of top spots in an Olympic event (let’s be generous and say 12), we get $49 million per gold medal.

This amount does not take into account the money spent by national sporting organisations — such as Athletics Australia or the cost of the infrastructure to have elite athletes (exclusive pools, fields and tracks reserved solely for the sporting elite) and the individual sacrifices that the athletes and the family and friends make to send 400 people to an Olympic Games.

So what might one ask do we get for our investment? National pride, if you believe in that sort of thing — and a flood of commentary on how great a sporting nation we are.

Some argue that our gold medalists are the role models that serve as catalysts to increase the level of sporting participation by our kids. Just mention the obesity epidemic and elite sport fanatics will tell you that a gold in Rio means more kids running, kicking, throwing and swimming and thus a nation of healthier individuals. We buy into this despite weak evidence of any elite-to-grassroots participation effect.

On Monday the 21st of April, the ASC announced a financial cut to certain Olympic sports under new elite funding allocation. The commission warned that there would be “winners and losers” in a re-positioning of Australia’s Sports System and sadly they were only referring to the various sports that would receive either a funding increase or decrease over the coming two years. The government has decided once again to maintain the levels of funding already in place for elite sports, rather than use a portion of this share for grassroots development.

If we want an increase in sporting participation by children, shouldn’t we be funding for direct access to sports and the ease of engaging in physical activity for them? Shouldn’t we be subsidising sporting activities for the young in the form of boots, balls, racquets and free swimming lessons  instead of giving the elites a free ride?

Another big cost of this allocation is the message this sends about what we place the greatest value on: sport before science or art. You can be a top sportsperson and get a fully funded scholarship to the AIS, with access to the very best sports science and facilities we as a nation can buy. The best part is that you never have to pay a cent back — unlike our future doctors, nurses, teachers and scientists.

When the overall medal count is lower than Beijing, the sporting lobby groups will demand yet more money, facilities and support.  Sadly they will probably get it, given the history of funding arguments and the ability of the vested interests to bury the very sensible recommendations of the Crawford review into sport funding.

Elite athletes are extraordinary human beings whose achievements should be celebrated. However, are we as a nation placing a little too much value on its importance and neglecting some other crucial benefits to society as a result?