UTS site search

Medals or muscle - what's a National Sports Plan for?

27 May 2017

Greg Hunt, Minister for Health and Minister for Sport, recently announced a Federal Government initiative to develop a National Sports Plan. This is not a new idea. The Labor government’s independent sport panel in 2009, chaired by David Crawford, concluded:

'Australia does not have a national sports policy or vision. We have no agreed definition of success and what it is we want to achieve. We lack a national policy framework within which objectives for government funding can be set and evaluated.'

It is pleasing, therefore, that Hunt’s proposal calls for public engagement, inviting written submissions up to July 31. Hopefully, those who take the trouble to do so will be heard, and robust debate follow. If the government already has steadfast positions, dialogue will be pointless.

Prescription for success

Hunt is entitled – indeed expected – to canvas priority areas based on advice from policy advisers, researchers, and practitioners pertinent to his portfolios. According to his media release:

'The plan will be a long-term strategy for the whole of sport and will examine four key pillars of participation, performance, prevention through physical activity, and integrity.'

Not surprisingly, the performance pillar has resonated with those invested in high-performance sport, such as the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) and the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC), both of which have been calling for greater levels of public funding to better enable athletes to be competitive at events like the Olympic Games.

In that sense, performance needs to be read as “international performance”. The AIS and the AOC have long insisted that Australia should finish in the top five of nations on the (unofficial) Olympic medal tally. That Australia managed tenth at Rio was, from their perspective, disastrous.

Fit for what purpose?

Hunt wears two ministerial hats: health is a much larger responsibility than sport. But (where properly managed) sport can play a role in contributing towards positive health outcomes via physical activity and social wellbeing.

The elephant in the sport policy room is whether the government is really prepared to give health-promoting physical activity a value, both socially and economically, commensurate with the national and global crisis that is sedentary behaviour.

A key instrument for Hunt is the Australian Sports Commission (ASC), a statutory agency charged by the federal government with distributing public funds to national sport organisations. Two of its core objectives are:

Goal 1: Increased participation in sport.

Goal 2: Increased international success.

In terms of public funding, Goal 2 has long been the priority of both the government and the ASC. Typically, the ratio of funding to high-performance sport is around four-to-five times that devoted to participation sport.

In the wake of hand-wringing after the Rio Olympics, there is likely to be pressure to maintain the performance-participation funding ratio, or even to harden it, with winning medals given even higher priority.

This type of debate would be less vexed should the size of the funding pie increase substantially. Unfortunately, elite athlete bodies like the AIS have been unsuccessful in garnering much commercial sponsorship or philanthropic donations, so a reliance on the public purse remains. However, an alternative source of revenue is on the horizon.

Is winning a lottery? 

Hunt has mooted the prospect of a national lottery to increase the revenue pie for the purposes of sport funding. Sweepstakes are hardly new to Australia, but the case for another lottery has been spurred by the Olympic success of arch rival Great Britain.

Since the advent of the UK’s National Lottery, an unprecedented volume of funds has been distributed to British “Olympic” sports, and the proof seems to be in the pudding. After finishing 36th on the medal tally at Atlanta 1996, the British Olympic team finished third at London 2012 and an astonishing second at Rio 2016.

This is the type of resurgence that energises high-performance enthusiasts at the AOC and AIS.

While lotteries are typically perceived as a reasonably innocuous form of gambling, it may seem ironic that this form of revenue generation is being considered for the purposes of publicly funded sport. This relates to widespread concern about the profile of betting companies in professional sports, with the government recently moving to restrict the promotion of gambling on TV.

Much like sports betting, therefore, an Australian national lottery would need to warn consumers – “gamble responsibly”.

A central body

Hunt has also suggested the establishment of a national sport tribunal to centrally manage serious integrity matters, such as doping and match-fixing. This type of model is already operating in the UK and New Zealand, and its adoption in Australia would have widespread support.

For amateur athletes and those without financial support from clubs, the tribunal system would allow what amounts to legal aid for those facing charges. This would enable them to mount a defence based upon the veracity of the case, not their financial circumstances.

A national tribunal does not, however, mean that all integrity cases can be concluded domestically. In doping, for example, the WADA Code must be adhered to as a global manifesto, while WADA can still appeal to the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport any decision it disagrees with.

Hunt is of the view that the AFL Tribunal case ASADA vs Essendon was flawed – at least in terms of perception – because it was a sport investigating itself, and this helped to precipitate the WADA appeal.

Yet it is not clear why WADA would view a national sport tribunal differently in terms of a “home-town” decision. Just as importantly, Hunt wants a retired judge to head the tribunal. From ASADA’s perspective, none of those who sat on the Essendon case are reliable.

In short, while a national tribunal is welcome, it would be naive to assume that it will “solve” the often-robust relationships that Australian sports have with ASADA, WADA and CAS.

And the winner is?

The opportunity to publicly debate and inform a National Sport Policy is nigh. There will be contested ideas of value (what is the worth of sport?) and values (how is sport worthy?).

There is a long history of Australians keeping tabs on Olympic medals, world records, and so on – all virtuous achievements.

Perhaps it is also time to get more serious about another aspect of sport – its role in communities and its contribution to physical activity and social wellbeing. Many of us are sedentary and overweight; there are no gold medals for changing that. Not unless there are global KPIs – something like a Keep Physical Index – that drives competitive instincts.

A gold medal for Australia as the fittest nation on earth? I’d like to see that.

This article first appeared in The Conversation.