After the Matildas lost their game to England last Wednesday the TV talking heads tried to outdo each other in their calls for more government spending on sport. It was probably inevitable that, sensing an opportunity to appease the women’s lobby and maybe garner a couple of votes, Albo swung into action and pledged $200 million for women’s sport. The money would go to “promote equal access, build more suitable facilities, and support grassroots initiatives to get women and girls to engage, stay, and participate in sport throughout their lives”.
Many Australians, and our politicians especially, love to say how we are a sporting nation and we routinely ‘punch above our weight’ on the international scene. This can be true but the reality of how the athlete got to the position of international accreditation is rarely acknowledged, and almost certainly wasn’t because of government nurturing of the athlete.
To be clear, sport is about money but not perhaps in the way most think of it. The athlete’s ability, perseverance, commitment are all necessary basic ingredients, but money will determine whether the athlete climbs to the pinnacle of their chosen sport. Let’s start at the beginning.
We all know that children will normally oscillate between various sports in their youth. On rare occasions however, a child will display a unique connection to a particular sport and the child’s ability, even at a young age, is almost surreal. Their instinctiveness with the ball, stick, skates, racket etc or their ability to flex, contort or otherwise stress their body is extraordinary and beyond their training to date. Their local coach will say things such as “I haven’t seen anybody so young this good”.
Now the costly journey into the sports world begins.
The child loves the sport and is almost obsessed with the careers of its international level competitors. Endless hours watching national or international competitions via the internet. After a couple of years, it becomes apparent that the local coach and the available facilities cannot provide the depth of training required to fully develop the child’s ability. So, more advanced coaches are sought out and better-quality equipment purchased. The coaching and equipment costs can be high, but the parents step up.
More years pass with seemingly endless training for the child who displays undiminished fervor for the sport. The child eschews the usual attributes of youth such as late nights, parties and alcohol and follows a strict regimen of diet and exercise. The parents are constantly buying new equipment and paying coaching fees is now second nature, like paying a mortgage. Competition results are very encouraging with the child earning either a win or place against older and often more experienced competitors and after some time, the child progresses to becoming a state or national champion.
The financial cost is increasing but funding at the elite club level never seems to eventuate and, in any case, whatever grants are rarely available, are so pitifully small as to be meaningless. The parents continue to pick up the tab.
Meanwhile, the annual expenditure on coaches, high-end equipment, competition travel and a myriad of related expenses, such as physiotherapy sessions for example, amounts to many thousands of dollars per year and the forecast for future years shows the annual cost to reach much greater levels.
I should mention there are four basic levels of competition – regional, state, national and international. The truth is that in most sports with an international profile, even the best Australian domestic player will initially struggle in the international arena. But sport is big business for promoters, venues and TV yet they all seem to say it is the government’s responsibility to support our future athletes.
For their part, governments at both state and national level have a Department of Sport which is filled with countless public servants who file the necessary papers and have meetings with the heads of the national associations. I’ll wager that Albo’s $200m will vanish into the sport bureaucracy. It is the proverbial drop in the bucket with the Australian Sports Commission estimating that parents spend no less than $12 billion per year on their kid’s coaching and equipment.
As the athlete progresses to the elite level, external support is rare so their success is usually tied to the financial capacity of the parents. Sheer sporting ability is almost never enough and stepping into international competition is a whole new world financially, and often too much for most family budgets.
To make matters worse is the absence of Australian based coaches who are professionally equipped to train the athlete at the international level. Consequently, this means the athlete must base themselves overseas for training and competition purposes or accept the reality that their ascent into the upper echelon of the sport is over. For those lucky enough, training and competition overseas beckons but the associated costs can be very high.
Finally, after a year, two or maybe more of international level training and competition, the athlete has earned their international status and returns to Australia to compete on behalf of the nation.
Then in the middle of a media scrum, a politician waddles out and declares that Australia is a great sporting nation and the government’s commitment to sport, at every level, remains strong. Camera’s flash and the politician makes sure he/she is in the frame.
And the athlete’s parents’ seethe. For well over a decade they have invested tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, willingly, but not for a slimy politician to sidle up and bask in the reflected glory.
The most disappointing aspect is that unless the parents have money, it doesn’t matter how determined and talented the athlete may be, it will be near impossible for them to achieve international sporting recognition. There are also relatively few sports that lead to a ‘pot of gold’ for the athlete – most sports offer little discernable pathway to a future income.
Meanwhile, at the grass roots level, parents will continue to undertake assorted fundraisers to keep the club going with basic equipment.
How many genuinely talented kids have missed out simply because their parents couldn’t afford the cost of coaches, equipment and training? What does the government’s commitment really mean – because it sure doesn’t seem to manifest itself in anything tangible to young athletes or distinctively talented future champions.
And during your journey into the world of sport, just to add insult to injury, some national sporting associations have the temerity to demand payment for the (non-Olympic Games) mandatory tracksuit with AUSTRALIA emblazoned on the back. Yep, you’ll even have to pay for the uniform when your kid represents the country.
So, next time you cheer on an athlete, spare a brief thought for who actually facilitated their struggle to the top.