How should we judge funding of Australian Olympic athletes and teams?

By Greg Blood. Originally published in The Roar, 13 June 2018.

Currently there is an interesting conundrum in Australian Olympic sport. The failure of the Australian Olympic team to achieve its target of the top five on the medal table at the Rio Olympics has raised questions about the suitability of medal targets.

This failure was put down to the inadequate funding by the Australian Sports Commission (ASC) and the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) and athletes not coping with the intense pressures of Olympic competition and medal expectations. It is more difficult to win Olympic medals since the Sydney Olympics due to countries like Great Britain, China and former Soviet Union countries increasing their share of medals.

Since the Rio Olympics, there has been a softening of medal targets. Recently triple Olympic gold medallist Ian Thorpe argued against medal targets by stating “It puts an immense amount of pressure on athletes around something they have no control over”. AOC president John Coates apologised to the AOC Athletes Commission after the Rio Olympics for its medal target goals.

A brief history of medal targets in Australian Olympic sport is useful in this discussion. In 1989 the Hawke government injected additional money into Olympic sport through the ASC, which was directed to seven sports – basketball, canoeing, cycling, hockey, rowing, swimming, and track and field – so that Australia could improve its position on the medal table. The result was immediate, with Australia winning 27 medals, inlcuding seven gold, and finishing tenth on the medal table at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. It was recognised that funding and Olympic success went hand in hand.

After Sydney won the right to host Olympics in September 1993, the AOC developed its gold medal plan with the target of 60 medals (20 gold) and finishing fifth on the medal table. Coates argued that the games would only be regarded as successful if the Australian team was high on the medal table. As a result of Coates’s lobbying, the Australian government provided $140 million over six years, between 1994 and 2000, to fund the preparation of both Olympic and Paralympic teams.

This funding led to Australia finishing fourth on the Sydney Olympics medal table winning 58 medals, including 16 gold. At the Athens Olympics it finished fourth again with 50 medals, including 17 gold.

Since the Athens Olympics Australia has slipped down the Olympic medal table – sixth in 2008, eight in 2012 and tenth in 2016 even though the AOC had a top-five goal.

The ASC and the AOC had a top-five medal table target for Rio Olympics even though it was noted that Olympic funding was not matching that of major competitor nations. After the Rio Olympics, the AOC has walked away from medal targets, but it was recently reported on the ABC that the ASC will have a target of five to ten on the medal table at the Tokyo Olympics.

What are we doing by watering down the top-five medal target or having no medal target?

Are we accepting that with current funding Australia’s realistic position is somewhere closer to ten than five on the medal table?

Are we reducing the pressure on our athletes and teams on winning medals?

I have observed what the Germans have done in this space. They predict ranges. They predicted 45 to 86 medals in London but won 44 medals, and they predicted 38 to 68 medals but won 42 medals in Rio.

Maybe this medal range target is a more realistic approach to take in predicting Olympic performances. The uniqueness of Olympic competition – held every four years, large, multi-sport, the pinnacle for each competing sport except football and high media exposure – makes it an intense event and makes prediction more problematic. After all, the medal table is based on gold, not the total number of medals won.

I’m not sure that by softening medal targets will lessen the pressure on Olympic athletes. The ASC and AOC currently fund athletes based on their world performance each year, and therefore the need for them to meet performance targets places constant pressure.

Several sports are under higher pressure and scrutiny due to their high levels of ASC funding and Olympic medal history. Swimming is an obvious example, with it receiving approximately $38 million from the ASC in the four years leading to Rio Olympics. This funding investment had an expectation of a high medal haul.Advertisement

In the past, the level of accountability in ASC funding can be seen through the number of medals won. This is easy for the media and the public to understand. But other accountability measures that should be promoted more vigorously by the ASC and AOC include world championship medals and performances in the four-year funding period, high-profile athletes being role models and encouraging children to take up sport, and what the athletes bring to the community post-careers – for example, coaching, administration et cetera. The last point is rarely highlighted in the media and the ASC or AOC.

Even if we take away medal targets, there will always be pressure on high-profile Olympic athletes. The media could be more realistic in promoting athlete medal chances in the lead up to the Olympics. In the last three Olympics Eamon Sullivan, James Magnussen and Cameron McEvoy have been touted as 100 metre freestyle Olympic champions but in an event determined by one-hundredth of a second they were perceived to have failed even though Sullivan and Magnussen won silver medals.

There will always be expectations placed upon athletes and teams. This is not unique to Olympic sports. Athletes and coaches most likely need greater support in sports psychology and mental health to help deal with at times unrealistic expectations from the media and the public, particularly in the era of social media.

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