Why does the Australian Government invest in sport ? One answer is national pride.

By Greg Blood

Why does the Australian Government invest in sport? There are many reasons but the Maltidas performances at the home FIFA Women’s World Cup is an example of sport and its impact on nationalism or national pride.

I’m currently researching Australian prime ministers and sport and found that most of them understood that Australian sport success on the world stage has the ability to unite the nation of six states and two territories. What other activities have this ability to publicly excite and unite the nation?

Australia is often viewed as the underdog in many significant world sporting events – Olympic Games, Paralympic Games, World Basketball and Football Cups. This is often due to its small population and many of our athletes’ playing sports that do not have significant world-wide exposure – cricket, netball, rugby league, rugby union and Australian football. To win at the Olympic and Paralympic Games and World Cups, our athletes and teams have to defeat athletes from nations from all continents.

The early history of Australian sport is around defeating British athletes and teams as proof that the new nation could stand alone and be successful. Prime minister Alfred Deakin wrote:  

“But Australians, whatever their defects, are keen sportsmen, cherishing with ardour your sporting standards of fair play, your admiration for pluck and judgment, and your desire to see the best man win. Matches whether for shooting, for football, or for cricket remind many who read little that Britons today are still to be reckoned with in every field and in every game.”

Many Australians, rightly or wrongly, view Australia’s standing in the world through the achievements of its athletes and teams. The wide public interest in the Matildas quarter-final victory has been equated to Australia II finally winning the America’s Cup in 1983 and Cathy Freeman’s gold at the Sydney Olympics. But there are many other worthy Australian international sporting successes such as Cadel Evans 2011 Tour de France victory, Men’s Rugby World Cup wins in 1991 and 1999, Hockeyroos three successive Olympic gold medals and netball Diamonds twelve championship wins.

Australian Sports Commission objectives include “creating national pride and inspiration through international sporting success”. Its research has found:

  • Australians say Olympic, Paralympic, and Commonwealth Games athletes can make them feel proud (79%) and inspired (72%), especially through showing determination, working hard, and good sportsmanship.
  • More than 70% of Australians (18+) believe that Australia’s elite athletes are some of the best role models for themselves, and for children and young people to aspire to.

Australian international sporting success at home seems to be more significant to the public. The long and often complicated build up to the event, increased media coverage and the ability to watch it live in our time zone. Only die-hard sports fans will get up in the middle of the night to watch major international sport competitions. For many, watching sport live with other people is important – being part of a big crowd, watching in a pub, hosting a party or attending a live site. Sport in this environment can be nerve-wracking, cathartic and a sense of national unity. The current FIFA Women’s World Cup has offered this opportunity to many Australians – this has been borne out by capacity crowds, high television ratings and numerous live sites.  The recent World Swimming, Netball and Cycling Championships where Australia has had great success has been somewhat lost due to them being held overseas. 

FIFA Women’s World Cup even forced rugby league out of its main stadiums – Lang Park, Sydney Football Stadium and Melbourne Rectangular Stadium and even forced the AFL to change the starting times of its games.

The Australian Government has recognised the importance of international sporting success particularly since the poor performance of the Australian Olympic Team at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Prime ministers Joe Lyons (1932-1939), Ben Chifley (1945-1949) and Sir Robert Menzies (1949-1966) lapped up the successes of Australian athletes and teams but believed the Australian Government should not significantly fund sport.  Until the establishment of the Australian Institute of Sport in 1981, Australian athletes and teams relied upon natural talent, good coaching and training to be successful on the world stage. But since the mid 1980’s, Australian Government has significantly increased high performance funding available through the Australian Sports Commission. This has led to many Australian athletes and teams being successful. The 2000 Sydney Olympic and Paralympic Games highlighted that a home Games greatly aided in successful performances but it did require substantial athlete investment through the Olympic and Paralympic Programs ($140m from-1994 to 2000). John Coates argued that the Sydney Olympics would only be regarded as successful if the athletes were successful. The 1956 Melbourne Olympics despite its rocky path has the same success factors as Sydney. How would the FIFA Women’s World Cup be regarded if the Matildas had not made it out of its pool?

Recent long-time prime ministers Malcolm Fraser (1975-1983), Bob Hawke (1983-1991) and John Howard (1996-2007) are examples of exploiting sport for national pride. To their credit, they significantly funded sport whilst in office. It appears that the current prime minister Anthony Albanese is replicating these prime ministers. He now wants a national public holiday if the Matildas go all the way.  Commentators such as Craig Foster want increased funding for this prime ministerial enthusiasm not necessarily a public holiday. We await any outcomes regarding increased funding.

The success of Women’s World Cup is likely to have a sugar hit on participation for both girls and boys in football and possibly other sports. But will this be only a brief sugar hit when there are lack of grass roots facilities, insufficient qualified coaches and high cost of participation. Football Australia has put to the Australian Government  Legacy ’23 plan. In this plan, it noted that football benefited $207.7 million in Federal and State funding secured across stadium infrastructure, high performance & participation programs and community facilities. But it wants more government funding. It will have to join the queue of other sports needing more appropriate facilities, coaches and funding.    

The question for all levels of government is how much should it fund sport – and the breakdown in funding between facilities development, participation and high-performance programs? The decision by the Victorian Government in abandoning 2026 Commonwealth Games seems to suggest that ‘national/state’ pride and the likely economic benefits did not outweigh the significant costs and possibility of future funding being restricted for participation and community sport facilities.

FIFA Women’s World Cup has highlighted how sport irrespective of gender can unify a nation for a brief period. These unifying international events at home do not come often – the next is 2032 Brisbane Olympics and Paralympics. Sorry for discounting the 2027 Men’s and 2029 Women’s Rugby World Cups but they are unlikely to capture the entire nation.

The task for the governments is to ensure that the significant funding for hosting major international sporting events is matched for community sport participation and grass roots facilities. Besides community sport having many physical, health and social benefits, it where future sporting champions come from.

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