Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Sport: Does Olympic Gold cost too much? - Not really

There is more to life than money! This is a phrase that is heard a great deal, and is often cynically attributed only to those who already have money. But whether it comes from the mouth of the wealthy or not, it is true. This brings me to the debate about funding for Olympic athletes.

There are a lot of positive impacts of having a strong sporting team representing the country, that are not easily measurable in economic terms. The same can be said for funding other activities such as the arts and public festivals. However, I will use the Olympics as an example as it is current.

The figures that have been touted about the cost of each gold medal won at the Olympics that range (from memory) up to $50 million, sound large, but there is very little detail about what is being counted in this figure. It’s a bit like saying the cost of the navy rescuing a yachtsmen is ‘X’ number of dollars without clarifying that this money includes wages that would have been paid anyway, fuel that was going to be used anyway, the goodwill of the nation whose yachtsman was plucked out of the ocean etc. The other option is to cost such an activity in terms of additional money that had to be spent over and above what would be spent in normal circumstances. It’s all about how people choose to calculate the figures.

So, when trying to apportion dollars to our Olympic performance we need to separate what is spent over and above our spending on grass roots sporting activity, coaches and athletes who turn out for domestic events that would happen in some form or another. Making sensational claims about the cost of medals often appears to come from those who don’t, or refuse to, see the wider benefits of investment in sport in physical and mental health benefits. This is a proper use for public money.

What is often left out of such calculations, because of the difficulty of putting dollar values on them, are benefits including the joy many people get out of seeing their athletes perform on an international stage, or the pride felt when an athlete wins in their chosen field. These can last for days and keep give people something to be happy about that might distract them from the monotony of everyday life (although this can be accompanied by the irritation of overly nationalistic television coverage). The better people feel, the more likely they will be

In addition to this the Olympics provide something that young athletes can aspire to and is a way of bringing people together as a nation. In the current climate where there is mortgage stress, worries about climate change, problems with social groups, and numerous other pressing concerns, the value of this should not be underestimated.

The intangible benefits of investment into sport, and the arts for that matter, should not be ignored. Also, given that the returns are difficult to quantify and are of benefit to the wider community, it appears that public money is appropriate for this purpose.

Out athletes, providing they are successful, can do very well out of this too, but if they brighten people’s days, then I do not think that we should begrudge them their success. That would be very small-minded indeed. And we should also acknowledge that many of our sporting stars also contribute a great deal through their work in supporting charitable organisations. This would not have the same impact of they were not successful.

So, I think we should be comfortable that public money is spent on training these athletes, although I would not necessarily be keen on increasing the current expenditure (we do very well for a nation of 20 million people). The insecurities that are coming out because Australia got less medals than the English, reflect poorly on this country.

In conclusion, the funding of sports and arts needs to be maintained, and it has to be acknowledged that these activities provide a great deal of benefit to our society. It does nobody any favours to carp at the current expenditure on the Olympic team, we should instead be happy that the we got the great results we did and that the athletes provided us with many moments that that will be remembered for years to come.

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