Sport Australia is on the right track by focusing on increasing grassroots participation rates


Sport and politics mixed this week and for once the result was not a Molotov cocktail but, at least in theory, a soothing elixir.

Sport Australia’s [formerly the Australian Sports Commission] national sports plan Sport 2030 is, like many such largely philosophical documents, long on rhetoric and short on detail.

The headline-grabbing passages of the 71-page report carry a tried and true political theme: tough on crime.

Match-fixing, doping and all that bedevils modern sport will be tackled on the optimistic basis that Australians have a “fundamental respect for the integrity of sport”.

Although this crunching tackle will not be applied until — like many aspects of the report — yet more committees, panels and reviews are organised to mull over the initial investigation already conducted by integrity expert James Wood QC.

Olympic cash splash a thing of the past?

Significantly, Sport 2030 does not contain any inflated gold medal targets or billion-dollar taxpayer-funded gifts to the Olympic movement.

The days of staking Australia’s international sporting reputation on quadrennial backstroke or ping-pong results are over.

On the contrary, there are veiled warnings of cost-cutting for sports that will be “encouraged” to find private benefactors.

Thus it breaks the customary governmental taxpayer-cash-for-Olympic-photo-opportunity deal, stating: “While we will never stop striving to be the best in the world in as many sports as possible, our aspirations must acknowledge that success in high performance sport is correlated to investment and we should measure performance using more than just the medal table.”

The report cites Cathy Freeman’s seminal 2000 Olympics gold medal as an important moment in Australian sport. But not, as the myth-makers of the time had us believe, as the catalyst of an enormous boost in participation and future elite success.

Rather, Cathy’s gold marked the beginning of the end of the era when government investment in targeted programs — including those at the Australian Institute of Sport — could catapult Australia up the medals table.

As Sport 2030 acknowledges, greater competition from nations who have supersized Australia’s methods [you’re welcome, Great Britain] or refined their own has made this far more difficult.

Accordingly, at recent Olympics the failure to reach bloated medal projections has created despair about the unrealistic targets Australia failed to hit, not pride in what was achieved.

So the days of gold medal shopping lists and targeted funding have notionally come to an end. Someone please talk the puffed-up Olympic czars whose self-esteem is dependent upon presenting medals to Aussie champs down from the ledge!

Sports participation needs to be fitter for purpose

But Sport 2030’s Eureka moment is the timely recognition that participation across all levels, not just elite performance, is the most significant challenge for Australian sport — and is presumably the most worthy recipient of Government funding.

The plan recognises that Australians now watch more sport than they play. This not only contributes to vital issues such as high obesity rates, mental health concerns and community disconnection, it reduces the chances of producing elite athletes.

Among the evidence cited in Sport 2030 is a UK study that revealed “the least fit child from a class of 30 in 1998 would be one of the five fittest children in a class of the same age today”.

And before you blame English food and lifestyles, this in a nation that has come to dominate Australia at the Olympics, produced the two most recent Tour De France winners, reached the semi-finals of the World Cup and is number one in one-day international cricket.

Also cited is research that showed “fitter children achieve better academic results and children who play sports stay at school longer” and “children who grow up playing sport are 10 per cent more likely to remain active as adults”.

Much of which is well known to those working in grassroots sports where, in some programs, participation in early age junior sports is booming — most significantly in sports such as Australian rules, cricket, football, basketball and netball that have created popular entry-level programs.

But to convert early-age dabblers into lifelong participants, investment is needed in facilities, junior programs and coaching — particularly in those sports that don’t have the media rights billions and the 24/7 exposure of the AFL.

The diversion of sports funding from the top to the bottom requires the acknowledgement that Australia is more likely to create both healthier lifestyle outcomes and a pool of elite athletes by revitalising, for example, Little Athletics, than by disproportional expenditure on elite programs.

Something the Olympic movement, with its gold medal obsession, has found particularly hard to embrace.

Beyond making sport fairer and funding top-flight competitors, the major challenge of Sport 2030 is to drive this new philosophy — that broader participation does not just benefit the community as a whole, but is a cornerstone of producing more elite athletes.

We will know well before 2030 if Australian sport has had a welcome shift in approach. Or if the agenda and the purse-strings have again been seized by the well-connected Olympic czars and this document becomes just another collection of well-meaning sentiments.