This article was originally published on the National Post website.
On the landing page of the web site for the British ministry of sport, there is this short statement: “Inspiring the nation through world-class success.”
It’s a slogan that perfectly encapsulates the theory behind the funding models that are pervasive in amateur athletics today, at lease in those nations where they use public money and are transparent about how it is spent — the government will back winners, and the subsequent medal haul will increase interest and participation in sport and fitness. Gold medals at one end, a more healthy society at the other.
It has always been an awkward bargain. In Britain, the sport ministry recently concluded a public consultation launched last year after an outcry when it adjusted its funding levels, boosting money for some sports and dropping it entirely for others. Among those that got the scythe was basketball, a decision directly related to the last-place finishes of its two national teams at the London Olympics. In Australia, austerity measures last year forced the government’s sport institute to trim spending, which it did by cutting funding for after-school programs and preserving it for elite athletes. The institute said maintaining funding for Olympic contenders in the lead-up to Rio 2016 was a priority.
Canada has for more than a decade followed a similar funding model, with the bulk of government funding directed to those athletes and those sports where international success is most likely. And success has certainly come, with top-three finishes on the medal table at Vancouver 2010 and in Sochi last year. But a model that directs more money toward “medal” sports also leaves less money for those in which medals are unlikely, even though those athletes can put just as much time and effort into their amateur athletics careers as their more well-funded Olympic teammates. As the National Post‘s Sean Fitz-Gerald chronicled recently in a story on the “orphaned sport” of modern pentathlon, sometimes the public money directed to a sport can amount to zero dollars. And so, someone like pentathlete Donna Vakalis, who finished 29th at London 2012, receives not one of the hundreds of millions of dollars that have flowed through Own the Podium, the country’s not-for-profit agency that determines which sports receive federal largesse. She takes odd jobs to make money to pay for training, which costs tens of thousands of dollars a year — there are horses involved — and often has to choose between workouts and work. If she was British, this wouldn’t be an issue: UK Sport increased funding for modern pentathlon when it was cutting money for basketball.
Whether this is the right way to approach amateur athletics funding is, admittedly, a subjective question. There’s no denying that funnelling money toward medal hopes has the effect of delivering more medals. (In Australia, one official called for more funding for elite athletes after his country was bested at the Commonwealth Games last summer by those upstart Brits.) But does the funding model accomplish the larger goal of a more active society? Is a nation, to use the British slogan, inspired by its medal-winning athletes? I asked Rowing Canada if there was a tangible difference in the participation rates in their sport after the success of their athletes at recent Olympics. They are one of Canada’s most well-funded sports, receiving $16-million from Own The Podium in the four-year London Olympics cycle. Rowing Canada responded that it typically sees a 10 per cent jump in its participation numbers after an Olympics; with a membership of 12,000, that amounts to an extra 1,200 or so who pick up an oar post-Games. That’s not nothing. But if one of of the main goals of amateur sports funding is to drive participation, millions of dollars that generates a few hundred new participants each year is not a spectacular return on investment.
At its root, the problem of equitable athletics funding is almost impossible to solve unless success — that is, medals — is taken out of the equation entirely. Training is expensive, and even athletes in glamour sports like skiing and cycling finding themselves scrounging for government money. Canada’s freestyle ski team ended up successfully seeking funding on CBC’s Dragons’ Den, even though the Dufour-Lapointe sisters were among of the breakout stars of the Sochi Games. There is already not enough money to go around, but shouldn’t an athlete who meets the Olympic standard be granted at least a little of the government support that the country grants its other Olympians? The counter is that if you are in the business of excellence, this is the only way to do it in the hyper-competitive Olympic arena. Second place is the first loser and all that.
In Britain, the debate had an additional frisson of class envy, because “private-school” sports involving horses and sailboats received increased money while those more popular in low-income areas received less. UK Sport announced two weeks ago that it would stick largely with its current model — citing a survey that said 70% of the public agreed medal success should be a key goal — but allowing that sports with large participation rates, like basketball, would also be funded.
It’s not a compromise that would help Canada’s modern pentathletes, since the country is not exactly bursting with horse-riding/running/swimming/fencing/target shooters. But in the present system, by the time an athlete becomes good enough in a non-funded sport to receive funding, their career will likely be over. Meanwhile, the well-funded sports do well and receive more funding. A number of those athletes also receive private support from organizations that are free to back whomever they like. The rich get richer, etc. The ruthless focus on medals feels just a little out of step with the Olympic ideal. Then again, these are the Olympics in 2015: maybe ruthlessness and naked capitalism are the exact right ideals.