Australian Olympic officials cry poor while rural sport battles for the basics

AS debate rages over whether Australian Olympic campaigns deserve a multi-million dollar budget boost, sporting clubs in regional towns are fretting over whether they can afford socks for aspiring athletes.

Australian Olympic Committee officials this week blamed a disappointing London medal haul on a lack of federal funding, sparking fresh doubts about whether taxpayers are getting the best bang for their sporting buck.

Some $170 million is spent on ‘elite sport’ in Australia each year. About $100 million of that has gone towards mounting the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic campaigns. The cost of preparing and sending some athletes to London has exceeded several hundred thousand dollars each. Conservative estimates put the cost of one winning one gold medal at an Olympic games at $15 million.

They are budgets about which cash-strapped community sporting clubs across rural and regional Australia – many of which have spawned Olympic champions on a shoestring – can only dream.

Many have been waiting and hoping for a bigger slice of the funding pie since 2009, when the landmark Crawford Report controversially rebuffed a request by the Australian Olympic Committee for an extra $100 million a year.

The report instead suggested the federal government funnel $250 million a year into grassroots community sport, arguing it would help deepen the elite athlete talent pool and strengthen sport’s social role.

Sport is widely recognised as one of the distinctive characteristics of country towns and cities, shaping their social, cultural and economic foundations.

But the Western Region Academy of Sport, one of 10 in rural New South Wales charged with improving the performance of promising school-aged athletes, receives no federal government funding.

It enjoys just $150,000 a year from the NSW government and is forced to find another $150,000 from athletes, sponsorships and surrounding councils.

“Just this week we’ve had to discuss whether we can afford six new pairs of socks for the participants in one of our programs,” said the academy’s executive officer, Nancy Haslop.

“Some of the academies in Sydney get well over $100,000 more than us but councils out here can’t give us that kind of support…it’s a very difficult financial environment facing local government in regional areas.”

Of the federal government grants distributed to major sporting organisations in the 2010/11 financial year, about 75 per cent went to ‘high performance’ programs and 18 per cent went to the Olympic-focused Australian Institute of Sport.

Volunteer-run clubs also believe redirecting cash from elite programs is overdue.

Wagga Wagga Combined Hockey Association, one of an estimated 26,000 sporting clubs across Australia, needs to find $500,000 every 10 years just to repair and replace playing turf.

That bill and other yearly administration costs leave little left over for training and development.

The association’s chairperson, Nick Tanning, said strengthening the balance sheets of local clubs would improve Australia’s future Olympics prospects.

“My belief is that we won’t win those gold medals without having as many people as possible playing sport and that means the money has got to come down more to a local level,” Mr Tanning said.

“I don’t speak for everyone but that would be a pretty commonly held view because we’ve seen locally the contribution country towns can make to (Olympic level) sport.”

Professor Matthew Tonts, a University of Western Australia academic who has studied the importance of sport to regional Australia, said a greater investment would also reap social dividends.

Ploughing more money into ageing sports grounds, stadiums and swimming pools would sustain participation rates and help arrest declining regional populations, he said.

Statistics show sporting teams are as popular with children in regional towns as they are with children in capital cities; however fewer children are involved in individual sports in regional areas.

“Sport grounds are a really important place for people to meet, to interact, especially for those towns without cinemas, big shopping centres and those sorts of recreational opportunities available elsewhere,” Professor Tonts said.

“Being involved in sport is not just about the competition, it’s about all the other things attached to it and while that’s also the case in metropolitan areas, it’s magnified in regional areas.”

The federal government did not support the Crawford Report’s recommendation to invest $250 million a year in community sport infrastructure, pointing to other available funding sources.

Australia’s poor showing at the London Olympics has sparked calls for greater investment in regional sporting clubs