Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Fitness of Nations - How is Government Money Best Spent?

It was interesting to see an editorial in the Vancouver Sun Newspaper questioning the spending of Canadian taxpayers money on Olympic sports. The Winter Olympics were a great success both in a logistical sense for Canada and in terms of medals. The Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) asked for an additional $11 million per year on top of the current $47 million.

The paper suggested that the COC had wanted to act quickly whilst the glow of success was still fresh in people’s minds. The same situation has occurred after summer Olympics in Australia and I suspect these issues come up in other countries too.

The paper noted that several medal winning athletes had said they could not have succeeded without funding. It then made the key point “…we have been buying medals. We know now that we can do it. But should we do it? Maybe the money should be spread around to give kids across the country more chances to ski, skate, hockey, curl and even bobsleigh.”

Last year an Australian Government report suggested funding for Olympic sports are reduced and monies directed more to sports with greater participation. It has been estimated that each Olympic gold at Beijing cost Australia about $15million.

Not surprisingly this call brought howls of protest from Olympic officials and athletes who not only do not want funding cut, they want more funding. One former medalist was quoted in the paper as saying how disappointed she would be if youngsters were not able to achieve their dreams because of lack of funds.

Now it is great for people to have dreams and go for them. However why should certain dreams be supported by taxpayers and others not be? If your dream is to be an Olympic athlete then significant money may be directed your way in terms of training and other support. What about if your dream is to be a musician or to be a scientist or anything other than an Olympic athlete, you have to manage on your own. Keep in mind also that Olympic medals are actually won by individuals not countries, even though medal counts are done by country.

More importantly is the issue of how government money should be spent. Given the demands on “health” dollars from lifestyle related conditions such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease and even forms of cancer, all of which are in part improved or reduced by exercise, is pouring millions into elite sports a good investment compared to putting money into facilities for more people to do sport and exercise. There is not a “trickle down” effect of fitness.

There is another aspect to this, which I saw at close quarters last year. The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) is the training ground for Olympic athletes in Australia. On a Tuesday morning tour at around 10 am there were two six year olds doing gymnastics. I asked the guide why they were not in school? Apparently they have a compressed school day of four hours from 11 till 3 sandwiched between training for six hours per day. The families are moved to Canberra so that the children are not separated from parents. The children are “picked “ as young as three for their potential in the sport.

Exactly when do these children play and whom do they play with? What if their potential is not as great as the talent scouts thought? If certain Key Performance Indicators are not met then they will be ejected from the institute. The Australian community pays for this. I know some countries are much worse than this in their quest for gold but this does not make it any better.

Putting six year olds in an institute away from their friends and robbing them of a childhood is close to child abuse in my book. The carrot of a gold medal does not change this.

If individuals want to pursue dreams, be it sport or anything else that is great. If they are able to get external support, that is great too. Governments have a responsibility to the entire community. With 75% of the disease burden being lifestyle related conditions do we really want to buy gold medals for a handful of people or do we want to use money to build facilities and provide support in communities so more children (and adults) can be physically active and encouraged to be.

How many sports balls could be bought and how many community fitness trainers could be employed for a year, for the cost of a gold medal. Being active is vital for good health. Nations will get healthier if more people do a bit of sport or exercise than if a few do a lot.

The benefits of regular exercise are many and varied. You only get the benefit if you do it. Governments, which are supposedly interested in the health of the people they serve need to think long and hard about the best way to spend their dollars.


  1. Wasn't there an uproar years ago when it was discovered how China groomed their gymnasts in squads just like how you described what the AIS is now doing? We need the Olympic role models to look up to, to aspire too, but at what cost? What are we prepared to pay. Sure we enjoy seeing the medal count and Australia places quiet well usually in both summer and winter games. Sure we get goose-bumps when we hear the National Athem played for the top step of the podium. However, it's not just the Olympics that can make me feel this way, and motivate me to achieve more. $15M to win a medal ... whose ego are we really catering too? What price are we prepared to pay when per capita Australia, that great sporting country downunder, is now populated by the fattest people on the planet? Seems that $15M gold medals are not doing a lot to inspire and motivate to move and duplicate, rather to sit, eat and spread (the waistline that is). Where does common sense for the many rule over ego-stroking of a few?

  2. Great comments Laynie.Getting more people involved in exercise and programs like The Weekly Fitness Challenge is much better for the health of the nation then gold medals won by a few watched by many sitting on couches.