Hang-gliders in space races. Or just flap your arms, really really fast
Sorry for the silent week, once again. The last embers of a dying year command attention! The good news is that I'll have much more time on my hands next year, at least at first...so the posting frequency will rise substantially in the new year!
For today, since it's Friday, and not many people read the emails over the weekend, I thought I would do a short post on a story that has been reported on widely in the last week, and which is based mostly around my other sports-passion - that of sports management.
You'll recall that the Beijing Olympics brought a great deal of discussion around high performance sport, and what it takes to succeed in Olympic competition. South Africa (my country) highlights this by doing the exact opposite in most situations to what should be done. So we are the model for anti-high performance sport by our own example.
But the UK had its best Olympic Games in 100 years, an incredible achievement considering the competitive nature of world sport and the fact that the Chinese in particular have emerged so strongly as a sporting superpower. And with the 2012 Olympics heading to London, UK Sport are turning their attention to 2012. And this past week, they announced the funding figures for 2012.
UK Sport funding for 2012 - enormous investment, 'no compromise'
The figure announced, according this excellent and detailed article, is 550 million pounds, an incredible investment that will have caused tremendous debate within the UK. The investment into high-performance sport is always contentious, and one of the problems we have here in SA, of course, is that as a developing nation, government spending must be prioritized on many more pressing social issues, like employment, education and health-care. I certainly agree with that, but spending is of course, relative, and even with those considerations, sports spending here in SA is very low. More than this, it is the application of the funding, and the return generated on those investments that should be questioned. An investment of say R100million can be justified if it is effective. In South Africa, R100 is wasted when spent on sport in the current climate.
That debate around spending on high performance sport was ignited in the UK this past week. For an excellent discussion on it, this article from The Times is well worth a read.
The UK policy is one of "no compromise" - sports with medal hopes are supported, those with slim chances are rather ruthlessly culled. This is the next cause for debate. Take athletics, for example. Given that the UK fared "disappointinly" in Beijing's Bird Nest, UK Sport have cut the funding by 5%, allocating "only" 25.1 million Pounds to the sport.
This compares to increases received by rowing, sailing, diving, swimming and cycling, to name a few. The biggest allocation was to rowing, which receives 27.4 million Pounds, up from 26 million for the Beijing Games, while cycling receives 26.9 million, a reward for the domination of the velodrome and roads of Beijing.
For athletics, it's a bitter blow. The "poor performance" in Beijing was that they won one gold, and only four medals in total. In Athens, they won five medals, including three gold. But two of those gold were won by Kelly Holmes, one of the great athletes of the Games. Still, they had projected five medals in Beijing, and failure, by one medal, was enough to see changes in UK athletics. The performance director was released and replaced, and new allocations of funding made almost before the athletes had hung up their medals after returning from Beijing.
That approach - the tough, no compromise approach draws many critics. Some will argue that if a sport is performing poorly, increased investment is required. In business, one might decide to invest heavily in the hope that a poorly performing unit can become profitable. UK have taken the opposite approach, the equivalent of "selling off". Not quite, however, because the amount given, 25.1 million, should still allow athletics to put into place structures and systems that can begin to convince higher authorities that they are worthy of more funding in the future. The balance between wasteful over-investment and punishment is a fine one!
You can see a table of all the sports codes, and their allocations at this site.
Just to put into perspective the amount being spent, in South Africa between 2004 and 2008, a total of R60 million was spent on high performance sport. The UK spent 550 million Pounds. That is 140 times more than was spent on the sport in SA over the same period.
The Australian reaction - hang-gliders in the space race
In response to this announcement, sports officials in Australia have warned that they will be unable to compete with the likes of Great Britain given that they have received less than half the allocation from the Australian Sports Commission.
In the words of Rowing Australia chief executive Andrew Dee, "We have to decide upfront whether as a nation we want to be successful. You can't join the space race with a hang-glider. If you say you are going to space, you need a spaceship. If you want to be successful, you can't then spread the funding too thinly. We need a quantum leap forward."
Winning and losing - a decision, a commitment and expertise
Couldn't have put it better myself. The reality (which may be unfortunate in the eyes of some people, I suspect), is that success at sport is a committment of time, money and people. Failure to recognize this guarantees failure to win. In the world of elite sport, you are either doing whatever is required to win, or you are likely to lose. That's not to say that if you spend money, you'll guarantee the win, because the way that money is spent is the key determinant of success. And nations like Kenya and Jamaica have shown that medals can be won "cheaply" when sufficiently talented athletes are given the opportunity to train and compete. But regardless of the system, it identifies talented athletes, prioritizes qualified, educated coaches, and supports the athlete-coach relationship. That support is where the realm of sports science enters the picture, and the UK system, like that of the Australian, the US, and the Chinese, has recognized and invested in this.
South Africa - flapping the arms
But in South Africa (to close on a note that is closer to home), we've failed on all three accounts. No one has made a firm decision, no one has committed the necessary level of support (plenty of talk goes around), and no one has bothered to recruit the right expertise at the expense of vested interests and financial incentives. Politics and other personal incentives take precedence, and the result is that sporting federations are still amateur, sports science is 15 years behind the rest of the world (sports science means more than a finger-prick lactate and VO2max test), and the athletes are permanently competing against professionals with little hope of success.
I mentioned the example of UK athletics - four medals in Beijing, instead of Five, was enough to see the Performance Director released, funding cut, and many athletes 'culled' from the funding system.
In South Africa, we went to Beijing, had the worst Olympics for 72 years, one a single silver medal in ALL sports, and little has changed. In fact, we have found a means to promote certain people, who were involved with the 'blowout in Beijing", into higher positions within SA sport.
So while the Australian enter the race with a hang-glider, South Africa stands, ready for lift-off, flapping their arms as fast as possible, because after all, if you're happy to be one of the losers when the medals are handed out, it doesn't matter much if you fail to get off the ground. And if you fall, well, it's not a long way down when you're in the basement already.
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Friday, December 05, 2008
Hang-gliders in space races. Or just flap your arms, really really fast