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Friday, December 05, 2008

Olympic funding discussions

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.



Anonymous said...

Thanks for your highly informative and entertaining blog: you are a unique resource for interested non-scientists in the sports world.

I read your posts on sports funding with empathy but bemusement as a Canadian. Canada makes similarly poor funding choices as South Africa in spite of greater resources and fewer mitigating social concerns. We also have what I think to be a uniquely pathetic track record, having hosted two Olympic Games (Summer 1976 and Winter 1988) with ZERO gold medals to show for them. We're hosting again in 2010 in Vancouver: hopefully Hockey or Curling (Canadian specialties) our best hope to obscure the obvious development issues.

"At what cost excellence?" is the issue here. Canadians do not support funding Elite athletes except for a short window after another humiliating result at the Olympics. Memories are short, though.

Keep up the good work, in my experience South Africans don't have the same apathetic atitude to sports.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Michael!

THanks so much for your comments. Very interesting and relevant. I'd never considered Canada as a model before (I've looked at many others - the USA, UK, Aus, CHina, Russia, Germany etc.), but never Canada, so that's really interesting.

The thing in SA, which I haven't emphasized in this particular post, is the very deliberate mismanagement of funds - it's not a question of not allocating those funds. There is enough money in SA sport to do significantly more than we do now. But the money is so poorly used. That's why I tried to raise the return on investment issue - we spend our money so badly - the SA lottery, for example, sits with R400 million in funding for SA sport. About 10% of that makes it way to the athletes. It's atrocius!

So it sounds as though our nations end up in the same place, having taken different journeys! To extend my final analogy further, it's as though you have no interest in being in the space race. We do, and a team of engineers sits waiting to enter us, but they're bypassed by our system that rather gives that money to the backpockets of "non-excellent" indviduals!

Thanks so much for the comment, and for your kind words at the top! I'm glad you enjoyed it! Let's see who is first to lose interest in Olympic sport - you or us!


Anonymous said...

Olympics is a shambles but yet we have won World Cup Rugby in 1995 and 2007 and dont fair too bad at cricket either yet we constantly criticise and whine.We are a country with diverse cultures which makes it very difficult but at sport we do excel.I agree 100% that mismanagement is happening but thank goodness we have freedom of speech to criticise and expose.Also our athletes must stop adopting a mediocrity attitude,we have exellent sporting facilities,sport scientists,sport nutritionists,coaches etc who are willing to help.At least the media in this country keep us on our toes and must keep on pushing so we can make ourselves accountable and develop a positive attitude to be the best,our rugby players do it under extreme pressure.Adopt the JFK slogan "dont ask your country what it can do for you but what can i do for my country"

Anonymous said...

Your comment on only 10% of lottery sports money getting to the athletes, do you have figures on percentages for UK, US etc? Just as a comparison to see how much is swallowed up in beaurocracy etc.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Alan

I’m afraid I disagree strongly on this one. I’ll attempt to address each of your arguments briefly.

First of all, the comparison between rugby and cricket and the Olympics is a bad one. We in SA have this idea that rugby and cricket are of equal stature ON A GLOBAL stage, and they are not. To win an Olympic medal is a massive, massive achievement, and I don’t wish to take anything away from rugby or cricket, but there really are only about 4 teams in the world who could ever win the World Cups of those sports at any given time. IN Olympic competitions, particularly swimming, cycling and athletics, there are hundreds. So to justify SA sport’s health based on a winning rugby team is disingenuous.

Also, the thing you must recognize about rugby is that SA was one of the first-movers when the sport went professional in the 1990’s. We were at the front of that revolution, and so all the ‘bells and whistles’ that go along with professional sport were right here in SA from the outset. As a result, the structures we have around rugby are totally different to those we have for Olympic sport, where we had been isolated for 20 years and fell way behind the rest of the world when it came to high performance sport. Rugby also benefits from enormous corporate involvement, as does cricket, and this is partly due to the demographic of who participates, and the professional structures and admin in place. So if we want to, we can learn a valuable lesson from these sports, and say that we have a model to try to apply for other sports.

But what you have not recognized (apart from the fact that you can’t compare them) is that this take enormous money, and that’s really what the article was about. So your opinion agrees very much with what I am saying anyway. We need to invest, and success in two “smaller” sports does not justify the shambolic administration and approach of our government to the others.

As for the cultural diversity, is that supposed to make it more difficult or easier to produce champions? Could be argued either way. Where I disagree is your comment that we "excel". How's that exactly? You need to look objectively at the performances - we are rugby world champs, yes. And the cricket team does OK from time to time. Beyond that? I'm afraid it doesn't cut it to say we "criticise and whine", because looked at objectively, we're sliding downhill very, very fast, and the only reason we still have anything like decent athletes is because we have so much natural talent. The attitude of "don't criticize" will serve only to ensure that we get worse and worse.

The next claim that the athletes have a "mediocrity" attitude is also interesting - who says that? HOw do you know it's true? Have you worked with them? Do you know them and see them in the changerooms before and after games, or during training? I agree that there are some bad eggs, and bad attitudes are always prevalent. That would not be unique to SA. But how you know they have this attitude? And what does it even mean? It's not a constructive criticism, in my view.

Your next point about the facilities and expertise is an interesting one. How do you know this? Based on what do you believe that we have the people in this country to make the differences we seek? Experience? Because I can tell you, from inside this “system”, that there are perhaps 6 or 7 scientists in this country who have the expertise to make a real difference in sport on a GLOBAL scale , and of these 7, maybe two are actually involved in SA sport (one is a guy who is involved heavily with the SA Sevens Rugby team). The rest are sitting on the outside, looking in, watching sport on TV.

The people who are involved are simply not good enough. And that’s an objective opinion, based on comparison with the calibre and training of the people who they are competing against. Just as our athletes compete against athletes from the UK, USA and Australia, so too our experts and scientists compete with those from these countries. And I can assure you, we are very, very far behind. Our science is limited to outputs from only two universities, and the science that gets applied to the athletes is abysmal, to be blunt. We are simply not good enough in this area, and it is a fallacy to suggest that we have many people, as you do. We have a few, but they are not involved in a system.

When it comes to sports medicine, we are world class, so much so that the UK has begun recruiting our doctors for their Olympic programmes. Yet these same doctors sit on the outside and mediocre ones are involved instead. So I very, very strongly disagree that we have the right people in this country.

Nor are our facilities world class. In some respects, yes. But do you know that we have fewer than five indoor, heated 50m pools in SA? IN the USA, every single University has one. We have abysmal sports science facilities, because sports science in SA is so poor compared to the rest of the world. In the UK, China and Aus, the facilities are generations ahead of what we have here. Once again, though, we have the capabilities, but they sit outside, because the money fails to find its way to the right people.

Finally, the JFK quote is interesting (taken out of context, but nevertheless). I think that there are many people in this country who would love to do something for this country. In fact, that is the reason for my passionate reply to your comment. I would love to be able to say that I “do something for SA”. Yet I can’t, my legs have been cut off, and I am marginalized by incompetence and corruption from the top, which ensures that the people who have the answer never get asked to provide it.

So JFK may be right in theory, but when the country stops listening to its people, then his great speech is fairly meaningless.


Alan Sleath said...

Olympics is a shambles but yet we have won World Cup Rugby in 1995 and 2007 and dont fair too bad at cricket either yet we constantly criticise and whine.We are a country with diverse cultures which makes it very difficult but at sport we do excel.I agree 100% that mismanagement is happening but thank goodness we have freedom of speech to criticise and expose.Also our athletes must stop adopting a mediocrity attitude,we have exellent sporting facilities,sport scientists,sport nutritionists,coaches etc who are willing to help.At least the media in this country keep us on our toes and must keep on pushing so we can make ourselves accountable and develop a positive attitude to be the best,our rugby players do it under extreme pressure.Adopt the JFK slogan "dont ask your country what it can do for you but what can i do for my country"