Opinion Garry Linnell: Forget return serves, Australian athletes need to return money to taxpayers
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Garry Linnell: Forget return serves, Australian athletes need to return money to taxpayers

Garry Linnell questions if our athletes should be giving back financially, as well as just inspirationally.
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“Wow. This is incredible. Sorry, I can’t stop crying. This is a very emotional moment for me.

“All those years of hard work and now I’ve reached the pinnacle. All my dreams have come true.

“First, I’d better thank my parents. They always believed in me. My coach, too – what a genius, what a motivator. And oh, I couldn’t have done it without God, either. I thank Him for answering my prayers.

“But most of all I want to thank the Australian taxpayers. It was their generous funding that gave me access to the best training facilities. Their money allowed me to travel, to train, to be mentored by the world’s best instructors. I couldn’t have done it without you guys!

“So I think it’s only fair – now I have become an elite, world-class athlete who will earn millions in prize money and sponsorship – that I pay back the money so generously given to me by the public.”

Yeah, right.

That’s a speech you have never heard – and probably never will – from an Australian athlete.

But it’s certainly one we should be demanding.

If the muffled yawns that greeted last week’s news that Australia is likely to host the 2032 Games in Brisbane are anything to go by – and with the postponed Tokyo Olympics now looming – surely the time has arrived to reassess the way we fund elite athletes.

It has always been one of the great absurdities in Australian life; we insist that budding doctors, nurses, teachers and others who make hefty contributions to society pay back the public money that helped fund their university degrees.

The Olympics are coming back to Australia – you probably didn’t hear the announcement over all the cheering.

But athletes? They make us feel good. We get to bask in their reflected glory.

And in return for this vague and fuzzy feeling they provide, we exempt them from any HECS-style system that would involve them acknowledging our generosity.

The percentage of athletes who actually make it to the big time and pull in the big bucks might be small.

But why should talented young cricketers and basketballers be spared from paying back a portion of the millions of dollars we outlay on their emerging skills, when a graduate teacher on a starting wage of between $65,000 and $70,000 automatically begins repaying their loans in their first year?

(The compulsory HECS threshold for university graduates in this financial year is $46,620.)

Consider Ben Simmons, one of the great prodigies of Australian basketball and a recipient of an Institute of Sport scholarship in 2012.

He is on a five-year contract with Philadelphia 76ers worth an estimated $170 million. He also has endorsement contracts with brands like Nike that add tens of millions of dollars to his growing fortune.

Ben Simmons is one of our best sporting exports at the moment.

He is not alone, either. Andrew Bogut, who played for five NBA teams in his 14-year career at the top, earned an estimated $117 million.

Consider Nick Kyrgios, another Institute of Sport graduate. Now ranked 48th in the men’s tennis rankings, his career earnings currently stand at more than $8 million.

Throw in several healthy endorsement contracts and you can see why he can afford to buy $300,000 cars.

And Bernard Tomic? There have been some estimates that Tennis Australia assisted his career to the tune of about $4 million.

Not a bad investment if your aim was to nurture a world-class prat whose career has been mired in allegations of tanking and petulant behaviour.

If Tomic was a car he would have been returned to the dealership in exchange for a full refund.’’

Asking some of these top-tier athletes to pay back some of our initial investment – not to mention the many cricketers, swimmers and others who have forged lucrative international careers after being given a leg up with taxpayer funds – might not initially deliver enormous revenue.

And given our other national passion for bureaucracy and paperwork there would undoubtedly be additional administrative costs involved.

But this also happens to be a nation that has splurged hundreds of millions of dollars every year providing high-performance athletes with world-class coaching and training facilities.

In a post-COVID-19 world, every dollar will count. Why shouldn’t athletes be as accountable as the rest of us?

Besides, this is one of those cases where it’s not just about the money. The principle of the issue is more important.

Australia has had a child-like obsession with sporting excellence and too often we have preferred to admire our astonishing successes on the international stage without questioning the expense involved.

In the four years leading up to the Rio Olympics in 2016, the Institute of Sport outlaid more than $330 million on Olympic sports. There were predictions we might win up to 16 gold medals.

Evania Pelite of Australia
Our women’s rugby team was one of the surprise winners of our scant gold medals at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

Instead we finished with a meagre eight gold medals that cost taxpayers $40 million each. Using the same crude equation, the 29 medals we won overall were valued at $11 million each.

By any measure it’s a poor return on investment.

And please, don’t kid yourself that modern sport is all about “inspiring the nation” and “helping young people to realise their dreams.”

It has always been a business.

Demanding rich athletes pay us back for our support would also send a critical message – that we are a mature country that values its doctors, nurses and teachers just as highly as our sports stars.

Walkley Award winner Garry Linnell is one of Australia’s most experienced and respected journalists and editors

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