With the Australian Olympic team on track to win no more than 30 medals in Rio, taxpayers are shelling out at least $20 million for each of our athletes that make it onto the podium.
The Federal Government stumped up around $380 million in the last four years to fund the development of this year’s Olympic team.
But according to one of the country’s most respected sports researchers – Professor Brian Stoddart – the total cost to taxpayers is closer to $600 million after distributions of more than $200 million from state and territory governments are included.
That means the average cost to taxpayers for a medal in Rio exceeds $20 million – a price most of us seem prepared to pay.
Despite the cost, public support for taxpayer funding of elite athletes has hardened in the last four years, according to a new survey.
An Essential Media poll conducted during the first week of the Rio Olympics found that only 38 per cent of Australians think that taxpayers are pumping too much cash into high performance sport.
That’s a sharp contrast to four years ago when 58 per cent of survey respondents said government funding was excessive.
The Essential Media poll also found that 51 per cent of Australians believe that winning gold medals at this year’s Olympics is “important”.
Only 43 per cent said it wasn’t.
Money well spent?
The table below shows how federal government money has been distributed to different Olympic sports since 2012.
It does not include the $200 or so million that was committed by state governments to their own institutes of sport.
While many experts have panned the swimming team for its “disappointing” collective performance in Rio, the table shows that the cost of the 10 medals won by our swimmers was inexpensive compared to most other sports.
Each medal won in swimming events carried an average price tag of $3.3 million to federal taxpayers.
Most of Australia’s other medal-winning sports required far more federal cash to achieve success, with each of the medals won by rowers costing the national government $9.3 million and shooting $7.6 million.
If our men’s basketball team is able to break through for a medal on Sunday it will have come at a cost of $24 million to the federal government.
That’s how much federal taxpayers – through the Australian Sports Commission – were tapped to fund both basketball teams in Rio.
Our gold medal-winning women’s rugby sevens team probably delivered taxpayers their best return.
Taxpayers funded only around 5 per cent of the team’s Rio budget, with the sport’s peak body, the ARU, picking up the lion’s share of the tab.
Should sports funding be cut?
According to many leading sports researchers there is little evidence to show that the success of Australian athletes in elite competitions produces tangible improvements in public health.
For example, between 1990 and 2012, the incidence of Type 2 diabetes among Australians almost tripled from 1.5 per cent to 4.2 per cent.
Moreover, data published by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare shows the number of overweight adults has grown by ten per cent since 1995.
Professor Brian Stoddart, a leading sports researcher and former vice chancellor of La Trobe University in Melbourne, believes governments have legitimate grounds for reviewing the amount of funding sports receive.
“The reasons given for the spending largely goes untested,” he said.
“Whether they concern benefits to public health or soft diplomacy arguments, it is difficult to find the supporting evidence.”
However, Prof. Stoddart said federal governments have not subjected sports funding to the same scrutiny as other areas, such as education and health, because of the perceived political implications.
He also questioned why more than half of federal taxpayers’ dollars allocated to sport went to high-performance programs, rather than programs that promoted community participation.
“The argument is usually put that there is a trickle-down effect to the community from investing most of the money at the high-performance level,” he said.
“It’s difficult to make the case that this is what happens.”