When gold is worth nothing: why government needs to better fund elite athletes

Let’s remember that we’re not talking about pampered, overpaid footballers when we suggest there is a case for an increase in funding for sport. We’re talking about people who do it for nothing.

The 42 Australian legends who signed an open letter in The Australian today calling on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to put more resources into sport are not interested in the superstars of the NRL or the AFL. Or Australia’s extremely comfortable elite cricketers. Or Super Rugby or A-League players.

They’re talking about the athletes who train at night, often exhausted after a full day at work. The kids whose parents drag them out of bed at 4am and drive them across town to train before school. The athletes who pay for their own gear and transport and accommodation and a host of other expenses involved in competing in elite sport.

Athletes such as Chloe Esposito, who brought a smile to the face of the nation when she won gold in the modern pentathlon at the Rio Olympics.

Esposito was the flavour of the month for about a month. Welcomed home as a hero, celebrated around the nation, then forgotten. No big-money contract, none of the lucrative sponsorship deals that footy players attract.

Esposito is soldiering on, determined to again compete for gold at the Tokyo Olympics, in her demanding sport which involves fencing, show jumping, swimming, shooting and running.

She lives and trains in Hungary, to be close to international competition, with her father as her coach. Her husband is back in Australia working and her mum is helping to finance it all by running the family business, a learn-to-swim school in southwest Sydney.

Doing the hard yards … Chloe Esposito on her way to an Olympic gold medal in Rio. Photo: Getty Images

These are the sort of people who inspire the nation with their exploits, feed our reputation as a healthy, optimistic country, help to build a culture that fights obesity and disease. They are the people who bring Australia together and help to develop bonds of friendship around the world in a way that diplomats often can’t manage.

But they are also people who have lives to live, families to support, futures to establish. People who may well decide that it is all too much like hard work trying to continue as an elite athlete with no financial support and they need to give it away and get on with their lives.

Government funding for high-performance athletes has been falling for decades, just as the cost of competing on the world stage has increased. Meanwhile, rates of childhood obesity and other issues that flow from lack of physical activity are soaring.

Australia is traditionally a nation of outward-looking, physically active people who look to our sporting heroes for inspiration. Legends such as Don Bradman, Dawn Fraser, Ian Thorpe and Herb Elliott are part of who we are. And we are united and uplifted by the performances of our current sports stars.

Relatively modest increases in the amount of taxpayers’ money we provide to support them will be a tremendously valuable investment.

Newsaaron chuah