If sport means more to Australians than almost any other nationality on earth, why have we never had a national sports policy?
That is perhaps the most staggering point raised by businessman David Crawford’s report into sports funding.
The fireworks sparked by Crawford’s suggestion that we lavish too much money chasing Olympic medals in often arcane pursuits, and not enough on Aussies playing popular sports at grassroots level, grabbed most of the initial headlines.
But he poses much bigger, blunter and more basic questions.
Why do we play sport?
What specifically do we want to get out of it?
Fun? Friendship? Fitness? Health? Social cohesion? Community involvement? Teamwork? Participation? Competitiveness? Winning? Elite success? Money? Fame? National pride? National identity? All of the above? Or just some? And if so, which ones? And in which priority?
Then there’s the money question: depending on our responses to the above, how can we best spend the tax money we do allocate to sport?
To general amazement, no-one in this wide, brown land, certainly no government, ever seems to have formulated such straightforward queries, let alone tried to answer them.
Sport in Australia seems to have just happened.
It has happened pretty naturally, and often brilliantly, leading to remarkable international success for such a small country.
But it has happened without much of a conscious, over-arching plan.
Individual sports, and sports bodies, have organised themselves to varying degrees of efficiency and professionalism, some achieving extremely high standards.
But what about the big picture?
Everyone seems to have assumed that everyone else knows what it looks like, but no-one has actually gotten around to painting it.
David Crawford, a director of several blue-chip companies including BHP, has previously conducted wide-ranging reviews of both AFL and soccer which led to major and demonstrably successful overhauls.
It wasn’t until the federal government handed him a much wider brief – how we fund sport nationwide – that he made the discovery that stopped him in his tracks.
“I was fascinated to find out we have no national sports policy, no national sports vision, no strategic plan,” he told AAP in an interview.
“The only concept of measurement of a successful sport was the agreement implicit between the Australian Sports Commission (ASC) and the Olympic movement that we should be trying to achieve a top five performance (on the Olympic medals table).
“Where does this top five come from?
“I can only assume that post-Montreal (the disastrous 1976 Olympics where Australia failed to win a single gold medal) we had got to number five (position).
“Without any strategy, how do you make sensible decisions about how you want to spend the federal funds that are available?”
Crawford doesn’t believe Olympic medal tables are a good measure of Australia’s sporting success.
Nor does he believe aiming for a top five position (Australia finished sixth in Beijing last year and expects to slide to eighth in London in 2012) is a sensible target.
He suggests more public money should flow to the popular sports that most Australians play – like netball, football, cricket, tennis, golf and surfing – “lifetime” sports that help deliver a healthier society.
He also points to a funding bias in favour of Olympic sports, at the expense of non-Olympic sports where Australia is among the best in the world – netball is a prime example.
He believes elite sport, both Olympic and non-Olympic, is important, but it’s far from the only game in town.
Overall funding for sport should be maintained, and could be increased, he says.
“But it should be spent in accordance with an agreed national policy vision and framework which we don’t currently have.”
Responding to the AOC’s argument that mass appeal sports like cricket and AFL attract huge TV revenues denied to Olympic sports, Crawford said: “They’re only able to do that because people want to watch them.
“There is support in the community for those sports, and they use a significant part of the funds raised in supporting their junior sport.
“They remunerate their elite players, but they put money back into the development of their sport.
“Should those participants, the sons and daughters of the mums and dads who pay the taxes, should they be precluded from receiving any funds to help in the running of their local competitions?
“It’s a fair question.”
Crawford sees no sense in engaging in an Olympic spendathon with much bigger and wealthier countries like the US, China and the major European powers.
That might once have been considered important, but he notes Australia’s changing demographics.
“Twenty per cent of residents in Sydney and Melbourne weren’t born here,” he said.
“It would be interesting to get their views on whether the Olympics count, and if so in what sports?”
He advocates financial help to make sure the mums and dads who run the show at local level every weekend aren’t left out of pocket.
He has proposed a $1 billion, four-year fund to provide multi-purpose sports facilities around the country and to repair existing facilities, such as drought-hit ovals.
He has also struck a chord by suggesting a return to the good old days when PE was part of the school curriculum.
“Primary school teachers aren’t taught sports and PE now,” he said.
“They could go through their whole course without doing any sport at all.
“It was through children participating in sport in schools that I think helped significantly in the social cohesion and integration of Australia’s big wave of immigrants in the 1950s and 60s.
“We have a huge influx today, and if kids aren’t able to to play sport, you lose out on the social inclusion facet.”
Crawford says sports like athletics and cycling have missed out on huge opportunities to raise money by failing to harness grass roots support.
Up to 200,000 people take part in annual fun runs in Sydney and Melbourne alone, he points out.
“Yet how many registered members are there for athletics in Australia? Twenty thousand.”
Crawford says the issues he raises have been swept under the carpet for years, but at last they are “out there” and being talked about.
He hopes the politicians are listening.