Growing up, Ashleigh Werner had a dream of representing Australia in the Olympic Games, but you might say that over the years she has had some trouble picking just one sport to compete in.
As an Australian, I was brought up to believe that sport was in our blood, that it was our birthright and the natural order of things was that we were on top with daylight second, third and fourth.
It was the 1990s when I was in primary school and that brought with it the success of the 1998 Commonwealth Games, the dual triumphs of the Wallabies and our cricketers winning their World Cups in 1999, and of course, the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Add on any number of rugby league victories, our hockey teams winning back to back Olympic gold as well as our incredible swim team, and you can see why a child of the 90s might have gotten the idea that we were unbeatable.
But all of that changed in the 2000s. Not straight away, but slowly over time, a vicious truth that wouldn’t be fully visible until 15 or so years later emerged.
Phil Kearns’ open letter to The Australian, signed by around 40 other legendary Australian athletes decrying the current state of funding, is only the tip of the iceberg. Australia’s smaller sports have been struggling for years, operating off the smell of an oily rag and the hope that things could get better.
As a handball player, and as a director on the Handball Australia board, I’ve experienced this first hand for nearly ten years.
It’s a sport not so popular in Australia but huge in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. The idea is to throw the ball in the goal, with the ability to run and bounce like in basketball, but also being able to tackle. We have only qualified for the Olympic Games once, at Sydney 2000, however since then each of the men’s and women’s teams have competed at half a dozen World Championships each.
To reach World Championship level is an impressive feat in itself, but even more so when you consider that since the Sydney Olympics, Handball Australia and its national teams have received zero dollars in funding from the government. At the end of 2016, the men’s and women’s national teams began to receive four year’s worth of funding from the Australian Olympic Committee, something we are hugely grateful for, and something that has helped enormously
But even then, that means each national team is operating off $12,500 per year. This is not a criticism of that funding – what the AOC has given us is a godsend – but when each team has a squad of around 20 players, there’s only so far it can go.
And it’s the players who have to make up the gap. Next month, I will be part of the team which will travel to Japan to compete at the Asian Championships where a top-five finish will see us progress to the World Championships in 12 months’ time.
This is a realistic goal and one I think we will achieve, but with each player having to pay $4500 out of their own pocket to go, how long will we be able to sustain this level of competitiveness?
This has been my experience in handball for as long as I can remember, and credit to the players, they just get on with it and do it. We are run entirely by volunteers and have no paid staff, however everyone does a terrific job. And this extends to our national team coaches, who are also unpaid. Quite simply, we just can’t afford to pay anyone.
The easy solution – to go out and get sponsorship – isn’t quite so simple. The fight for dollars is tough and when you’re a lesser-known sport, the appeal to businesses just isn’t there. Who’s going to see it? Why would I invest in something I’ve never heard of? These are both very common and understandable questions to those unfamiliar with the sport.
But when you’re run by volunteers and everyone has to hold down jobs outside the sport, you also simply can’t put in the time other sports can into engaging with potential partners.
And this doesn’t just affect the national teams, but it also makes it incredibly difficult to grow the sport. At a grassroots level, we don’t have any money to hire a local hall or oval, to absorb the cost so we can run ‘come and try’ days to get kids involved with local clubs.
Not just that, everyone has to take time off work to run them, and because we have limited resources to promote the events, we don’t know how many will turn up.
Registration fees are a large part of what keeps clubs and sports going, and so given our circumstances, our ability to grow the sport and our financial base is severely hindered by a lack of government funding. Instead of being exposed to a sport they might enjoy, kids are instead missing out because we don’t have the resources to reach out as often as we would like.
Next month in Japan is the start of our build up to Tokyo 2020. We will compete at the Asian Championships in December, before hopefully the World Championships and Asian Olympic qualifying event next year. The latter will give us the opportunity to either qualify directly for the Olympics or alternatively take part in further qualification events that could be anywhere from Norway to Algeria or Argentina.
I’ve been around the sport long enough to not keep my fingers crossed when it comes to government funding, but if each trip comes in at $4500, it’s going to be hard to see how we can keep putting our best teams, if any, on the court at those events.