Give me your tired, your poor, your fast, your strong
It is a peculiar artifact of Australians’ contradictory relationship with the state that our sports policy is both socialist and elitist. After the national shame of the Montreal Olympics, when the country was in the economic doldrums, we rebuilt our sports programs on the model of the Soviet and East German systems. While we deregulated other parts of the economy, as long as this sporting dirigisme delivered medals, the largesse grew.
This has culminated over the past four years in us pouring money into sailing and rowing, neither known for passionate support among the proletariat. The archetype of an Olympic athlete today is not the bush kid with homespun technique who comes to the city and wows the game’s aldermen; it is a pampered, finely-tuned, anxiously-parented, state-sponsored ubermensch.
In the terms of sporting fables, modern Australian athletes are not your Rocky Balboas, they are your Ivan Dragos; they are not your Daniel LaRussos, they are your Johnny Lawrences; they are not the Ducks, they are the Hawks.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s we told the rest of the world, you’re not even a has been, you’re a never was. And now we are getting our comeuppance.
But in the post-mortem of our worst Olympics by medal count in nearly thirty years, we seem determined to continue to throw good money after bad. We need extra funding to catch up to the UK’s lottery investment or to even the playing field with the sinister programs of former Eastern Bloc countries that showed us the way in the first place.
Many athletes and their supporters will protest that they toil for years for little reward. And this is true. But still compared to resources available to many of their competitors, Australia’s athletes are the 1%. Over this Olympic cycle, Swimming Australia received A$37.9m, more than a million dollars for every athlete it sent to the games.
As a nation we have to question our priorities when our Treasurer is threatening to throw people off welfare to pay for infrastructure, while we double down on elite sporting programs that fail to meet our deliriously high expectations.
Children’s sporting teams have a saying for teammates who turn up with the latest equipment, the scoop bat or the carbon fibre frame, but little in the way of what Canadians call hockey sense: all the gear and no idea.
And yet there is a way to improve our lot at the Olympics which is democratic and cheap: the surest way to long-term success as a sporting nation is migration.
Forever we have prided ourselves on being at or near the top of the ‘per capita’ medal tally. And it’s true that Australia has done as well at the Olympics as much larger nations. At the same time though, many of these larger nations, say India, have not been able to afford to lavish state resources on winning gold medals. There is a very clear relationship between both national wealth and population and Olympic success. So one way to win more medals is to become richer, something that Australia has been very good at over the last thirty years. The other is just to increase the population — to increase the pool of people we are throwing into the pool.
This might seem a churlish reason to increase migration, but it is actually a variation on the best reason: migration allows those who move to express their talent to the fullest potential and just generally to live their best lives. This is as true of the Syrian doctor fleeing war, as the elite Ethiopian runner escaping persecution, or even the English marketing executive tired of bad weather. Each of those people brings their talent and skills to their Australian patients, fans and customers.
We should lift migration of all forms because it makes migrants lives better and enriches the Australian community. But it is a fact that one way some of those migrants will do that is to run, swim, throw, bowl, bat and kick.
The story of elite global sport today is a story of migration. At 13, Lionel Messi, the son of Argentine factory workers, moves to Spain to get treatment for his growth hormone deficiency paid for by a local football club, becomes a dual citizen for work reasons and goes on to be the greatest player of all time.
At 8, Mo Farah migrates with his father from Djibouti to London, having already fled his war-torn homeland Somalia. He goes to school, where he learns English and an observant PE teachers notices he runs pretty quickly. He finds a patron to pay his legal fees so he can be naturalised. And two decades after moving he gives his adopted nation one of the greatest moments in its sporting history.
Dave Simmons, a talented college basketballer, can’t crack an NBA that is leaden with more all time greats than perhaps any sporting league in history. He settles in Australia, joining its burgeoning professional basketball league where he wins a title, and his son Ben goes on to become the number one pick in the NBA draft.
Migration is a path to success, and to nation building, that takes time. Australia’s business leaders currently decry the lack of long-term thinking in Australian policy, yet many of them helm sporting bodies that rent seek on a four year cycle.
Long-term success in sport doesn’t come from funding the promising few who could grab you medals in two years’ time. It comes from growing the number of people who play your sport. The only way to get better is to increase the popularity of your sport among children and populations, like migrant communities, that have not had exposure to the game before.
This is something that our best sporting administrators, the AFL, know well and have ruthlessly implemented at the expense of other sports but to the benefit of the thousands of newcomers to their game. The AFL has welcomed migrant debutants from Ireland, Sudan, the United States, and Kenya in the last two seasons alone. Sudanese refugee Aliir Aliir, who debuted for the Sydney Swans just this year, on his current trajectory will be an All Australian by next (watch for the #aa4aa movement) and is already a hero to many.
Our mid-twentieth century sporting glory was built around long-term infrastructure investments in grassroots sporting facilities. Every country town had an Olympic swimming pool, every new suburb installed a few tennis courts. Ours was never the model of the players and gentlemen of Victorian-era sport. We made sure participation was as wide as the MCG is long. That should be the case today. And it should include as many new Australians as possible.