Like my co-Samizdatista Jonathan Pearce, and like Mark Holland of Blognor Regis, I have also been watching the Winter Olympics. In truth I find the winter Olympics to rather more fun than the summer Olympics, partly because it is genuinely a more lighthearted event with more of a party atmosphere than the summer games, and partly because power in the world is rather turned upside down. (Here is a competitor from Norway – he must be good. Here is someone from the United States of America – he will be mediocre). Mostly though, I think it is the simple insanity of many of the events that I find most enjoyable. Winter sports lead to extremes of human achievement that (a) one is amazed that they are possible, but not so much as (b) one wonders why anyone would actually do this, and how the sport was invented in the first place, for surely the first twelve people to try it must have ended up killing themselves.
Mark wonders just how Britain has a luge team, or as he puts it…
Anyway, I get to wondering how on earth a chap from Pinner decides to take up the sport. I mean, say for instance I’d been so inspired by the top luging at the Calgary Olympics that I’d immediately thought, “That’s the event for me!” where am I supposed to go from there? If I’d have gone to my games teacher, Mr “Manly” Stanley, and said, “you know how this football and rugby doesn’t interest me at all, well instead I fancy taking up sliding down an icy tube at 130 km/h whilst lying on a glorified tea tray”. What’s he supposed to do? Phone up the local British Luge Federation affiliated club? That’s not going to happen is it.
Of course, in Australia, the answer as to how and why people take these things up, is that there is an official taxpayer funded organisation that encourages them to do it. At the winter olympics, Australia tends to specialise in something called the “Womens aerials”. For those who have not watched aerials (one of the events in a wider school of insanity called “freestyle skiing”), it involves skiing down a slope, up a ramp, doing three backwards somersaults and a double twist, and then landing on the snow on your head and breaking your neck.
Actually you are not supposed to land on your head and break your neck. You are supposed to land upright on skis and continue down the mountain. Landing on your head and breaking your neck does appear to happen relatively frequently, however. Again, the question of why anyone would do this does come to mind, and the question of why the Australian taxpayer pays for it comes to mind even more. And to answer this, we have to go back to the 1976 summer olympics in Montreal. For the first time in a very long time, Australia won no gold medals. This was widely perceived as a national catastrophe. Government ministers descriped it as “disgraceful”, and it was generally assumed that the rest of the world was laughing at us with derision. (I am assuming that this is pretty much the first that any of our non-Australian readers have heard of it, but if by any chance you were laughing with derision at Australia in 1976 for this reason, I would like to hear about it). It was decided by the federal government that something had to be done about this, and a state funded organisation named the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) was set up to indentify potential Olympic medal winners and coach them to gold medal winning glory.
And at its stated aim, this seemed to work. Australia won a few gold medals in each of 1980, 1984, and 1988, and we were generally happy.
However, something happened in the world in 1989. The cold war ended. Suddenly, many experienced sports coaches with experience in running state funded success at all costs sports academies were out of work. While the United States and West Germany even did their best to poach the best scientists and engineers from the former communist bloc, Australia poached many fine East German sports coaches, and invited them to do what they had previously done best. Like East Germany and the Soviet Union, Australia was interested mainly in appearing as high up the medal table as possible, and didn’t care so much in what sports or events the medals were won. They got down to the old East German trick of identifying sports and events where the competition was weak, an concentrating on those events. (One side effect of this both in East Germany and Australia was a greater concentration on women’s events, where there was often less depth in the fields). Plus, they established an incentive scheme in which sports which won Olympic medals received increased (taxpayer) funding and those which did not had their funding cut. (In particular, Australia specialises in weird track cycling events too obscure for anyone capable of winning a stage in the Tour de France from having the slightest interest in. Like most cycling teams, the Australians have had their share of drug scandals as well).
At its stated aim of winning lots of gold medals, this scheme was hugely successful. In the summer games, Australia went from 3 gold medals in 1988 to 7 in 1992 to 9 in 1996 to 16 in 2000 (possibly boosted by home town advantage) to an utterly outrageous 17 in Athens in 2004. (In the last two games, Australia managed to finish higher than all nations other than the United States, Russia, and China). Rather than giving Australians the chance to cheer a few times in a couple of weeks, the AIS had managed to give us an East German like procession of medals. The funding system had grown out of control in terms of total budget, and the incentive sheme had led to a concentration of funding on a smaller number of more successful sports.
And, while Australian does contain mountains with ski resorts, and while substantial numbers of Australians do ski recreationally, winter sports are not something we traditionally devote a great deal of time to. However, the incentive scheme of the AIS applies to winter sports just as it does to summer sports. The same process of identifying sports with weak fields in which we might win medals went on, and one of the events that came up was the women’s aerials. This actually requires similar skills to certain gymnastic events, and the required skiing skills are only moderate. As the AIS already had a gymnastic program, retired female gymnasts were encouraged to take up skiing. And it worked, Australia produced a number of fine woman aerial skiers, which culminated in Alisa Camplin winning the gold medal in the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002. (Just as an observation, in her career Camplin has suffered a broken collarbone, broken hand, separated shoulder, torn Achilles tendon and nine concussions). As this was successful under the incentive scheme, funding for women’s aerials (and winter sports in general) was of course increased at the AIS, and Australia once again hopes to win medals in the event this year.
Thus a government program expands, even one devoted to encouraging women to do extremely dangerous reverse backflips in freezing conditions. Really.
Update: Someone in the comments has asked me just how much money exactly the Australian government spends on this. Perusal of Treasury documents gives a budget of $111 million Australian dollars (at current exchange rates that is $US82m or £47m – the Australian population is about a third of the British population and about one fifteenth of the US population) for “Excellence in sports performances by Australians” (ie elite athlete development) for the 2005-6 financial year. There is also some money spent by state governments on similar programs, but the federal expenditure makes up the bulk of it. If you (generously) assume that Australia wins 20 Olympic gold medals (winter and summer) every four years, and the budget is $110m a year, then the gold medals are costing the taxpayer $22 million each. To me that seems a lot.