Race for a better way to fund our emerging athletes

By: Patrick Walker   |   CEO, Australian Sports Foundation   |   https://sportsfoundation.org.au/

On the eve of the Tokyo Olympics, it’s been revealed many of our nation’s top athletes are facing severe financial hardship. Here Patrick Walker, CEO of our leading non-profit sports philanthropy and fundraising body, the Australian Sports Foundation, outlines the scale of the problem and the search for a new funding model.

We’ve uncovered an uncomfortable truth; most of our best and brightest sporting stars are living below the poverty line and without a major correction to how we fund sports in Australia, 1 in 5 will be forced to retire early.


Sport is an important part of our identity as Australians.

When the major global events come around – the soccer or rugby world cups, the Ashes, the Olympic and Paralympic games – it brings people from diverse backgrounds and communities together in a way that little else does. The performance of our representatives at these events can raise our national spirits and inspire our kids to want to run like Cathy Freeman or swim like Ian Thorpe.

Our elite sportsmen and women are the best of the best in their chosen sport, and most of us probably assume that they are well-rewarded financially. We might also imagine they will be leading a cosseted existence with everything carefully arranged to enable them to perform at their absolute best when the time comes. Yet outside of the major professional codes, and a tiny handful of superstars in other sports, this could not be further from the truth.

With the deferred Tokyo Games less than 50 days away, our report The Impact of Covid-19 on Australian Athletes has laid bare the financial struggles, the sacrifices and the hardships facing our elite Olympic and Paralympic athletes; it also uncovers a huge reliance on family support, and the devastating impact that Covid-19 has caused through its disruption of our athletes’ already short careers.

Let me share just a few facts arising from the survey, which obtained responses from our survey of over 500 athletes, more than 80 percent competing at national/international level in sports such as swimming, hockey, rowing, volleyball, gymnastics, and the like. The report found, even before being impacted by Covid-19, that:

Including both sport and outside work, most athletes (57 percent) earnings were still below the minimum wage ($39,000). Indeed, over 43 percent of our international representatives earn less than $23,000 a year from all sources…barely enough to meet the costs of living, let alone of training and travelling to competitions.

Most of our representative athletes needed to have an outside job (often part-time or casual so they can combine it with their training commitments) to make ends meet.
It is perhaps not surprising that a staggering 79 percent of our international competitors are financially supported by their families. This means that the Bank of Mum and Dad is largely funding our Olympic and Paralympic dreams. It also raises important questions of equity, as those from poorer backgrounds will be disadvantaged and may be lost to their sport altogether. Is sport in Australia really a level playing field, where talent and desire combined is all that matters?

Our report outlines that most of our athletes are living a subsistence level existence, juggling training with work commitments to make ends meet, and often cutting corners on things that are critical to maximising performance, like recovery time and good nutrition, because of these multiple demands. And sadly, those from better resourced families have a chance to fulfill their potential, while those who are not so fortunate may not.

Understandably, the impact of Covid-19 simply added to this bleak picture.

Our athletes suffered financially because the absence of sport meant no prize money, reduced sponsorships and lower grants. On top of this, many lost their paid employment because it was in sectors hit hard by the pandemic, such as hospitality and entertainment. But it is the disruption to already-short careers that has perhaps been the biggest challenge.

Our athletes reported a significant negative mental health impact due to the ongoing uncertainty and they told of the blow of missing out on what may be a once in a lifetime opportunity to compete at a world championship or an Olympic Games, or of being forced to cut back on their sporting commitments to relieve the burden on families hit by the pandemic.

Overall, close to 20 percent of our international competitors stated they were contemplating retirement due to a combination of disruption and sustained financial pressure. This could have a huge impact on our prospects at imminent international events. More concerningly it could deprive our emerging athletes with those vital role models and mentors, and our kids could lose the next generation of inspirational heroes.

So what’s the solution?

While there’s no simple panacea, we think many of you will agree that our athletes deserve better support to enable them to compete on a level playing field with better-resourced competitors. The ASF already helps hundreds of aspiring and competitive athletes by enabling donors to make tax deductible contributions to support the athlete of their choice. So Australians can give a helping hand to an athlete from their favourite sport, or from their region or community if they so wish. But much more needs to be done to help our representative and emerging athletes receive the financial support they need to fulfill their potential and compete with the best in the world.

In the end, the most uncomfortable truth is a safer companion than a pleasant falsehood. With less than 50 days to go, we cannot make a huge difference to our performance at Tokyo. However, in 10 years’ time we will very likely host the 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Brisbane; we need to start developing a sustainable funding model, so today’s talented 10–15-year-old athletes are given the best chance to shine on the global stage in 2032.

To read the full report or find out more, please visit covid.sportsfoundation.org.au.

Jun. 10, 2021

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