It was whilst reading a piece on the Slog regarding the Olympic legacy or lack of it, that I was reminded in one of the comments of a heated conversation I had after the Olympics with my brother who was also a track cyclist many years ago – this is not about cycling it is about an aspect of sport in general that has come about in our quest for medals whether Olympic or any other.
I don’t like going back in time to when these things were relevant to me but it is the only way I can readily explain where I’m coming from. In my sport at the time – 50s 60s – there were amateur and professional riders, professional riders were those who could make the jump from amateurism and attempt to make a living out of the sport if they were good enough. The road riders would join a sponsored team and be paid a wage or retainer and any winnings or outside appearance money, track riders rarely had big sponsors and relied on winnings and any ancillary earnings.
If you were an amateur nobody paid you or supplied you anything other than say exchanging a few prizes won for cash (illegal) and for the top riders some under the counter appearance money was available (illegal) , the same state applied to runners and many other sports. At least cycling had a professional outlet for the best, as say with boxing.
At the same time, there was the emergence of the eastern block who didn’t have a professional class but took it upon themselves to win lots of medals to boost the nation’s standing (sound familiar) by basically supporting athletes, putting them in pretend jobs so they remained “amateur” and the state supplying the best facilities coaching and everything else necessary – yes including drugs – needed to win medals.
Now we, as impoverished amateurs who even had to pay travel expenses in order to represent our country, thought all this was a bit one sided but plugged on anyway and although oceans of medals didn’t come our way at Olympics or world championships in many ways as “amateurs” those that did were much appreciated and the individual concerned had to admired for what was in many cases a David and Goliath act of achievement.
Of course this brings us back to the “that was then – this now” point of view on it all. As amateurs, what we lacked was any sort of coaching system other than those good well meaning souls who gave up their time unpaid to give what they could and even more, the almost total lack in many sports of even basic good facilities i.e. swimming pools, cycle tracks etc etc to train on and even those that did exist were often sometimes involved in a hundred mile round trip to use and few people had cars then. Tough shit I hear you cry – after all that’s how it was, agreed.
Fast forward to today and there is no such thing as an amateur anymore. All sport is classed as open – basically if you’re good enough, you can make a living from your chosen sport – in the case of football for instance a very good one – but of course football, unlike other minority sports, is self sustaining. A lot of people pay a lot of money to view either at the ground or on TV.
The same to a lesser degree applies to other sports that attract sponsorship because of the viewing figures and whether you like or not, some sports do not attract enough spectators or sponsorship money to be able to support a professional class of athlete.
Is this wrong? No, you choose your sport normally because you enjoy doing it and competing and you accept the status quo.
To use an analogy, I will use my own sport as an example. In cycling, with very few exceptions, in this day and age if you want make money out of it you ride on the road. Track cycling – sadly – is not the world spectator sport it once was. The reason we and Australia are so successful at this moment of time is the fact the riders are state sponsored, lottery and tax payers money is paying to bring us medals.
None or very few of these track riders would have got where they are without the elite program that gives them the means to a profession, in all they do other than actually earn a living from it as a “professional” would have to. II’m not saying that these athletes are making a fortune but non the less they don’t work in the normal sense and everything of the best is provided free to them of charge.
Again it sounds familiar – everybody can have a view on this the payment in money and kind to pursue your chosen sport at the tax payers expense, but now it’s gone further than that – squads of talent hunters are now selecting people on the strength of physical make up and other factors to compete in sport in the belief they can be turned into medal winners, this minus the drugs we hope.
It is no different to what the eastern block did all those years ago, albeit the persuasion is a little different.
At the end, of course, there is another twist as highlighted by the recent announcement that Paula Radcliffe was to receive no more funding at her age, not having run for what seems like years and being a multi millionaire on the back of huge appearance fees. What is she doing getting tax payers money anyhow – she is or was a full time professional?
Many others in other sports are in the same position. As the comment that triggered this piece says and I condense what is there – the lobbying for funds as an expectation started immediately after the games had ended – a whole industry has been born. It’s a pity it’s an industry that can only absorb cash with no end product to be sold here or anywhere else that would regain any investment.
You will hear endless waffle about benefits but they are extremely tenuous, even more so for those state sponsored athletes in sports that could never give them a living in normal circumstances. To take it to the absurd, perhaps we should state sponsor F1 for all those who fit the profile of F1 drivers today – small and light – I’m sure there are many who could be turned into champions.
I have always enjoyed a lot of different sports and am fully aware what is involved in getting to the top but do we really need to set up an industry using ever more public money to win bucket loads of medals most of which have no meaning outside those involved in the particular sport and to enable politicians to grandstand on the back of it.
I’m sure, to many, this will sound a sour and miserable piece. It isn’t in the sense that I wish all who compete every success in all the sports they partake. I know what it means, I just do not see other than from the standpoints I have highlighted it should be state sponsored to the extent indicated. However much I enjoy seeing the Aussies beaten at anything I would rather it was not with the current system, successful as it is.
I was going to do a piece on the endless extension of events, new events and completely meaningless events, including the ridiculous gender equalizing of events etc, but I will leave that for another day.