Gordon Campbell on the future funding of Olympics sport

olympics, new zealand, kiwi, greece, ancient olympics, vase, urn, running

So the Olympics has come and gone amid the usual “These were the best Games ever” accolades that seem the automatic verdict issued every four years, with Atlanta in 1996 being the exception that proves the rule. How did New Zealand do? For the record, New Zealand reportedly came in either 16th or 18th in terms of the medals won (with the difference seeming to come down to how you weighted the results for gold/silver/bronze) 20th in terms of medals per GDP size, 4th in terms of medals won per population and interestingly, a relatively distant 35th in terms of the medals won in proportion to the size of the team that we sent to London – which, according to our Olympic chef de mission Dave Currie, consisted of 184 competitors in London and 140 support staff. That team size figure will be of interest to Sports Minister Murray McCully, who presides over the allocation of $60 million annually for high performance sport in this country. Already, it has been announced that spending on high performance sport will be frozen for the next two years. Once the closing ceremony hangovers have worn off, some sporting codes may be in for a hard time.

Some news outlets have emphasised (“Oarsome!”) the disproportionate contribution that rowing made to our team’s success in London, with three of the five golds and five medals overall (out of our total of 13) being won on the rowing course. Looking across the starting line-up in most of the rowing “A” finals it was striking how much the fields were dominated by competitors from Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. Africa, Asia and the Middle East were all but invisible within a regatta that tended to resemble what the Olympics movement looked like 50 years ago.

On the other hand, rowing and sailing – where we did so well – also happen to have been the sports selected by American statistician Nate Silver (in a column written before the Games began) as the two most ‘open” sports on the Olympic roster of sports. These are the sports that (theoretically at least) offer the most medal winning opportunities to countries other than those that have traditionally dominated the sport. Assuming of course, the technology to perform at top level is available, and/or affordable.

Murray McCully, please take note. Silver’s column homed in on how a cash strapped nation might try to maximise their medal winning potential by focussing on three related elements:

The first [element] economic balance, shows the wealth of Summer Olympics medal winners — as measured by their countries’ per capita G.D.P. — since 1996, the year my analysis begins. The second one, competitive balance, indicates how much a sport is dominated by a few countries. The final measure, medal abundance, indicates the number of medals awarded per competitor. The formula basically comes down to finding a sport that is cheap to compete in, isn’t already dominated and gives out a disproportionate number of medals. It suggests how an upstart Olympic nation can reach the podium a few times more often. The average medal winner comes from a country with per capita G.D.P. of $27,000 in today’s dollars, which is well above the worldwide average of around $11,000.

Snap! New Zealand’s per capita GDP in 2011 was $27, 668. We’re right on the average per capita earnings for medal winning, so no excuses on that front. All we have to do now is choose the sports that we invest in carefully. On the London statistics, the hotly and widely contested sports such as athletics (where we won a solitary silver medal) and swimming may not be the wisest ones in which to allocate our resources. (Despite our relative failure in the men’s and women’s triathlons in London, we do have prior form in that area, and should persist.) The cheapest to invest in, least already colonised sports with the most medals per contestant on offer? On Silver’s analysis these were wrestling, taekwondo and weight lifting. McCully would probably add BMX biking.

MMP Review
The initial report of the MMP review is reportedly out later today, with trade-offs rumoured to be possible between the 5% threshold and the electorate seat ‘coat tail’ effect. The item to watch out for is the ratio of list seats to electorate seats. Since the SM (supplementary member) model was firmly rejected by voters at the last election it will be outrageous if there is any significant change in that direction. More on this tomorrow.