This has been a fascinating week for Australian sport. It started with Tiger Woods’ victory at the Australian Masters golf tournament and is ending with visceral debate about play, games, physical education and sport in Australian society. Although I have written two posts about the Independent Sport Panel’s Report I have been mindful of Todd Sieling‘s manifesto for slow blogging. He suggests that slow blogging is “an affirmation that not all things worth reading are written quickly, and that many thoughts are best served after being fully baked and worded in an even temperament”.
Slow blogging is an art at a time when the immediacy of the Internet offers the opportunity for “daily outrages and ecstasies that fill nothing more than single moments in time, switching between banality, crushing heartbreak and end-of-the-world psychotic glee in the mere space between headlines”.
David Crawford’s Review of Australian Sport has offered remarkable opportunities for comments and responses. I have taken some time to read the Report and in this post I would like to explore some of what I consider to be the important issues raised. Before I do so I need to declare some interests.
Personal Interests, Private Troubles
I have had a lifelong interest in sport and physical education. I have played, taught and coached a variety of sports and have been fortunate to have been involved in international sport since 1980. I qualified as a teacher of physical education in 1975. My own pathway in sport has been enriched by a profound sense of the educational value of physical activity and a passionate, personal, intrinsic commitment to sport from a very early age. I completed my PhD (a sociological account of teaching physical education) in the late 1980s in England at a time when teachers were withdrawing from after school activity in state schools. I witnessed at first hand the break of the umbilical connection between teachers and pupils. I believe this had immense implications for the organisation of sport and the loss of an educational ethos in physical activity. From 1978 to the present I have had a profound interest in the social and cultural aspects of sport and for over a decade taught courses in sociology and cultural studies.
My academic life gave me access to the work of Norbert Elias through Eric Dunning’s sociological approaches to sport. Elsewhere in this blog I have explored themes of play and playfulness and these aspects were nourished in me by Ione and Peter Opie‘s work as well as by Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois. Some of the early sociologists of sport encouraged me to reflect on play, display and spectacle and I was particularly influenced by Gregory Stone, Allen Gutmann and Fred Inglis. Like any student in the 1970s and 1980s I had access to many of the writings of leading Marxist thinkers. I was fascinated by John Hoberman‘s work too and much more recently by Andy Miah.
This passion for sport has infused much of my life. I am a product of sport providing a social inclusion opportunity and I hope I have not forgotten the importance that sport can play in life changing experience. Whilst at the University of York (1973) I completed what I believe to be one of the first undergraduate studies in Apartheid and Sport. This fascination with the power of sport as a form of expression continues today with my enchantment with the possibilities midnight basketball holds.
I came to Australia in 2002 to join the staff at the Australian Institute of Sport and have had remarkable access to elite sporting environments and cultures in Australia. My sport journey started standing behind the goals at Buckley Wanderers trying to save the heavy leather laced balls missed by the goalkeeper, through thirteen years of school physical education to working with the Welsh rugby team to coaching on river banks in Australia. Recently I became a member of the Board of Australian Canoeing.
I am hopeful that these private troubles (as C Wright Mills called them) have some bearing on the public issues raised by David Crawford’s report.
Just before I read David Crawford‘s report I came across Nikolai Bohlke and Leigh Robinson’s (2009) paper Benchmarking of elite sport systems. I did not have access to the full paper but noted from the summary that their research “used semi-structured interviews and documentary analysis to investigate the elite sport services offered by two successful Scandinavian sports”. They found that “a number of the services that led to the success of the two investigated systems are strongly context dependent”. they propose that “benchmarking is only appropriate as a tool to further understanding of elite sport systems if it is approached as a way of learning, rather than copying”.
So as the Crawford Report was released I was thinking about within and between sport system comparisons and the kind of evidence (and time) one might need to understand a sporting culture. I liked in particular Nikolai and Leigh’s point about learning. I found Chapter 1.1 (Defining Our National Sports Vision) of Crawford particularly interesting in setting a context for me to read the report. I was drawn to some points made on page 8:
In all, we need to consider what we can afford to invest and how we appropriately balance this investment to support a broader definition of sporting success. This will mean more explicitly defining elite sporting success in the context of prioritising those sports which capture the country’s imagination and represent its spirit and culture. These are the sports where our performance on the national and world stage is important to our sense of success as a nation.
There should be debate about which sports carry the national ethos. Swimming, tennis, cricket, cycling, the football codes, netball, golf, hockey, basketball, surfing and surf lifesaving are among the most popular sports in Australia, a part of the national psyche. Many are team sports and are the sports we are introduced to as part of our earliest education and community involvement.
If more money is to be injected into the system then we must give serious consideration to where that money is spent. If we are truly interested in a preventative health agenda through sport, then much of it may be better spent on lifetime participants than almost all on a small group of elite athletes who will perform at that level for just a few years. (Emphasis is mine.)
These three small paragraphs are the essence of the debate for me and appear to have been a raw nerve for some people’s sense of the world whilst reaffirming others’ core values. I have tried to capture the range of responses to the Report in an earlier post (Engines Started …) This introductory section (1.1) led me to think about:
- 21st century approaches to fitness and health
- How a nation state defines priorities for the allocation of the public purse
- Whether funding is a right or a privilege
- Whether history is destiny
- The imperatives for ethical sponsorship
- The advantages of a common wealth approach to social capital
I have combined these into three themes: insatiability, connectedness and deference.
For some time I have been concerned that it is possible to have an insatiable appetite for funds to support elite sport. In fact my arrival in Australia in 2002 coincided with a major dilemma for the Australian sport system … how do you progress after a successful home Olympics that was the focus of enormous investment? I still wonder if 2000 was a justifiably proud high water mark for Australian Olympic endeavour. Thereafter we had to compete with the energy of new host nations and the growing presence of the United Kingdom with significant financial resources at its disposal. Australia shared its expertise with the United Kingdom post-Sydney Olympics and many other nations warmed to the Australian model of success. It seemed to me that the only way to compete with these nations was to assume all Olympics were home Olympics so that Australia could resource a small demographic with sufficient long-haul training and competition opportunities.
I believe the Crawford Report provides an opportunity to debate these issues in a transparent way. I think the Report makes a strong case for “a nationally agreed plan for sport which encompasses all relevant areas of government and engages all tiers of government” (Summary of Findings 2.1 point 6). What interests me in particular is the timescale is required to agree and operationalise a plan that impacts on our lived (rather than aspirational) experience of sport in Australia. The development of a national policy requires stability of political will. This is exactly the problem facing young scientists in the World Economic Forum … how do you develop an ecologically sound energy policy for 2030 when there will be multiple changes of government in that time scale?
I believe fervently in a sustainable sport system that is funded ethically and that has an educational vision. I believe that the essence of sustainability (as an alternative to insatiability) is the family and the local community. I live in a rural community near to Braidwood in New South Wales and am becoming more and more aware of how a community can include and support its members. Local communities have local heroes and these have enormous influence over behaviour. Successful communities are connected and grounded.
I take another key message from the Crawford Report to be how Australia wide connections can be made. If we are to have a vision for a healthier Australia then it must start in the family and at school. Any policy must deal with rural and regional Australia as well as urban and metropolitan Australia. These issues were at the fore of the recent SEGRA Conference in Western Australia. I think there are very important messages in the Crawford report about capacity, educational policy, access and inclusiveness that should stimulate our discussions about connectedness.
There is enormous sense in having a national service for elite sport as there is for having a national approach to voluntary effort. I do believe that one of the major (unintended) consequences of resourcing full-time positions in sport has been for volunteers to think that paid staff can deal with all eventualities. This is a time, as Charles Leadbeater suggests, to think of working with one another and thinking of pebbles rather than boulders.
I think a connected system that has a scalable collaborative ethos can achieve remarkable outcomes. In a sustainable sport system it will be the aggregation of effort that makes optimum use of human and financial resources. This necessitates our whole sport system accepting that there is an alternative to zero sum models of sport success. This alternative goes beyond the social traps identified in the tragedy of the commons.
There are numerous descriptors for the behaviours of voracious individuals and groups. I believe the Crawford Report invites us to reflect on possessive individualism and to contemplate a non zero sum approach to the flourishing of the sport system. Robert Wright has written about non zero as the logic of human destiny. He shares insights into reciprocal altruism that resonate with ideas developed by Peter Singer.
This to me is the ultimate challenge in the Crawford Report and the Prisoner’s Dilemma for our sport system. What if we can transform all the energy we invest in sport to enable all Australians to flourish? What if we take this one step further and have a global approach to sport as an ethical domain in which activity flourishes and that our part in it is to contribute to sport as a form of mutual recognition. What if sport will be about the triumph of the human spirit and its continuation as a life choice possibility throughout the twenty first century when we will face much more important challenges than whether we win gold, silver or bronze. Some years ago, Bill Clinton observed that:
The more complex societies get and the more complex the networks of interdependence within and beyond community and national borders get, the more people are forced in their own interests to find non-zero-sum solutions. That is, win-win solutions instead of win-lose solutions…. Because we find as our interdependence increases that, on the whole, we do better when other people do better as well – so we have to find ways that we can all win, we have to accommodate each other.
I have really enjoyed the opportunity to reflect on David Crawford’s Report. Over the last few days an editorial comment from The Age has kept intruding in my thoughts.
Australians will celebrate any gold medal won in 2012, even if it is in a sport they never think of between Olympics and even if it is won by someone they have not previously heard of and might never hear of again. Nor can anyone begrudge individual athletes their success. But, as the report notes, the present system funds such success at the rate of $15 million per gold medal. The nation’s self-esteem is surely neither so low nor so brittle as to require this level of investment, and it is money that in some instances could be more wisely spent. A shift to funding high-participation sports at grassroots levels might not result in the same surge of collective euphoria every four years, but it would contribute in a more sustained fashion to national wellbeing. (My emphasis)
I am hopeful that the educational possibilities contained in the Report, the suggestions about using existing facilities more effectively, and the valuing of local heroes are celebrated and ultimately accepted by the Government. Late in the evening here in Mongarlowe I am wondering if we have found something in the Crawford Report rather than lost something.
The aggregation of our efforts in Australia is possible and I do believe it is our pathway to sustainability. We can be a non zero sum sport system if we have the collective courage and the political will.