It's a new dawn for Australian sport, with cycling set to be one of the key test cases for how the new model for government grants operates. Gone will be the nationalistic pride focus that dates back to Olympic humiliation in Montreal in 1976, replaced with a policy that puts public good and health outcomes to the fore.
The old Australian Sport Commission, now known as Sport Australia, recently announced a different tack for the way sport funding will be distributed. A decrease in the number of Australians engaging in sport and physical activity combined with fewer medals in the past few Olympics compared to Australia's heyday in international competition, looks set to be the catalyst for a seismic shift in the Australian sporting landscape.
The main thrust of the 80-page outline for Australia's sporting future is the proposed move away from chasing Olympic gold and towards a more holistic approach that encourages everyone to get involved in sport and exercise.
"While we’ll never stop striving to be the best in the world in as many sports as possible, our aspirations must acknowledge that success in high performance sport is correlated to investment and we should measure our performance using more than just the medal table." - Sport Australia (Sport 2030: Participation, Performance, Integrity, Industry*)
For cycling, this will mean a shift away from the focus on the disciplines that produce the most medals to the ones that drive engagement with the community and get more bums on cycling seats. There isn't a complete repudiation of the former position that elite level competition provides inspiration and is worthy of support. Nor should there be.
Even the most amateur level participation in a sport is reflective of what happens at an elite level. In cycling philosophies of teamwork and tactics that we see on the television filter get played out as riders 'roll' turns during a 'weekend bunchie', etiquette and rules of the road are second nature and unwritten 'rules' of the peloton.
The athletes as individuals inspire us to greater achievements, not merely by being the winners of a competition and possessing a level of talent that the average punter can't approach, but by fulfilling the ambition in the heat of competition to be better versions of themselves. Add in a bit of nationalistic fervour at being part of the winning team when an Australian wins and that's a lot of the attraction of following our nationals stars as they compete.
I'll admit to being partial on this issue within Australian cycling, I've never been a fan of the general direction of funding from the Australian Sports Commission going to Cycling Australia (CA) and then being funneled into the old High Performance Unit (now called the Australian Cycling Team). It gets even further specialised from there, with the lion's share of athletes, money and staff concentrated on track cycling, rather than more popular disciplines with the public like road cycling, BMX and mountain biking.
In particular I'm far from convinced that there are anything more than very slight motivating benefits to the public from concentrating so fully on Olympic medals. There are a fraction of the viewers that watch compared to the rest of the cycling on offer in intervening four year period but for some reason the disciplines that can win at the Olympics get the funding.
There is also very little data to support a motivating effect from Olympic medals flowing back to the general population and encouraging sporting participation**. The 'Sport 2030' report proposes that a more holistic approach is taken to achieving not just Olympic success, but health goals and grass roots participation.
Depending on how you look at it, this could be viewed as a negative result for cycling and Cycling Australia in particular. Cycling is a fringe sport on the Australian sporting scene and much of the grant money the CA receives is high performance money, earmarked for the 'Australian Cycling Team'. You take that away and the CA's main revenue stream vanishes.
53.3 per cent from the last Olympic year (2016) of CA's annual report revenue was made up of grants received from the Australian Sports Commission.
Less than a fifth of that funding was for 'Participation and General' support and if cycling wasn't an Olympic sport, it would receive a similar level of funding to equestrian (the current level of 'participation' funding for 2018-19 period is exactly the same for each sport***).
So that sounds like a disaster, with the absence of a commercially viable broad-based national competition in the vein of AFL or Rugby League, the money would dry up for cycling.
But wait, another key paragraph of the report, which is well worth the read, runs like this. It has the potential to change the Australian sporting landscape.
"An important change in delivering our target outcomes is how we define sport for the purposes of Government policy and programs. The definition of ‘sport’ will be broadened to include physical activity, as well as organised and high performance sport, reflecting ever increasing opportunities for Australians to engage in physical
activity throughout life."
This represents a opportunity for cycling. The broadening of 'sport' to physical activity includes recreational cyclists, weekend bunchies, kids rolling around the park as well as those that register for competitive racing. Perhaps most crucial of all it will include commuters who cycle to work.
By just looking at what colour medals hang round the necks of a select few every four years, cycling funding has been ignoring the great strength of the sport - its massive participation base. 11.7 per cent of Australians participate in cycling at least once a year, it's only behind walking, fitness/gym, athletics (including jogging) and swimming****.
With a concerted push from government to improve the health outcomes of Australians by engaging in exercise, cycling represents an attractive way for an increasingly time-poor and environmentally conscious population is to find exercise that fits in with their daily routine. For many that will be a local gym or local sporting field, but an equally attractive option should be the bike, which not only provides great exercise but is a form of transport and can substitute perfectly for the normal commute.
Imagine CA being funded, not to just improve the outcomes of the 55-strong Australian Cycling Team, but to help the estimated 2.3 million Australians who ride a bike and countless others who can be attracted to the cycling lifestyle. I'd be very excited to see what could be dreamed up to engage and benefit the cycling public.
There are obstacles to this panacea of funding flowing into Cycling Australia's pocket, being used to cure the bulging waistlines of the sedentary masses and provide the stories of sporting glory to inspire.
First of all, the details of the proposal are yet to be announced and on what basis the allocation of funding is going to be determined isn't set yet. Sport Australia is seeking a review of the Australian Sports Commission Act 1987. This report, 'Sport Australia 2030', is more of a launching pad, we're yet to see how the new policy will fly.
Secondly, Cycling Australia themselves will need to be nimble enough to pivot from the Olympics focus that has been the prevailing attitude of those in charge in the past. In fairness, CA have only been doing what has been asked of them by the institutions that provide their funding and I'm sure they'll be more than happy to change focus.
Recent programs like 'Let's Ride' (for kids learning to ride and now being expanded into older age groups) and 'She Rides' are encouraging starts, but limited in size at the moment compared to overall participation (a July 9,2018 press release numbered engagement at 16,500 women and children participants across every state and territory).
Cycling Australia issued a brief statement in response to the release with Cycling Australia CEO Steven Drake saying, “We support the Australian Government’s vision of a healthier, more active society with a world leading elite sports industry as an integral part of that vision."
"We would like to see a lot more people on bikes and will seek to work with Sport Australia and Federal and State governments to establish a national program of bike education to help get more Australians more active more often”.
The last issue will be whether it's going to happen at all. It's going to be a political battle between the federations to determine how the eventual funding pie gets sliced up. I wouldn't expect John Coates and the Australian Olympic Committee to take this well, for all their cautiously voiced support so far.
What's needed is an integrated focus that sees elite performance as just a part of the whole picture of a healthy Australian society. This report recognises this, and cycling can look to play a key role in making a vibrant and positive Australian sporting culture, as well as increasing its own standing within Australia.