Getting everyone to play nicely

Getting everyone to play nicely

25 Nov 2009

russell-hoye-thumb Assoc. Professor Russell Hoye, Email:
Assoc. Professor Matthew Nicholson, Email:

The intense debate over the legitimacy of maintaining funding for elite sport sparked by the recent release of the Crawford Report on the future of Australian sport raises an interesting question: Does funding elite sport, particularly Olympic sports, lead to increased sports participation by the average Australian?

The data for sport spectatorship certainly seems to support the Australian Olympic Committee’s view of the importance of sport to Australians and the place of sport in Australian culture. However, the same is not true for sport participation. The Australian Bureau of Statistics data for participation in organised sport or physical activity through a club or association in 2005-2006 indicates that 29.0 % of males and 26.0 % of females aged 15 years and over participate at least once a year. Regular participation was defined as participating more than twice per week; 29 % of the population claimed to be regular participants.

The more precise and frequently collected source of participation data is the Exercise, Recreation and Sport Survey (ERASS), administered by the Standing Committee on Recreation and Sport. The ERASS data for participation in organised physical activity (sport, exercise or other physical activity) at least once annually show that 40.8 % of Australians aged 15 years and over chose to do so. This quickly falls to 28 % for weekly participation and 12.1 % for three times a week or more, the rate considered to be the minimum to deliver physical health benefits. Only 25.3 % of Australians participate at least once a year through a sport or recreation club or association. This figure falls to 16.9 % for weekly participation, and to 6.3 % for three times a week or more.

The ERASS data also show that Australians participate far more in non-organised physical activity than club-based sport and have been drifting toward this form of participation in increasing numbers over the last decade, but the overall level of participation in any form of physical activity is far too low.

The discussion paper on the future of Australian sport released in May 2008 by the Rudd Labor Government (the precursor to the Crawford Report) cited some damning statistics: “In 2004-05, 70 % of Australians aged 15 years and over were classified as sedentary or having low exercise levels. No improvements have been seen since exercise levels were measured in 1995. These low exercise levels have been a major contributor to Australia’s current status as one of the world’s most overweight developed nations”; at the same time as we have enjoyed our greatest period of Olympic success.

Federal government policy specifically targeted toward encouraging Australians to be active sport participants has shifted over the last 30 years from an emphasis on building spaces and facilities (community facility funding program), to mass media campaigns (Life. Be In It), to an emphasis on school-based programs (Aussie Sports, Active Afterschool Communities Program, and an inquiry into PE and sport in schools), to club-based programs (Targeted Sports Participation Growth program), and an integrated approach via Active Australia. The majority of these have targeted school-aged children rather than adults and most have only lasted 3 to 4 years before being curtailed or discontinued altogether.

As the recent debate has highlighted, there remains a continuing tension between elite and participation funding with elite sport consistently receiving a far greater portion of federal government funding than community sport. It is clear to us that this continued support of elite sport has not led to more Australians participating regularly in sport, and in fact, the various policies enacted to address participation levels in organised sport and other forms of physical activity in Australia have been largely unsuccessful, especially in comparison to elite sport achievement and outcomes for Australian sport over the last three decades.

While Australians are keen sport watchers, they do not exhibit the same enthusiasm for active participation in organised sport, or indeed other forms of physical activity. Addressing this imbalance will require a comprehensive policy that attacks the recurring issues of providing an adequate amount of appropriately designed PE curriculum to all children, reconfiguring the nature of the sport experience on offer to Australians of all ages (not just school age children), and developing an efficient and effective structure for the Australian sport delivery system: precisely what the Crawford report argues is needed.




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