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Keith Rankin: Bronze, Gold and Silver

Keith Rankin's Thursday Column
Bronze, Gold and Silver
28 September 2000

Once again, New Zealand is experiencing the biennial disappointment of athletic underachievement. Even our ratio of bronze medals per capita doesn't look that brilliant.

The radiotalkbackland solution, as always, is that we should use public revenue to invest in future Olympic "glory". But do we need glory, and must it be through sport?

This debate raises a number of important issues about the values we attribute to the various parts of our individual and collective lives.

From a utilitarian standpoint Olympic medals would appear to be of no use. Better to spend the money on something else, like education or defence, we might argue.

From a macho nationalist viewpoint, the crude medal count is interpreted as some kind of measure of a nation's mana, much as the accumulation of colonies was interpreted in the 1890s. Surely we have long since refused to be seduced by this kind of argument for public patronage of Olympic sports. Drug cheating is a logical outcome of such corporeal nationalism.

There is a counterargument though: the biceps race leads to less death and suffering than the arms race. If we must indulge in national breastbeating, let's add up our bronze medals rather than our crosses on foreign battlefields.

From an economist's perspective the consumption of Olympic success is a public good. While some of us care more than others, through the weight of those who do care, we demand Olympic and Commonwealth Games medals. That means that the majority of us would be willing to pay a share of the bill required to generate medal-willing performances.

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As with all public goods, the outvoted minority would also pay their share. Swings and roundabouts apply; we are all better off for agreeing to supply a range of public goods than we would be if we supplied no public goods.

Most economists would suggest that expenditure on public goods should be carefully targeted, and carefully audited. The criterion for sports funding might be that recipients would have, say, a 50% chance of winning at least a bronze medal. Medals of another colour would be a pleasant bonus, an achievement is excess of expectations.

I am concerned, however, that we may be misleading ourselves. Would we really feel better as a nation if we won a truckload of medals, as the East Germans used to do?

I think the medal count misses the point. For us, Olympic success is all about the achievement of a select number of very very special athletes. I include Rob Waddell as such an athlete. Likewise the 1972 rowing eight. For New Zealanders it is the legendary performances that really matter; not the quantity of medals. Bought medals would only serve to dull the memory of the medals that we really cherish. With eight gold medals in Los Angeles, who remembers the coxless four? And we have more affection for the hapless Spinning Rhombus than we would have had for the two gold medals we didn't win in Barcelona on account of his 'attitude'.

There is still another perspective. Remember the leisure society that we assumed in the 1960s would have well and truly arrived by now? I suspect that the emergence of Southern European countries at the Olympics has more to do with a better balance between leisure and work than prevails in, say, the USA.

Productivity in the economically developed nations is high enough to sustain leisure societies, meaning societies in which we are encouraged to contribute through a wide range of non-market pursuits as alternatives to paid employment. The huge productivity gains over the last 200 and more years - the gains that we call economic development - have been due mainly to collective rather than individual endeavour. Yet most of the rewards, especially since the 1980s, have been concentrated in the hands of a relatively small number of private individuals.

We could have had a leisure society if we had distributed our productivity dividends on a social basis. Instead, we allowed 'rent-seeking' individuals and governments to appropriate the public property rights that could have underpinned an egalitarian system of social capitalism.

In a system of social capitalism, taxes represent a fee for the use of 'public domain' assets such as knowledge, culture, infrastructure, institutions and the natural environment. Public revenue, the equal property of each citizen, includes, in addition to taxation, the profits of SOEs and LATEs (State Owned Enterprises and Local Authority Trading Enterprises).

Public revenue can be distributed according to the principle of horizontal equity (as equal dividends), invested (as social investment), transferred according to the principle of vertical equity (treating people with special needs differently), or appropriated by privileged individuals. Or it may be distributed as a mixture of all of the above.

An attempt to purchase Olympic medals might be classed as social investment. I prefer, instead, to enable sporting success through the principles of horizontal and vertical equity. Paying everyone a basic income equal to the community wage for married persons and young adults ($124 per week) would be a start, enabling people who wish to contribute as athletes and artists to do so. They would only have to work part-time, and would not pay high effective tax rates on that part-time work.

Of course, Olympic athletes would need more support than a $124 'social dividend', and may need to seek competition overseas rather than engage in part-time employment at home. On the basis of their special circumstances, they could be granted a substantial pension in addition to their basic income. Such a pension could be accounted for much like NZ Superannuation. Alternatively, athletes preparing for the Olympic Games could be supported by the equivalent of a student loan.

The point is that, by sensibly addressing a much bigger problem - that of the definition and equitable distribution of public revenue - a solution to the specific problem of athlete-funding emerges. Individuals would be enabled to become athletes through the assistance of an unconditional weekly basic income. Athletes (or artists, writers etc.) in special circumstances would have access to the additional funds they require as a part of that wider social contract that grants additional support to, for example, retired persons, lone parents, and students.

By freeing a self-selecting proportion of the population to embark on a lifestyle that does not require them to participate in the labour force throughout their adult lives, those people with special talents will be able to express them. Some of those people will be athletes willing to push themselves to their limits at places like the Olympic Games.

We don't need to invest in sporting success. We simply need to enable such success, and always with a view to the bigger picture.

And we should be relaxed about our national identity. It's nice to win, but we don't need to justify ourselves to ourselves by calculating the number of (mainly) bronze medals won per capita and presenting that as some meaningful statement about our place in the world.

© 2000 Keith Rankin

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