Editorial: Athletes fairly ask why funding agency's salaries dwarf their grants?

In sports administration, as in business and public service, it is easy for those outside to suppose leading a successful organisation is not hard. It is. Photo / Photosport
In sports administration, as in business and public service, it is easy for those outside to suppose leading a successful organisation is not hard. It is. Photo / Photosport

Some of our successful recent Olympians have drawn public attention to the salaries paid to those who dispense taxpayers' money to athletes, compared to the amounts they give athletes and coaches. High Performance Sport NZ employs 41 people on six-figure salaries, athletes receive performance enhancement grants ranging from $60,000, before tax, for a gold medallist, down to $25,000 for someone ranked in the top 12 in the world.

Of course, the athletes' benefits are not limited to their grants. They have access to funded coaches and physiotherapy, and advice on sports science, psychology, medicine and nutrition. Some of them can attract sponsorship, personally or through their national sports bodies, that help to cover the expenses of travelling and living part of the year in foreign countries for the competition they need. But most of them cannot afford to give up a regular job. They have to fit in daily training around working hours and beg time off for tournaments and events.

If they achieve their dream, and give their country the thrill of an Olympic medal too, the financial rewards for some are not limited to the sums they get from the public purse, but they say it is a myth that a medal can make them rich. Becoming a big name in a country of New Zealand's size offers limited returns for sponsors, unlike Australia where the opportunities to capitalise on sporting success are lucrative enough for their public grants to be means-tested.

So it's easy to see why double-gold medallists Mahe Drysdale and Valerie Adams and sailing's Jo Aleh can look at the salaries of those who parcel out the public funds and wonder whether more of the money should not be coming to athletes and coaches. They undoubtedly express the sentiments of many athletes and coaches in the system. The three who have spoken out have been highly successful and it is hard to argue with success.

But that is also true of High Performance Sport NZ. The record medal tally at Rio owes something to the funding decisions of chief executive Alex Baumann (salary last year $420,000 - $430,000) and the other 40 staff paid in excess of $100,000.

In sports administration, as in business and public service, it is easy for those outside to suppose leading a successful organisation is not hard. It is. Leading people requires qualities not given to everyone. There is a limited supply of proven leaders who can give an organisation direction and drive and maintain the confidence of people in their team. It takes good salaries to attract and retain those who can do it.

Baumann told the Weekend Herald, "We could give everything to the athletes but we wouldn't get the results we did at Rio." He made no apologies for the fact that performance enhancement grants to the athletes are not a secure income, they can drop after one poor performance.

"You can't get away from performance accountability," he said. "Sometimes it seems harsh but I'm a strong believer in that." The public can hold him to the same test. So far, it is hard to argue with his success.

- NZ Herald

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