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Patrick Walker

Exclusive: Financial Impact Of COVID-19 On Australian Athletes

I
n an exclusive interview with Ministry of Sport, CEO of the Australian Sports Foundation (ASF), Patrick Walker, outlined the findings in his organisation’s study into the impact of COVID-19 on Australian athletes seeking to make it professionally.

The ASF is a non-profit sports fundraising organisation and charity, distributing close to half a billion dollars to Australian sport to help create inclusivity and activeness across the nation.

Results of the study

Speaking on the definition of what “athlete” means in the survey, Walker said those who are not contracted professionally do face a tough reality when it comes to financing their aspirations.

“We understand that if you’re an athlete in a professional code you’re well looked after and you’re well supported,” Walker told Ministry of Sport. 

“What we wanted to understand is, the impact of COVID to our athletes in your typical Olympic, Paralympic and Commonwealth Games sports, so the non-professional but still representative and elite codes.

“We issued the survey to all of the athletes on our database, we issued it through national sporting organisations, academies of sport, institute of sports.

“We got over 500 responses from athletes, all outside the major professional codes, and over 80% of those athletes were national and international competitors.

“We wanted initially to look at the impact of COVID.

“One of the big things that came out [of the study] for us was what life was like for an Australian athlete even before COVID hit?

“I think it paints quite a bleak picture.

“About 57% of all the athletes that responded were earning less than the national minimum wage, which is $39 000 a year.

“Over 43% of our international competitors are earning less than $23 000 a year.

“That is income from both sport and part-time and casual work, because clearly they can’t make ends meet from sport alone.

“We have a picture here of elite athletes who are maybe training at five in the morning and then rushing from training to their job and earn enough money to live, effectively below minimum wage existence,” he said.

Impact of COVID-19

These trends were there before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Walker said the past year has certainly accentuated these circumstances.

“It was definitely there before COVID, and certainly amplified by COVID,” Walker told Ministry of Sport.

“Athletes, even those earning those low levels of income, were reporting to us that their income had nearly halved.

“That’s from both no sport, no prize money, no competitions, loss of sponsorship contracts to the extent that they were pulled or reduced, so their sporting income was hit.

“Also, by the nature of their part-time and casual work, it was often in the hospitality sector that was hit, and then they didn’t qualify for “jobseeker” or “jobkeeper” because they weren’t in those sectors.

“Over 70% of the athletes didn’t qualify for either.

“So, low income to start with, significant financial hit and a lack of support,” he said.

Impact on mental health

A large section of the survey focused on mental health, and the detrimental effects these findings have had on aspiring athletes, something Walker said must be addressed.

“We asked athletes to let us know whether the pandemic had an impact on physical and mental health, and overwhelmingly it had,” Walker told Ministry of Sport.

“73% of the athletes reported worse physical health, and 86% of athletes reported worse mental health.

“What was really behind that was obviously uncertainty, when are they going to compete again?

“[Also] the stress of missing out on qualifiers, championships or Olympic or Paralympic games, maybe age group qualifiers if you’re an aspiring athlete, you only get one shot at an under 18 championship, and then suddenly you’re over the age group.

“So a lot of the uncertainty and those disrupted impacts on careers, and then the stress on families, in some cases the athletes were the provider and bread-winner for their family, in some cases the athletes were supported by their family.

“Another shocking statistic is 79% of our international athletes are still receiving financial support from their families.

“So their family lost their job or their businesses were under pressure, that had an impact on the athletes as well.

“You put all of that together, what really concerned us was close to the 20% of the international athletes said they were considering retiring from their sport because of these factors.

“I think it will surprise many people that the bank of mum and dad is basically bankrolling a lot of our elite athletes.

“The concern is, if you aren’t fortunate enough to come from a family that can afford to do that, are you simply lost to your sport?

“What happens to the kids and the young adults from poorer families?

“We think that’s an issue we should look at and we want to get a more sustainable funding model for athletes.

“Our role as the ASF is to raise funds from philanthropic sources, both private and corporate philanthropy, so we’re really wanting to talk to anyone who thinks this is not a sustainable way to expect peak performance from our athletes and would like to help,” he said.

Findings on gender inequality

Part of ASF’s study focused on gender inequality, with Walker highlighting this important social issue as another key element to fix in the Australian sporting landscape.

“We all know the gender pay gap exists in all walks of life unfortunately and wrongly, and it’s the same in athletics,” Walker said.

“We found that female athletes were much higher represented in the bottom income band, below $23 000, so 49% of female athletes were in that band, compared with 35% of male athletes.

“Conversely, female athletes were less likely to be represented in the higher income bands than their male colleagues.

“I do want to make clear, that doesn’t arise from government funding that goes to athletes, because there are some direct grants to athletes, they are completely gender neutral, gender-equitable, split fifty-fifty between male and female and absolutely equal depending on your standing and your performance levels.

Consequences

With an eye on Brisbane potentially hosting the 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games, Walker said these results could potentially have dire consequences for sport in Australia, and identifies now as the time to react.

“10 years for Brisbane might seem a long way away, but it’s actually just a blink of an eye,” Walker said.

“We’re really looking at the 10-15 year-olds now, who are going to be representing us at Brisbane 2032, and they need the role models and the mentors and the coaches from their experienced athletes to achieve their potential.

“We’re concerned about the impact on long-term performance.

“I think the findings are that financial and other sacrifices that athletes have to make to pursue their career, outside the major professional codes, is unsustainable.

“The reliance on families’ financial support is potentially inequitable because it means if you aren’t from one of those families, you’re going to miss out.

“The need for our athletes to hold outside work in order to pursue their career is going to inhibit performance, both because of the lack of finances and the lack of recovery time.

“The overall finding is this environment is not giving our athletes the best chance of success and fulfilling their potential.

“When the Olympics and Paralympics come around, we’ll all sit there in front of the TV and we’ll all cheer the boys and girls in green and gold on and we’ll expect them to represent the country proudly and with pride, which they will.

“We don’t see the struggles and the sacrifice that goes on before that and we don’t give them the best chance of success,” he told Ministry of Sport.