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22 July 2014

Time to rethink the decision to cut Pararoos funding

A blame game has erupted over funding cuts to a successful disability sport programme, but that is of no help to the athletes affected

At a time when a National Disability Insurance Scheme is being rolled out and there is a search for ways of improving services which contribute to the physical and mental health of the Australian population, it is odd, to say the least, that one successful programme has had its funding removed. It is especially puzzling when this is a programme that combines sport and support for a disadvantaged group, athletes with a disability. The Pararoos, Australia’s national football team for players with a disability, have been financially assisted at recent Paralympic Games and have done very well on and off the field. Now their funding from the Australian Sports Commission has been cut completely.

According to Paul Brown, who has been coaching the Pararoos since 2006, the ASC has justified its decision to cut the $175,000-a-year funding to the programme because Football Federation Australia prioritised funding for able-bodied men’s and women’s football.

However, the ASC said: “In relation to high performance funding for the Para Football high performance programme, an assessment took place in which FFA had the opportunity to present their performance case. The Australian Institute of Sport, in consultation with the Australian Paralympic Committee, determined that the performance evidence regarding Para Football was unconvincing and not likely to contribute to the targets outlined in Winning Edge [the country’s high performance strategy]. As such the Winning Edge Assessment Panel recommended the withdrawal of funding in 2014/15.”

Luke Casserly, head of national performance at FFA responded: “What has happened is that the Australian Sports Commission has a new policy that uses past performance at Olympic Games and the prospects of future medal-winning as the main criteria. On that basis, ASC funding for the Pararoos was cut under the Winning Edge programme and this affects our ability to fund and compete with the Pararoos national team in international tournaments, many of which are in Europe.”

An inter-agency blame game is no great help to the sports people involved, however.

If funding is measured by past success, then at least in relative terms the Pararoos have done very well in reaching the level they have. They are now ranked 10th in the world, according to Brown, higher than the Socceroos and just behind the Matildas in their respective rankings. Given the Winning Edge strategy introduced by the ASC following the London Olympic and Paralympic Games of 2012, the case was made that the Pararoos had justified the level of support they had in the past, at the very least. They took part in the Intercontinental Cup in Barcelona in August last year. In a recent article in Sporting Traditions on Australia’s performance at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Richard Baka argues that targeted financial support has contributed to success at the games. If that is so, then the Pararoos have a case, though the newer higher-level criteria for funding make the chances of satisfying the ASC nigh on impossible.

Of course there are arguments that spending has to be reduced across the board to reduce the potential burden on future generations, but helping people with disabilities to overcome them seems a good way to reduce rather than increase financial pressure in the future.

Another argument might be that spreading the funding across all disabled people is better than concentrating on a small group in a single sport. There is evidence in general terms that Olympic performance has little effect on participation rates (Roy Hay, ‘The real costs of sport,’ Dissent, 28, Summer 2008/2009, December 2008, pp. 58-60), but do we really know whether that is true of people with disabilities? Would they not be inspired by the performance of their peers? Would it give them something to which they, too, could aspire?

The Pararoos programme stands on the shoulders of a flourishing domestic programme which culminates in the interstate competition for the Paralympic Football Nationals. This is run in conjunction with the national talent identification championships for able-bodied boys. All of this is, and will continue to be, funded by FFA. A development programme for disabled players is underway in each of the states and until this recent funding cut the Pararoos were on track for the Paralympic World Championships, the qualification tournament for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

It is time for a rethink of the decision to cut the funding to the Pararoos in the context of the national determination to improve facilities and support for Australians with a disability.

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