Feature: Funding Wisely

Last week we tweeted an excellent article on SBS titled “What lies ahead for Korea’s forgotten athletes?”

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The opening lines are the all too common ones. We see them, not only in Korea but all over the world and increasingly so in the western world where amateurism is fast becoming a thing of the past:

Weightlifting champion Kim Byeong-Chan died alone, paralysed and penniless after a motorcycle accident cut short his career, and for some former athletes his demise is a consequence of South Korea’s ruthless pursuit of sporting excellence

Couldn’t we substitute “South Korea” for most countries in the west in the above quote? The pursuit of sporting excellence is a gamble by the gifted athlete that is supported by the governing bodies – gambling as a team. Elite sports people chase and work towards an insanely difficult goal that has no guaranteed outcome. When the chips are lost and the gamble didn’t work out – are the federations and institutes really there to help recoup the losses or do they just move on to play the game again with the next best gambler?

Last week I spoke at the World Olympians Forum in Moscow on the topic of life after sport. We heard from Sergey Bubka about the system they have in place in the Ukraine where elite athletes are given a pension for the rest of their lives if they have represented their country. They recognize their athletes as people who have served their nation and therefore should be looked after in the same way as a soldier or policeman.

Money on it’s own, on the surface, is a very inspired idea. Financial security for a lifetime is a great comfort against the litany of physical and mental challenges many athletes experience during and after their sports careers. However it does not provide a remedy for identity loss or the physical and chemical issues that retirement can awaken. Will money remove the darkness or will it help perpetuate it? Could that money be used more thoughtfully?

In this case, money really isn’t everything.

As we read in the SBS article, Korea are looking for a similar situation to the Ukraine thanks to the efforts of lawyer and former world table tennis champion Elisa Lee. She is seeking financial support for sports people who have had their careers cut short through catastrophic injury, recognizing them as “people of national merit”. It is a great step forward in a country with a win at all costs mentality when it comes to sport. The first applications were received this month. The most encouraging aspect of the article for me was Lee’s wider perspective and approach;

“I wish the country would come up with ways to help sports people when they retire as well as athletes who have lost their way in life,” she said. “It’s not a great amount of money we’re asking for”

In the multi-billion dollar industry that is sport, she is exactly right – it isn’t a great amount of money that is being asked for or needed to help athletes on their way after they are done serving their country.

Funding is vitally important. Its most effective and intelligent use is the key issue here.