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Our unhealthy obsession with sport not a winner

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Australia will spend billions on hosting the 2032 Brisbane Olympics (Image via Pixabay)

We should question the money and attention that automatically flows to sport when those in the arts sector are banking JobKeeper cheques composed mostly of zeros, writes Tyson Adams.

AS WE SAY goodbye to the Tokyo Olympics and say hello to dropping a few billion on the 2032 Brisbane Olympics, it’s a great time to suggest that sport isn’t entirely popular.

Australians are sports-mad. They love them. Even COVID-19 couldn’t leave our love of sport gasping on a respirator due to a bungled vaccine rollout. We now see 70 per cent of people over 15 participating in a sporting activity — 43 per cent doing so multiple times a week.

And what is the most popular sport in Australia? Walking.

That’s right, walking.

In fact, the top five sporting activities for Aussies aren’t sports, they are being physically active with walking, fitness or going to the gym, running/jogging, swimming and cycling. You could argue that running, swimming and cycling are sports, even Olympic sports. But learning not to drown nor get run down by a truck seems to stretch the definition slightly.

Even our sports watching is somewhat overrated. The egregious double-ups in the data aside, the most popular spectator sport, Australian Football League (AFL), attracts roughly the same number of people as libraries and live music. Perhaps news bulletins need a report on what books are being borrowed at the library and maybe a live cross to a soundcheck?

So, why do we continue to give so much attention and money to sports?

We should question why we intend to spend billions on the Olympics – an event watched every four years by a total of 14 million Aussies – while the arts sector, which attracts 16 million people annually, is banking its JobKeeper cheques composed mostly of zeros.

It would be easy to look at statistics and see that since yoga is more popular than AFL, we should be building massive tax-payer funded yoga stadiums to watch "downward dogs" and cheer "Om". But it’s probably worth thinking a bit about what Australia actually needs. And what we need is to invest in our health and physical activities.

Aussies mostly want to go for walks, ride their bikes, go for a run, walk in the bush, swim a few laps and visit a gym. We do this for physical fitness and health. Yet the biggest impediment is the convenience of these activities.

You can find plenty of football and cricket ovals, and golf courses, chewing up huge amounts of what little green land cities have. The ovals appear to get little use outside of weekends where caring parents use sports to try and turn out well-rounded offspring — albeit some with plenty of torn ligaments, broken bones and early stages of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). 

We need safe bike paths for commuting — but if you want a great place to park your car, there are these extra margins on the sides of the roads you can use. Want to go for a walk or run? Unfortunately, a lot of parklands have been sold to property developers. 

We could build proper cycling infrastructure. Suburbs could have parklands for walkers and runners. Perhaps some of those golf courses could be turned into proper green spaces for everyone. This would also improve the environment since they are already urban biodiversity havens. (Although nothing seems sadder to me than realising people wearing golf pants are saving urban biodiversity.)

It’s also worth remembering that amenities for physical activity are skewed towards areas with richer and more educated residents. Which is also how participation skews. Yet, health problems like cardiovascular disease and diabetes are associated with poorer, less educated areas with less physical activity amenities. 

All communities need to be constructed around safe green spaces that can be used for physical activities. Investing in cycling infrastructure will allow safe commuting and recreational activity — and might even reduce road congestion. Maybe we could build some local recreation centres that aren’t glorified basketball courts.

So, let’s talk about sporting physical activity. Let’s talk about making our cities and towns places that promote our health and wellbeing rather than killing us with SUV fumes. It might even be good for the environment.

Tyson Adams is a scientist, writer and satirist, sometimes in that order.

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