Australia’s Athletes at Breaking Point – Exploring the Challenges and Charting the Path Forward
MOS’s Will Evans speaks to ASF CEO Patrick Walker, delving behind the recent media headlines to unpack the ‘Running On Empty’ research report, shedding light on the stark challenges confronting Australian athletes and the essential strategies required to turn the tide.
The results of ASF’s latest athlete survey, conducted in February and March, painted a stark picture for a sports-obsessed country that will host the Olympic and Paralympic Games in just nine years’ time. Aptly titled ‘Running On Empty’, the research findings revealed a significant decline in athletes’ financial situation, contributing to deteriorating mental health and an alarming proportion of athletes contemplating leaving their sport.
“I’m not surprised about the general trend (of the survey) – most of our athletes earn very little money and have very little in the way of financial support,” Australian Sports Foundation CEO Patrick Walker told Ministry of Sport.
“Those trends are consistent with earlier reports we’ve done. What we perhaps didn’t expect was, the last time we did an athlete survey was in the COVID years, 2021, and the results have worsened since then.
“The numbers of athletes considering quitting and the incidence of mental health problems has worsened and that surprised us. But the general picture did not surprise us.
“Clearly the cost of living crisis has exacerbated things, but I think what both surveys (2021 and 2023) have highlighted is the uncertainty of being an athlete outside one of the highly-paid professional codes.”
The ASF’s eye-opening survey canvassed 2,304 athletes across more than 60 sports, 35 percent of whom are aiming to compete for Australia at the 2026 Commonwealth Games, Brisbane 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games or other major international competitions.
Of the elite athletes over the age of 18 surveyed, 46 percent reported annual income from all sources of less than $23,000 – placing them below the Australian poverty line of $489 per week – while 43 percent declared their financial position had deteriorated in the previous 12 months. Only 26 percent received financial assistance from a sporting body.
Monetary pressures are severely compromising athletes’ ability to perform to their potential, impacting their training and standard of living, and often preventing them from competing altogether. But the effect on mental health was arguably the most distressing outcome of the survey: 33 percent of female and 17 percent of male elite athletes suffered mental health challenges in the previous year, while 37 percent of elite athletes in the 18- to 34-year-old age range pinpointed mental health as their chief obstacle.
“The fact that your income and earnings depend on your performance, one bad year can mean you don’t get the points to qualify for a particular event, so that kind of pressure is constant,” Walker explains.
“Then you add to that the cost of living crisis, the fact that many of them rely on their families to support them, the feeling of guilt that adds of being a burden on their families when times are getting tougher for everyone – all of those things have led to this worsening situation for athletes.”
Walker says while there are excellent mental health services available for some athletes, there’s a gulf that desperately needs shoring up.
Only just over a quarter of elite athlete respondents told ASF they could access mental health services via their clubs or sporting organisations – but more than half would take up mental health support if it was offered.
“It’s important to note there’s a good amount of support available in the mental health area, particularly run through the AIS (Australian Institute of Sport). Certainly when the home Commonwealth Games was cancelled – which would have been a big blow to many athletes looking forward to performing at home – the AIS stepped forward and broadened the offering of mental health support.
“But the thing is it’s broadly only offered to AIS-categorised athletes. A lot of athletes just outside of that may need support and there doesn’t appear to be much available. I think that’s something we need to look at, given the pressure of being an athlete and the challenges they have to face.”
A clear message from the survey was athletes’ financial pressures and the consequent knock-on effect on their mental well-being is unsustainable – to the extent that a swelling number are thinking about giving up on their sporting dreams.
“The thing that most shocked us in the survey, two in three athletes aged 18 to 34 are considering quitting. That’s going to leave a massive hole in our pipeline.
“It’s today’s 10- to 15-year-olds who will be the ones representing the nation in 2032. So that’s where you need to look, giving talented young athletes the pathway and support now so they’ve got the experience – the Commonwealth Games, the Youth Games, the world championships – and they’re ready to do their best in the Olympics and Paralympics in 2032.”
Despite their own immediate battles, the survey’s elite athlete respondents had an overwhelmingly unselfish outlook when asked what the future funding priorities should be for Australian sport as it looks towards only the third Olympic Games held on these shores.
“They actually placed themselves bottom of that – the sixth-most supported (option) was to support more fulltime athletes,” Walker says.
“The higher ones were pathways, initiatives to keep teenagers in sport, expanding school programs. The athletes were pretty selfless in (pushing for) support to enable talent to come through and represent the nation in 2032 and that was great to see.”
The Australian Sports Foundation is a non-profit fundraising organisation, distributing nearly $700 million through its online fundraising platform and community sport grant rounds since 1986.
The last financial year saw a record $79 million raised from over 50,000 tax-deductible donations to more than 3,000 fundraising projects. Of those, 900 fundraising projects were for individuals, garnering $4.5 million.
The default mindset has traditionally been to expect federal and state governments to make up the shortfall for sports and athletes with taxpayer money, but independent and community-based fundraising is the way of the future – particularly during tenuous economic times.
“We didn’t do this as a call-out to say governments should do more,” Walker clarifies.
“Governments are assailed on all sides for funding – there isn’t enough to go around. It doesn’t matter where you look, whether it’s housing future funds, subsidising energy bills, the NDIS, there is more demand for funding than there is supply.
“The most impactful change we want to make is communities getting around their local athletes, recognising the struggles they’re facing and supporting them.
“We have our fundraising platform, and we have many, many athletes on that fundraising platform. There’s an opportunity for members of the community to make a tax-deductible donation to support their local athletes or athletes from the sport that they love and help them on their journey.
“Secondly, we’d love to see the model that operates in the arts, where the philanthropic community will get behind and support and become patrons of aspiring young artists.
“We think there’s an opportunity for philanthropy to support aspiring young athletes, to get behind them and give them the opportunity to fulfil their potential.
“Look at the impact of hosting the FIFA Women’s World Cup – obviously in Australia the Matildas went well and it had a galvanising impact on the nation and a real knock-on impact of young girls wanting to play football.
“We have a home Olympic and Paralympic Games here in nine years’ time, so we need to make sure our athletes do well so they can have that galvanising effect on the nation.”
While ASF’s fundraising platform is a proven, highly valuable tool for athletes, it remains an underutilised avenue to attract financial support.
Walker is hopeful the publicity around ASF’s research findings will result in an upsurge of athletes registering for the platform and subsequently improving their financial situation.
“In all honesty I think the major barrier has been lack of knowledge and lack of awareness. Again that’s another reason for launching this report – it was an opportunity to build that awareness.
“We need to work and collaborate with all the national sporting organisations, the key bodies – the Olympic Committee, the Paralympic Committee, the Commonwealth Games Association – and make sure this opportunity is known about by the athletes and that it’s made as easy as possible to set up their fundraising campaign.
“We were really pleased to see the Australian Olympic Committee respond to the report by saying they would collaborate with us to promote and make available this fundraising opportunity for their Olympic team and athletes.
“We’d love to see a similar response from Paralympics Australia and Commonwealth Games Australia. Wherever the 2026 (Commonwealth) Games is held, the athletes are going to be facing the same issues. If it’s not held in Australia, they’ll be facing additional travel and accommodation costs as well.”