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BUENOS AIRES, Aug 6 2008 (IPS) - Financial support for Argentine athletes has traditionally been meagre, but it has increased ahead of the Beijing Olympic games. However, several experts warn that more money alone is not enough to give a real boost to sports.
The Sports Secretariat budget has risen from 26 million pesos (8.5 million dollars) to 107 million pesos (35.6 million dollars) a year since 2003, according to official figures. Most of it is spent on competitions and scholarships or bursaries for more than 600 athletes.
But above and beyond the question of whether the funding is sufficient, experts say that a greater political will to invest in sports, a better financial plan involving public/private partnerships, and more professional management of the federations that represent each discipline are needed.
This year’s delegation to Beijing is made up of 138 athletes in 20 disciplines. It is smaller than the delegation that went to Athens in 2004, but the Secretariat said that this was not due to budget constraints but to fewer athletes qualifying for the 2008 Olympics.
“The state does not decide how many athletes go. Those who qualify, go. No athlete who has met the qualifying standard has been left behind,” the national director of sports training, Osvaldo Arsenio, told IPS.
Arsenio emphasised the expanded sports budget, but admitted that it is still not big enough. “There is an upward trend, but of course there are countries in the region, such as Brazil, Cuba and Venezuela, where more support is given,” he said.
In an interview with IPS, former Olympic athlete and ex sports secretary (1999-2001) Marcelo Garraffo said “those who qualify are sent, not those who have money,” to an event like the Olympics. Nevertheless, if the state invested more, greater numbers of athletes would achieve the competition standards, he said.
To say that the budget has grown is “relative,” Garraffo said. “Most of the money in high performance sports is spent in dollars, because it is used for international flights and competitions. Rather than an increase, there has been an update” in terms of the exchange rate, he said. When he was sports secretary the spending level was about 27 million dollars a year.
Argentina “has a sports policy, but what it lacks is the political will to really support sports, such as a plan to spend 100 or 200 million dollars a year for four to eight years,” he said. This level of investment has not occurred since the mid-20th century, during the government of the late Juan Domingo Perón (1946-1955 and 1973-1974).
The work of the sports federations is another issue that observers regard as crucial to the improvement of athletes’ performance. In an attempt to make their management more transparent, the Sports Secretariat decided a few years ago not to renew subsidies for federations that do not submit proper accounts.
“Apart from football, most federations are amateur, so they are managed by volunteers who may or may not have a track record in the sport. They carry out their duties after their paid jobs and they do what they can, usually without much aptitude,” Garraffo said.
In his view, if federation management is not in the hands of professionals the results will always be disappointing. “Nowadays sports need marketing and publicity, and therefore sports managers,” he said. Otherwise funds are misspent, and if the Sports Secretariat does not renew the subsidies, the athletes are the ones who suffer.
According to sports reporter Sergio Danishewsky, who covered the Olympic games in Athens in 2004, former footballer Claudio Morresi is doing a good job as sports secretary. Federations that do not present their accounts have not had their state funding renewed, but they have done nothing to improve matters, he told IPS.
Garraffo, who took part in three Olympic games and was the Argentine flagbearer at the opening ceremony in Barcelona in 1992, also said that if the state had a well-defined programme, like Spain’s, involving public and private funds, it could build a structure of long-term support that would develop sports for the upcoming generations.
Arsenio agreed that a plan like that of Spain’s Olympic Sports Association (ADO) would strengthen sports.
In Garraffo’s view, the Spanish plan “was a watershed” in his discipline, field hockey, and he attributed Spain’s strong performance in sports to the investment that it has made since 1992 under the ADO programme.
The former sports secretary and Olympic hockey player said that players today are tempted to go abroad, in professional sports like football and basketball, but also in others like rugby, volleyball and hockey.
“In Europe, players earn at least five times what they earn here, so it’s logical that they want to leave, but it’s a pity because stars who are role models for the youngest players go, and trainers also leave,” Garraffo said.
In Argentina, scholarships range from 425 to 2,300 pesos a month (141 to 766 dollars) with a few exceptions, like athletes in wheelchairs, who receive the equivalent of 1,200 dollars a month.
The sole boxer in the Argentine delegation to Beijing, Ezequiel Maderna, is a case in point. “The level of Sports Secretariat support is low. I receive 450 pesos (150 dollars) a month, and I have to support a wife and daughter. Next year I’ll have to start boxing professionally,” he complained.
Boxing is the sport that has brought Argentina the most Olympic medals so far. Out of the 60 gold medals the country has won for different disciplines, 24 went to boxers. But this strong performance has declined in recent years. “There has been less travel to competitions, which has meant fewer opportunities for boxers to build experience,” Maderna said.
Arsenio, however, said the situation was more complex. “Argentina has a great Olympic boxing tradition, but in the past the athletes would go to the games when they were 26, with 150 fights behind them. In contrast, nowadays an 18-year-old boxer who has won two or three fights is already lured into a professional career.”
Boxing regulations ban professional fighters from taking part in the Olympics. “We had a great young boxer, Marcos Maidana, on a scholarship. Now he’s going for a world title, because the promoters offered him a professional contract and he chose to seek his future with them,” Arsenio said.
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