Playing elite sport in Australia comes at what cost?

Karmichael Hunt was recently caught in possession of cocaine. Photo Mark Koble/Getty Images

We hear of the drug busts involving elite sports people like Karmichael Hunt most recently; we see the brattish behaviour of some of our tennis stars; hear of match fixing and other dubious activities and we’ve got to wonder is playing elite sport the privilege it was?

Why do some of our top sportspeople behave so badly once they reach the top? Is it the money and fame or is it just that in any random group of people you have a mix of good and bad, some with a strong moral code and others who always look for the easy money?

I don’t follow sport but I do follow the careers of many of the young people my sons’ were friends with.

Every day there are thousands of children competing in sport, many with the dream of making it to the very top level. For most it won’t happen. Some really don’t have the talent, others don’t have the right mental attitude, some just can’t read the game despite their physical ability to play it. They might train endlessly, put their heart into it, build their strength and practise long and hard but only a few will get to the top. Others compete at state level, some will suffer an injury that sees the end of their sports career.

I watched this with my sons and their friends. Several made it in their chosen sport and headed off to top level clubs, some competed for Australia, and of course there were those who never made it at all. For one exceptionally talented gymnast I knew nine was deemed too young by her family for her to head off alone for top level coaching in the United States. Having achieved Australian representative level, a friend of my sons committed suicide after he became injured before the Olympics and he resorted to drugs to hide the physical and emotional pain he ws experiencing.

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Some talented players fall early, not through lack of talent but lack of commitment, or poor discipline. There is no second signing after their first contract ends and their top-level games reduce as the club they are contracted to try to toughen them up, or give them time to change their attitude in a lower level competition.

It is the money that often ruins it for the successful. I remember a 16-year-old who came to our house after having signed with an NRL club. His starting package included a six-figure income, a brand-new top of the range car on his 17th birthday and sponsorship deals that brought in even more money. The same lad’s track speed was such that he could have opted to train in athletics and would probably have competed for Australia if he had chosen.

I knew several teenagers gifted with that perfect build, that natural speed and ability who had to pick from among several sports who courted them to play for them. Cricket or basketball; rowing or cycling; Australian rules, basketball or rowing; rugby league or basketball, are all among the choices my sons’ friends had to make. They often chased the money but not always.

In other sports there is no money. An Australian women’s softball player I knew had to take leave from work to compete, often without pay, so there was a real financial cost.

Is it the sheer exhaustion of the travel and training that presents a problem? That for many their childhood was ruled by training, and gym, competition and often diet and they missed so much of childhood fun. For many in their teens they are shipped off to a club away from home or the Australian Institute of Sport or other training venue and lose that parental guidance that can be so important as they mature into adults.

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The nature of the role has changed and an elite sports person has to be media savvy. They have so much to do for sponsors too — it isn’t as it was just pull on the uniform on game days attend a bit of practise a few times a week then go home and switch off.

Why when it is such an amazing privilege to compete at that elite level do we see the behaviour we do?

Looking at the most recent incident involving Karmichael Hunt, was there something missing in his life that he more than once has been caught with cocaine? When I think of our up-and-coming tennis players, why is their behaviour so disappointing? Could one assume that they would carry on the same way out of the spotlight of sports stardom, say as a plumber or accountant?

I’ve watched many make the journey from child sports to elite star, but I don’t have the answer.

What are your thoughts on today’s sports personalities? Is being an elite sports person a privilege?

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