KLAIPEDA - If the sports achievements of Lithuanian athletes were measured by the finance they receive, these compatriots, grabbing the highest hallmark medals with seeming ease and few pennies in their pockets, can be truly considered real prodigies. With 20 percent or less financial support for sports in Lithuania in comparison to developed Western countries, the accomplishments on the courts and fields, for the most part, should be rather ascribed to the athletes’ patriotism, talent and tremendous efforts than to proper financing. It is a common practice in Lithuania that, before a major tournament abroad, that while an athlete sweats in the gym or on court, his coaches, instead of devoting themselves to the athlete’s training, often are compelled to conduct a desperate search for sponsors for the trip. As a rule, in these cases national sports federations can only miserably sigh, as a sheer majority of them, except for the national Basketball Federation, which basks in traditionally lavish financing, are heavily underfunded.
Last year, a mere 39 million litas (just over 11 million euros) were allocated for Lithuanian sports, a whopping tumble from 56 million litas in 2009. This year’s sport budget is similar to last year’s, but its allocation has sparked a big outcry from more than a few dozen national sports federations that were left without a penny. The uproar was heavily fueled by the new order of money distribution from this year. From now on, the Fund of Physical Culture and Sport Support (FPCSS), instead of the Department of Physical Culture and Sport (DPCS), as it was until this year, is assigned to allocate the bulk of the budget money which is, to be exact, 18.5 million litas. In doing this, the department was hoping the division procedures would be “more transparent.” Interestingly, the budget of the FPCSS is comprised of one-percent of annual alcohol and tobacco excise tax, along with 10 percent of taxes received from taxation of lotteries and gambling games.
Lithuanian sports underfunding is especially clear when compared with similar financing in other, neighboring countries. Lithuanian sports financing equals less than one-tenth of Poland’s sports budget, which totaled over 240 million litas last year. Even juxtaposed with its northern neighbor, Latvia, Lithuania lags well behind, as Latvia allocated 14 million lats (66 million litas) for Latvian sports. The president of the Lithuanian National Olympic Committee, Arturas Poviliunas, had complained over the disparity to the highest Lithuanian authorities many times, but his laments were unheeded by arguments that Lithuania is struck by crisis. If going on with the comparisons, Lithuanian sports’ plight seems even more tragic when put against the countries which, alongside Lithuania, joined the EU club in 2004. Slovenia sliced off a lavish chunk from the budget, of 120 million litas, for its sports in 2009, while Hungary allocated 198 million litas for the same year.
“Overall, Lithuanian sports, as a system, is extremely poor in our country. We do not have to look far for another approach towards sport – Latvia boasts a twice bigger sports budget than Lithuania,” Daina Gudzineviciute, an Olympic champion and sports activist, pointed out recently.
In 2009, engulfed in the savings frenzy, Lithuania slashed its best athletes’ bonuses for outstanding accomplishments in international arenas by more than half. Thus, the bonus for a gold medal in a world championship went down from 80,000 to 40,000 litas, while for the same achievement in a European championship, it decreased from 40,000 to 20,000 litas. When facing the austerity measures in sport, talented Lithuanian athletes shrug in disbelief, wondering whether it makes sense for them to pursue a professional athlete’s career. Another exacerbating issue for the best athletes is state athlete grants, which are the only source of income for many gifted athletes. However, Lithuania, trying not to miss an occasion to stress the national importance of sports achievements by its best talents, over ten years has done nothing-to-very-little to encourage them financially.
“The size of the grants has not changed since 2000, and they are obviously inadequate for the present times as, for example, an athlete, placed among the six best contenders in a world championship, may receive a meager 750-850 litas’ grant, which equals a jobless allowance,” Gudzineviciute said. Only medals winners in world and European championships and those athletes among the six best contenders in an Olympic Games may apply for larger state grants, which are still inappropriately small, as they hardly surpass 1,500 litas.
“To win a sixth place in a world championship, an athlete has to train not one year or two, but has to put himself under excruciating stress for many years. However, for the accomplishment, the state compares him to a jobless person. Therefore, those young people who have achieved something in sports often ponder what to do with their careers – to doom themselves to poverty, expecting miracles in the future, or end the career and take on a more constant income-generating activity,” the Olympic champion said, fretting over this plight.
Recently, 22-year-old Donata Rimsaite, a talented Lithuanian pentathlete, dubbed by Lithuanian sports functionaries as “a golden hope” for the Olympic Games in London in 2012, fled from Lithuania to Russia, which has promised the talented athlete a fourfold higher state grant, splendid training conditions, rewarding her with other incentives and all-Russian care, which is something Lithuania could not offer. The pentathlete’s move has triggered a major outcry of Lithuanian sports authorities. However, Rimsaite moved on with her life; she married a Russian athlete recently and, once granted Russian citizenship, expects to represent Russia in the Olympic Games in London.
Speaking of the Lithuanian athlete’s grants, they were hoping that the FPCSS, in anticipation of the 2012 London Olympic Games, will at last hand the government a draft proposal on an increase of state grants. However, fulfillment of these expectations seems unlikely. “Obviously, life has changed a lot over ten years. However, we have to stick to our financial abilities, which are quite impaired for the time being. The plight in sports is a reflection of the general situation in the country,” said Klemensas Rimselis, director of the Department of Physical Culture and Sport, terse in his commentary.
When the incumbent head of the department, along with many other sports functionaries, blames the economic plight for the sport financing shortfalls, Dainius Kepenis, the former director of the DPCS and head of the popular grassroots movement “School of propagators of healthy living,” is convinced that sports should be funded from resources other than the state budget. “The richer the state is, the less it allocates money from its state budget. Moreover, on the contrary, the lesser gross domestic product per capita is, the more resources are allocated from the state budget. Obviously, Lithuania belongs to the latter group,” Kepenis says.
Thus, for example, Norway, especially known for the accomplishments of winter sports athletes, does not fund its sports at all, as athletes are generously funded from income generated by a national lottery. In 2009, Norwegian sports received roughly 640 million litas from this, an amount that makes up one-fortieth of the Lithuanian annual budget in 2011. In Western European countries, as well as Scandinavia, Kepenis emphasizes, local municipalities, alongside businesses, finance sports on regional levels and are the main sport supporters. However, in his opinion, the situation is quite different in Lithuania. “Many Lithuanian sports federations and various public sports movements, instead of trying to earn some money themselves, which is something that my own movement ‘School of propagators of healthy living’ did, whimper, with a stretched out hand, doing nothing. They should start thinking some day how to make some money for their activities,” Kepenis said to The Baltic Times.
In most of Western European countries, state support for sports has been less than that from the private sector and local municipalities. This is something that a study on sports financing, performed by sports scientist Vladimiras Andrejevas, shows. According to this, in Western Europe local households, buying sports products, tickets and using sports services, provide 50 percent of sports needs. The study showed that nearly 24 percent of sports financing comes from local municipalities, which mostly invest into local sports infrastructure. Interestingly, according to the study, the private sector sponsors only 14 percent of sports need, as their money mostly goes to support professional clubs. To conclude the study, a Western government’s portion in the national sports budget makes up on average a mere 12 percent of the total. The study’s author infers that sports in Europe are not effectively state dependant. Certainly, a Western state, determined to support sports, offers effective taxation exemptions, which are usually a more far-reaching solution than just generously slicing off a hefty bulk from the state budget.
Generally, sports financing differs tremendously within the European Union. Those differences are particularly obvious when the ratio of sports financing resources per capita is drawn. The ratio is 500 euros in the Netherlands, 8 euros in Bulgaria, while Lithuania scrambles on the very bottom, at 4 euros per capita. “It is not surprising to me. We all know what kind of economic meltdown we are still dealing with here. However, it is important to stress that, before the crisis, sports financing was steadily rising, both from the state budget and private sector. I hope that once the economy bounces back, sports financing will grow rapidly,” Albinas Grabnickas, president of Lithuania’s Municipality Sport Division Heads Association, maintained to The Baltic Times.
However, with the private sector struggling to recover, numerous Lithuanian sport federations just cannot count on its support. In addition, to support the aforementioned notion of Kepenis, ex-director of the DPCS, many small and little-active sport federations do nothing to earn money and expose their huge appetite when distributing budget money. This year’s allocation of 18.5 million litas has particularly triggered their outrage, blaming the FPCSS with all possible faults and mischief. After the distribution, Rimselis, director of the DPCS, hurried to cool down everyone, claiming, “It is impossible to distribute all the resources properly and satisfy all needs. In some cases, it is obvious that some people ask too much. In addition, some sports organizations, as if twenty years ago, expect money first and start planning sports events afterwards. It all should be quite the reverse.”
As could be expected, a bulk of the 18.5 million litas, a hefty 2 million litas, went into the pocket of Lithuania’s Basketball Federation, which is getting ready for the European Basketball Championship in September. In its turn, the national Football Federation will receive about one-twentieth of this - only 100,000 litas from the budget. Distributors of the FPCSS budget were generous to the martial arts, giving 200,000 litas for the Lithuanian Sambo Federation and 267,000 litas for the Wrestling Federation. The latter allocations have angered the president of the national Bushido Federation, Donatas Simonaitis.
“Formally, we have been eliminated from the money sharing on the grounds of not having the so-called anti-doping agreement with the Lithuanian Anti-Doping Agency (LAA). However, the LAA has nothing to do with ‘clean’ sports, as they are only money extorters from the sports federations. Before every bushido tournament abroad, our fighters go through scrupulous doping tests, so it makes no sense to fill LAA’s coffers. The Department of Physical Culture and Sport does everything to sift away those federations it dislikes for some reasons. Our federation may go to court to argue the money distribution. Dozens of sports federations are absolutely furious over it,” Simonaitis said, pouring out his grief to The Baltic Times.
Out of 601 applications for financial support, the FPCSS has satisfied only 234. Gudzineviciute, the Olympic Champion and the chairwoman of the Sportsmen Commission of the Lithuanian National Olympic Committee, rebuts the accusations, claiming, “The state cannot support those sports which leave a possibility for swindling.” She reiterated that Lithuania supports too many sports.