Deeply rooted in Olympic ideology is the idea that if a country excels at the Olympics, the medal-winning athletes will inspire more children to train hard to achieve the same goal.
Peter Donnelly disagrees. Donnelly, the director of U of T’s Centre for Sports Policy Studies, presented a paper back in October arguing that the more a country succeeds in mega-events such as the Olympics, the less likely it is that children will be inspired to do the same.
Donnelly’s research, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, focused on the promise that Olympic bid committees and organizing committees make to their governments: namely, that hosting the Olympics will inspire more participation in sports and physical activity.
Even though the research suggests otherwise, Donnelly knows why Olympic committees keep repeating this promise. Since the 1970s, the costs of holding such an expensive sports events have skyrocketed. Olympic committees increasingly rely on the use of public funding to pay for their events, since sponsorships and television revenue don’t cover the entire cost. The committees tell taxpayers that public funding is an investment since it can lead to social benefits in the form of increased sports participation and healthier generations.
Especially nowadays, this sounds extremely appealing. The number of people out of shape continues to increase, leading to more public health concerns. Attracted to a simple solution to this social problem, governments often agree to funds these mega-events.
But data from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom show a different story. Following the hosting of a sports-based mega-event, participation in recreational sports teams either stayed the same or decreased. Donnelly acknowledges that the 1999 Rugby World Cup hosted by the United Kingdom proved to be an exception. The World Cup sparked more interest in rugby for residents of the UK.
Unfortunately, even if children are inspired to join sports teams, there are financial boundaries in their way. Olympic athletes continue to be selected from smaller and smaller sections of the population, where parents play a large role in enrolling their children for specific sports. Donnelly estimates that one third of the 2012 UK Olympic team will be drawn from 7% of the British population and that more than 50% of British medal winners will come from that same 7%.
More needs to be done to make sports accessible to all. For the 1999 Rugby World Cup held in the UK, they had the infrastructure necessary to set up rugby clubs for those interested.
But the infrastructure is generally set up to favour the elite, Donnelly argues. In addition, elite sports consume a large amount of money and resources set aside for sports. Worse, sports that have multiple events, such as swimming or rowing, are given increased funding over team sports that have only two medals, such as basketball.
Donnelly questions the selection of Olympic sports at the end of his presentation. He wonders how the Olympics can promise greater participation of the masses when the masses can’t afford to participate in most of the sports at the Olympics.