There was a lot of complaining – justifiable complaining – about the media coverage of the recent Rio Olympics. The coverage was sexist; a television commentator attributed the success of swimming gold medalist Katinka Hosszu to her husband’s coaching, and a Tweet referred to bronze medalist trapshooter Corey Cogdell not by name but as the “wife of a [Chicago] Bears lineman”. The coverage was ageist; 56-year-old coxswain Lesley Thompson-Willey, competing in her eighth Olympics, was characterized as “old enough to be the competitors’ mother” in a story headlined “Too old for the Olympics”? And then there was the NBC network’s chief marketing officer for Olympic coverage, who got roundly criticized for claiming that women, the primary viewers of the Olympics on TV, were “not particularly sports fans” and “less interested in the result and more interested in the journey”.
But it wasn’t just the media coverage of the Olympics that had problems. The Olympic Games themselves have very big problems, to the point where some commentators contend that the Games are fundamentally broken. John Feinstein, a columnist for the Washington Post, succinctly summarized the problems with the Olympics as their being “too big, too dysfunctional, too expensive”. It’s argued, though, that the Olympics are still a good thing, because they have a bigger effect – inspiring people to get involved in sports and physical activity. More than one Olympian has said that what got them into sports was seeing the Olympics on TV. But research also suggests the Olympics will only inspire participation in sports if the right policies are in place to capture and leverage the enthusiasm after the Olympics.
Thomas Hall, an Olympic medalist in sprint canoeing, has written an article that raises another very valid concern about how the Olympics affect sport participation – specifically, about how programs funding Olympic-level athletes may actually be hurting opportunities for sport participation rather than increasing those opportunities. Hall criticizes Canada’s Own The Podium (OTP) sport funding strategy, which was established in 1992 to “improve and professionalize” Canadian athletes’ training so as to increase the number of medals won by Canadians at the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
In Hall’s view, OTP wrongly focuses on Olympic medals as the sole criterion of athletic success, and funnels money only into those sports and athletes deemed to show the most potential to win medals in the future. This, Hall argues, goes against the principles of Canada’s Physical Activity and Sport Act, which states that one of the objectives of Canadian sport policy is “to increase participation in the practice of sport”. Since OTP was launched, the rate of sport participation in all age groups in Canada has actually declined.
Obviously this decline can’t be directly attributed to OTP, but Hall’s article suggests a couple of reasons why OTP and sport funding programs like it hurt rather than help sport participation. These programs support only some athletes and some sports, rather than supporting all participants and activities regardless of their athletes’ accomplishments. The OTP funding criteria are a serious problem for sports and athletes when they don’t perform as expected; if OTP funding stops, it can be very difficult and costly to maintain high-level performance, or to build it back up to a level where OTP funding can be regained. And these programs also tend to fund elite athletes by taking funding away from participatory or recreational sport programs.
(Hall’s article doesn’t mention the Long Term Athlete Development model which has been adopted by many sport organizations in Canada, but in my opinion these types of performance models also discourage rather than encourage long-term sport participation. The rigid age- and skill-based categories imply that athletes have failed if they don’t meet the norms associated with their age group, and the models implicitly prioritize competition over other types of sport participation.)
From my perspective as a participant in adult skating – a sport where none of us will get to the Olympics (although some of us have been there already) – Hall’s views make a lot of sense to me. Participating in any sport at an elite level is a hugely expensive proposition, and athletes at that level deserve as much support as possible. But focusing on Olympic medals as the only measure of sport accomplishment, and doing so at the expense of funding lower-level programs, is an unsustainable strategy. Every Olympian in every sport started out as a beginner somewhere; if opportunities to get into a sport are limited or non-existent, oversubscribed, or too expensive, that reduces the numbers of participants from which the future Olympians will emerge. And the focus on “medals! medals! medals” – as former Canadian skating administrator David Dore used to admonish competitors – has led to such intense specialization and hyper-competitiveness that many young, promising athletes are retiring rather than continuing in an activity they used to enjoy.
The excessive costs, the wastefulness, and the commercialization of the Olympics are unfortunate for a myriad of reasons. But one of the saddest outcomes of this problematic situation is that the greater potential of the Olympics – to use sport to change people and to change the world – is being lost. Promoting winning as the only meaningful measure of athletic achievement ignores the huge amount of other benefits from participating in sports – benefits that don’t come from standing atop a podium. There are no signs that the problems with the Olympics are going to be seriously addressed any time soon, but it would be a start if sports organizations and sport funders looked at ways to support athletes that focused less on Olympic medals and focused more on encouraging “sport for all”. That would be a step toward remaking the Olympics into something better than what they are they now.