Medals Medals Medals*

2022 is an Olympic year, and as the Beijing Olympics unfold, the focus of a lot of the media coverage is on the medals. It’s great for any athlete to win, especially at such a high-profile event – but a lot gets lost when the Olympics, or any major sporting event, are framed mostly in terms of who wins.

Leadership theory tells us that a leader can’t be a leader without followers. Similarly, a winner is only a winner if they have competitors to beat. Everyone competing at the Olympics has worked incredibly hard, spent a lot of money (or a lot of their parents’, sponsors’, or sports federation’s money), and sacrificed opportunities to do other things. Viewership for Olympic TV and streaming broadcasts has been declining and maybe, just maybe, the nationalist focus on only the athletes who win medals is starting to wear a little thin.

Prior to the Games, the Globe and Mail newspaper ran an extremely interesting article on how Norway increased the number of medals won by its Winter Olympic athletes. Many countries have programs like Canada’s Own the Podium, which use medals as the measure of success in sport, and direct funding to the sports and athletes perceived as most likely to win medals. That strategy usually requires identifying potential medalists as early as possible, and then supporting those athletes in intensive training in a single sport. Norway took a completely different approach.

Norway de-emphasizes competitive sports for younger athletes. Most sports don’t have national or even regional championships for athletes under the age of 13. Sport organizations are prohibited from giving performance-based prizes to participants younger than 12.  Also, children are not pushed into specializing in a single sport at an early age. It’s up to them to choose what sports they want to participate in, and how intensely they want to be involved.

Athletes can also participate in a sport, or sports, for as long as they want to. The Globe and Mail article notes that many parents of young athletes are also active participants in the same sport as their children. Obviously older people are not going to be contending for a spot on most Olympic teams, but the emphasis on participation for everyone, not just for elite competitors, is a key part of Norway’s sports strategy. And having fun is as important, or more important, than winning. The title of one of the country’s national sport strategy plans is “Joy For All”.

This strategy is radically different from those in many other countries, including Canada and the US. But it’s been tremendously successful. Norway is consistently among the countries that win the most medals at every Winter Olympics, and although the Norwegian model is not focused on that single outcome, it seems that the model nonetheless produces world-class athletes.

When looking at Norway’s success with this model of sport, it’s important to remember the geographic and demographic realities that underlie it. Norway has a relatively small population (just over 5 million people), some of whom live in very remote areas. So broad-based sport participation may be necessary to ensure enough participants for sports to be viable. Getting as many people involved as possible also helps to provide year-round sport opportunities, even in distant areas or in regions with small populations. And Norway also has enough government funding to be able to support broad-based participation, rather than expecting the cost of sports to be paid by the athletes, their clubs or federations, or their families.

This article made me think about one of the most widely promoted reasons that the Olympics are important: that they inspire people to be active. But does that really happen? The answer seems to be maybe, and maybe not consistently for all sports. Even if the Olympics do inspire someone to want to try a sport, they have to have access to a facility; for example, someone can’t play hockey if there isn’t an ice rink near them. They also have to have the time to participate, they have to have the physical ability to participate, and they need to be able to pay for things like equipment and coaching fees. All of this means that there can be a very big gap between wanting to play a sport and actually being able to do it.

There’s another consideration, too. Workplace motivational theories say that for a goal to be motivating, it has to be achievable, or be perceived as achievable. Many young athletes will say that their goal is to be in the Olympics, and many young athletes’ parents justify the amount of money they’re putting into their children’s sport as an investment in their child going to the Olympics, or being a professional athlete.

But the actual chances of that happening are frighteningly small.  I looked for membership demographic numbers in my own sport, figure skating, but I couldn’t find any for Skate Canada. So I’m going to use US Figure Skating’s very comprehensive fact sheet instead. I used the numbers of USFS members between 13 and 18 years old as the age group most likely to include Olympic athletes, although skaters have to be at least 15 years old to participate in the Olympics.

Number of USFS members in 2020-21: 133,411

Number of female members between 13 and 18 years old: 21,346

Number of male members between 13 and 18 years old: 2,668

Maximum number of figure skaters per country at each Olympics: 18 (three each in men’s singles, women’s singles, pairs, and ice dance)

That’s 18 athletes once every four years. And with only 30 overall entries in the men’s and women’s events, 20 entries in pairs, and 24 in ice dance, and three medals in each category, very few Olympians are going to go home with a medal.

No one would dispute that winning an Olympic medal is a huge achievement. But it’s not the only thing that sports should be about, and it shouldn’t be the only measure of achievement. Not every country can copy every part of Norway’s sport strategy, but sports in many countries could be radically transformed – for better – if funding and opportunities weren’t narrowly focused on supporting athletes that might win at the Olympics. Norway has shown that supporting sport for everyone can produce Olympic winners too.

*The title of this post is an (in)famous quote from David Dore, the former president of the Canadian Figure Skating Association/Skate Canada. In the early 1980s he told Canada’s top skaters, who he thought were underperfoming, that his goal was “medals, medals, medals”.  Four-time world champion Kurt Browning says in his autobiography that after Dore gave that speech, for a long time afterwards the Canadian skaters would yell “medals, medals, medals” in the dressing room when any of them won.

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