Sport has played an instrumental role in state policies since the late 19th century, as it could “camouflage problems ranging from poor cardiovascular health and juvenile delinquency to low tourist volume” (Houlihan 1997: 113). However, policy makers often face a “chicken-egg” dilemma when deciding which athletes should appropriate a bigger share of state funding: either lay grassroots, or elite representatives. While wider grassroots produce more elite athletes, elite athletes draw public participation in grassroots sport. Because sport policies usually are re-evaluated following an unsatisfactory result at an international competition, “the final conclusion is always further or even stronger support of elite sport, either because ‚we are in crisis‘ or because ‚we are on the right track’” (Dóczi 2012: 179). Nonetheless, in this essay, I argue that it is more important for the state to support and thus, to fund the wider base of sporting participants. A larger pool of grassroots athletes not only leads to a wider and therefore better selection of future elite representatives; it also has the potential to engage a wider and more diverse population in physical activity. “Sport for all” could also reduce health risks connected to the modern sedentary lifestyle. Moreover, in the era of a globalized sport market, the motivation to engage in sport does not come only from national representatives, but also from a number of international sport stars. However, when speaking about the support of grassroots sport, it is crucial to critically discuss how this support should be executed. The recent example from “post-London 2012” in Great Britain shows us that if the support is not systematic, it can bring the opposite effect.
A wide base of grassroots leads to a better selection of future elite athletes. Success in elite sport is undisputedly a result of individual talent and dedication, but also of a thoroughly developed sport policy. The math puzzle is rather straight-forward here: the more you have, the more you can choose from. Based on an analysis of Olympic success factors, Kiviaho and Mäkelä (1978) claim that even smaller countries with less resources can be successful in international competition if they select a particular sport and invest their limited resources into it. While exceptional individuals can occasionally emerge from small “family-run” sports (Botiková 2015), the continuity of success derives only from a systematic approach to the wider grassroots. Swimming in Hungary, rugby in New Zealand or alpine skiing in Austria are just some of the examples in which national sport policies are based on a selected sport. Continual success in those sports has brought their countries international recognition.
Some might argue that since elite athletes serve as role models for the wider national population, they deserve more funding. Even though this claim is legitimate, it is often overestimated. Moreover, elite athletes have better access to private sponsorships that help to fund their training, which is not the case for grassroots participants. Historically, there are several success stories of sport heroes (Smart 2005), who have served as a unifying symbol for their local communities, even nation states. Nevertheless, together with Giulianotti (2002), I would argue that in the commercialized and globalized sporting world of today, sports fans have a wider selection of global stars to choose from and to follow their example. In his taxonomy of football fans, Giulianotti (2002) points to the rising tendency to support a certain football club because of its stars, merchandise, and history, and not necessarily because of its local or national belonging. Since professional athletes have become part of the global labour market, in times of modern consumer fandom, attributes such as skills or success often prevail over the notion of nationality. The widely-publicized picture of a young Afghan boy wearing a white-blue striped plastic bag imitating his favourite footballer – Argentinian Lionel Messi – can serve as a good illustration.
The last part of the sport policy puzzle is the argument that state support of “sport for all” will contribute to a healthier population. While in the Cold War era, the state-organized mass sport in Eastern European countries was part of the strategy to boost military and industrial power (Giulianotti 2005), nowadays, the political legitimacy of a state’s concerns for a “healthy and active society” are connected to the discourse of the “in-activity pandemic” and rising rates of childhood obesity (Piggin, Bairner 2014). State policies then try to incorporate more hours of physical education into school curricula and provide more opportunities to engage in sports also in students’ free time. However, it is important to note that the sole concept of “free time” is connected to a certain socio-economic status, or using the words of P. Bourdieu – to a certain habitus and the lifestyle choices connected to it (Bourdieu 1998). Therefore, the challenge for a well-developed sport policy is that “sport for all” would really be for all, and not only for a selected few.
Returning to my proposed arguments, there is one paradigm that can be traced through all of them – the strive for success. Success is a keyword for most policy makers; it is an important characteristic of elite sport stars and it leads to the country’s international recognition (Slovak Sport 2020). However, it would be more constructive to redefine success through the notion of healthy and active society engaged in “sport for all”. Support of grassroots sport may lead to higher participation numbers and to a wider and better selection of elite representatives. The role of national elite representatives as a motivation for lay masses to pick up sport is vital, but should not be exaggerated. In the globalized sport market, this role is played by international sport stars; moreover, it derives from their skills, not necessarily national belonging. Elite athletes are also not solely dependent on state funding, as they have higher chances to get sponsorship deals with commercial partners. On the other hand, grassroots sport is basically reliant on the state.
In the end, I want to discuss how this state support for the grassroots should be implemented. The sport policy accompanying the London 2012 Olympics should serve as a memento. Ahead of the Olympic Games, the British government allocated massive funds for developing sporting infrastructure that was supposed to endorse the main motto of the Olympics, “Inspire a generation”, and boost the sports participation numbers in the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, it turned out that two years after the Olympic campaign, the actual numbers of people regularly participating in sports and exercise decreased (Rhodes 2016). Further, collected data showed a persistent challenge to encourage people from economically deprived or ethnic minority backgrounds involved with sport. Therefore, the sole construction of sporting infrastructure does not necessarily equal grassroots support. The effective support of “sport for all” must be delivered through systematic programs based on inclusivity across gender, class, and ethnic identity. In an ideal situation, engaging in sport should be a right, not a privilege.
Zuzana Botiková is a PhD student of Sociology
Article was proofread and edited by Nadya Jaworsky
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