Participation, development, and gold medals

I wrote about this article already, but USOC members continue to retweet and praise the article, which essentially argued that the U.S. failed in the 2012 Olympics, on a per capita basis, because of a lack of sports science and top-down control. Now, it makes sense for USOC sports scientists and administrators to retweet and support this argument, as it lends more credibility to their position, which may increase funding for their salaries and projects.

However, at what cost?

The article praised Great Britain and Australia for its sports science advances, but neglected to mention the costs associated with those advancements. For example, funding for basketball, the second most popular participation sport for youths in Great Britain, was cut because of poor Olympic performances:

That makes it [basketball] the second most popular team sport behind football, according to a 2014 UK Sport survey into participation, with half of those kids coming from black and minority ethnic communities.

Because the U.S. lacks the same top-down funding and control, it is difficult to make a parallel. However, because much of sports funding is through the school system, would Americans accept a cut in funding for football by the NFHS and NCAA if mandated by the USOC in order to devote those funds to Olympic sports? Would cutting football programs at the high-school level promote overall participation in sports?

Personally, I am not a fan of football. If I had a son, I would not allow him to play football, and I find Pop Warner and other youth tackle football leagues to be pointless, at best. Despite my dislike, they draw a lot of participants and help keep a segment of the population physically active. Would we be better off eliminating these sports by decreasing or eliminating funding in order to fund elite athletes and sports scientists in less popular sports?

These are the medals that Great Britain won in the 2012 Summer Olympics:

As a comparison, the less successful (on a per capita basis) U.S. Olympic team won medals in:

Of course, whereas most medals are individual (except a few events within a sport), basketball, water polo, soccer, rowing (most events), and volleyball are team sports with more participants required.

Because Australia was mentioned, here are its medals in 2012:

If you look closely, when the author argued that sports science improved performance, and suggested that talent identification, a central sports authority and research institutes elevated Australia and Great Britain, he meant that GB and Australia identified a few sports (cycling and rowing especially, and swimming in Australia) that allowed GB and Australia to maximize the medals for the expense.

The question, and I do not know the answer, is:

Have these medals and this funding and sports science increased youth participation in these sports? How many youth are physically active in these sports who were not prior to the emphasis on talent ID and sports science? Has the funding enhanced all athletes in the sports, not just the Olympians? Finally, are 21 medals in cycling and rowing worth cutting all funding to the country’s second most popular participation sport among youths?

Again, to use the U.S. as an example, if the USOC took a huge proportion of the money that U.S. schools spend on football (a non-Olympic sport) and spent that money on rowing and cycling programs at U.S. high schools and colleges, (1) would the U.S. win more medals, regardless of sports science, and (2) would overall youth sports participation increase? Could the money invested to attract new participants in these sports balance out the athletes with nowhere to play football because of the funding cuts?

To ask another way: Is funding based on Olympic success the best measure for U.S. tax dollars or should money be devoted to the more popular sports, even if many (lacrosse, football, baseball and softball – although now an Olympic sport again as of 2020) do not lead to Olympic medals?

Which is the better measurement for sports funding — Olympic success or participation rate?

The below graphic is from an ESPN article that measured sports participation from 2006-2010:

When looking at the U.S.’s failure in the Summer Olympics, look at the participation numbers. For boys, soccer is the only popular sport in which the U.S. has not had Olympic success; of the next popular sports, tennis and wrestling could be more successful. For females, the U.S. is very successful in every sport competed at the Olympics.

Therefore, if we look at participation, is the U.S. unsuccessful at the Olympics?

Really, the article’s point is that Great Britain wanted to win a lot of medals at its home Olympics, and it picked less popular sports (by participation) that could lead to quick success by identifying potential athletes and training them. On the other hand, the U.S. does not engage in this recruitment of specific athletes for specific sports, and many top athletes in the U.S. play sports that do not lead to Olympic medals or play sports from the Winter Olympics. Does that mean that the U.S. does a poor job?

How should a country measure its sports performance? Participation? Professional athletes? Sponsorship dollars? Olympic medals?

Note: Also, the U.S. is limited in the medals that it wins in nearly every popular sport in which it participates. There are swimming events where the U.S. could finish 1-2-3, but only two Americans qualify in each event, reducing potential medals. Similarly, a second U.S. women’s soccer team would be a medal candidate, and second U.S. men’s and women’s basketball teams would almost certainly medal.

Edit: There are apparently nine sports in which the U.S. has never won a gold medal. Presumably these are the sports where the U.S. needs to improve its sports science and talent ID to increase participation and improve performance: Women’s modern pentathlon; field hockey; triathlon, rhythmic gymnastics, table tennis, badminton, women’s indoor volleyball (2x defending silver medalists), team handball, and men’s soccer.

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