Focus on Developing Elite Athletes (5/8)

Jeff Prudhomme
May 30, 2018 · 4 min read

Policy Four from the Future of Sports & Society Discussion Project

Photo by Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil

The Basic Idea: Go for the Gold!

Celebrating the highest forms of human physical performance — this has always been at the core of sports. Sports provide a way for humans to excel, to push the limits of human performance, and to figure out who’s best. What if we decide that the goal of our sports policy is to foster the best athletes, to create champions? This policy focuses our public efforts on precisely this goal of developing elite athletes and winning championships. It prioritizes the highest level of achievement in sports rather than expanding or equalizing participation.

The Social Importance of Elite Sports

The rationale for this policy approach is many sided. Elite athletes and sports championships can empower communities, boosting their civic pride on the local, national, or international stage. In international competitions, superior athletic accomplishments can help a nation better navigate the world stage. Elite athletics can also provide an important form of public diplomacy and a way for communities and nations to work out conflicts without resorting to violence.

Consider South Korea’s experiences with the 1988 and 2016 Olympic Games. The games in 1988 helped the country emerge on the world stage and played an important role in the transition from an authoritarian state to a democracy. The 2016 Olympics occasioned a diplomatic opening between the two Koreas.

The Best Can Inspire

Elite athletes can also motivate participation for others. Elite athletes and their accomplishments show us the highest levels of human physical performance. The best athletic performances are like works of art, a thing of beauty in and of themselves. They play a large role in inspiring others to participate in sports. Elite athletes can inspire and motivate the grassroots of sports. Seeing the best at play is a way to learn to play like the best. On the flip-side, if you never see a sport played, you’ll likely never take it up.

Take an Intelligent Approach

If the development of elite athletes is a core public goal, then the approach to reaching this goal shouldn’t be haphazard. We should take an evidence-based approach toward success — wherever we may find it. If other countries are getting a better return on investment or consistently out performing us, we should learn from them. In terms of numbers of medals won, the US has generally been successful in the Olympic games, but per capita, or in terms of our population size, we don’t rank in the top ten. What could we learn from other countries that punch above their weight?

Consider the case of Australia, which has consistently ranked high in Olympic medals per capita (for all summer Olympics, it ranks #14 all time, with the US at #37). Australia achieves this level of success with a national policy that focuses on expanding the pool of sports participants combined with a focus on talent identification and development. The Australian Institute for Sport takes a scientific approach toward talent identification, including genetic, physiological, and psychological measurements.

Some possible features

  • Identify people with aptitude for various sports early in life, and work on skill development. If this is truly a public goal, then it should be funded as a public initiative.
  • Public funding would expand the pool of potential champion athletes by eliminating financial barriers for individuals to participate in a sport (if we limit sport participation by financial status, then we will surely lose some of our best talent)
  • Providing a wide variety of sports opportunities, and identifying aptitude for various sports early on, would expand the talent pool for developing star athletes
  • Learn from what works: emulate national programs that deliver the best per capita return on investments in elite athletic development for various sports

What could we learn from the French? Tom Farrey’s Game On contrasts the relative success of the French and US men’s national teams in soccer and their different approaches to youth development: in France the focus is on unstructured play (rather than organized competition) to keep training fun and to maximize touches to develop creativity with the ball among all players.

  • Use technology to foster athletic development
  • Big data could play an important role in gathering and analyzing metrics about individuals to assess aptitudes and support athletic development
  • As our knowledge of genetics advances, genetic testing for athletic aptitudes could be a component of a big data approach. Genetic engineering could even be on the horizon — with the development of CRSPR gene editing technology, this could be the next wave of human performance enhancement. (If athletic superiority can be designed, and if athletic superiority is a societal goal, then there may be public support for doing this).

Exploring Possible Impacts

  • How might this approach affect participation in sports and the overall landscape for sports?
  • How else might this policy be implemented? What might be other features needed to make this policy approach work?
  • What other broader social or cultural implications might this policy have? What tradeoffs might we face?
  • How might the policy affect the uses of technology and performance enhancements in sports?
  • What concerns might there be about the uses of big data, especially in regard to privacy and the over-management or control of athletes?
  • What other reasons might there be to support focusing public policy on elite athletics? Do these other reasons lead to additional insights about how the policy might be implemented?

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade