Participation, development, and gold medals

I wrote about this article once already, but I continue to see members of the USOC retweet and praise the article. The article essentially argued that the U.S. is failing in the Olympics, on a per capita basis, because of a lack of sports science and top-down control. Now, it would make sense that sports scientists and administrators within the USOC would 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 that praised Great Britain and Australia for its sports science advances 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 performances in the Olympics:

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 type of top-down funding and control, it would be difficult to make a parallel. However, because much of funding for sport 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. However, 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?

Great Britain won medals in the 2012 Summer Olympics in:

Screen Shot 2016-08-04 at 9.29.32 AMAs a comparison, the less successful (on a per capita basis) U.S. Olympic team won sports in:

Screen Shot 2016-08-04 at 9.31.25 AMOf course, whereas most medals are individual medals (except a few events within a sport), basketball, water polo, soccer, rowing (most events), and volleyball are team sports with more participants required to win medals.

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

Screen Shot 2016-08-04 at 9.35.46 AM

If you look more closely at these tables, it appears that when the author of the article talks about sports science elevating performance and how talent ID and a central sports authority and research institutes have made a difference in Australia and Great Britain, he really meant that GB and Australia have identified a few sports (cycling and rowing especially, and swimming in Australia) that allow GB and Australia to maximize the number of medals for the amount of expense.

The question, and I do not know the answer, is how much these medals and this funding and sports science in these sports have led to increases in youth participation in these sports. How many youth athletes are now physically active in these sports who were not prior to the emphasis in talent ID and sports science? How has the funding enhanced all the athletes in the sports, not just the Olympians? Finally, are 21 medals in cycling and rowing worth the cost of cutting all funding to the second most popular participation sport among youths in the country?

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

To ask another way: Is funding sports based on Olympic success the best measure for U.S. tax dollars or should more 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 been successful in the Olympics; 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 basic point is that Great Britain wanted to win a lot of medals at its home Olympics, so it picked some less popular sports (by participation) that it could have some quick success by identifying potential athletes and training them in these sports. On the other hand, the U.S. does not engage in this type of 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. Again, 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 number of medals that it wins in nearly every popular sport in which it participates. I imagine there are swimming events where the U.S. could go 1-2-3, but only 2 Americans qualify in each event, thus limiting 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.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals

4 thoughts on “Participation, development, and gold medals

  • One of the big questions in sports is the goal. Is it to win medals? Provide jobs? health and fitness? What are the goals and how are they best achieved? People often cite the Olympics as inserting more physical fitness, but a recent article about the effects in England after the 2012 Olympics disputes that:

    The number of people playing sport in England has fallen since the 2012 London Olympics, despite the Games’ pledge to “inspire a generation.”

    Figures show the number of once-weekly participants has dropped by 8,700 since the 2012 London Olympic Games.

    Sport England data reveals the biggest decline is among people from ethnic minorities and economically-deprived groups.

    BBC analysis of the data found five of the nine regions in England recorded a decline in sports participation.

    Where should a nation spend its athletic dollars? Participation by the masses? Performance by elite?

  • This Great Britain model is the for nationalistic purposes. It’s praised by those who seek to benefit from potential government money. It’s a cute misguided shortcut: reminds me of telling 9 year old baseball/softball players to put the bat on her shoulder or telling a 7th grade volleyball player to serve underhand: Good short term, bad long term.

    Being political: Probably not a good idea for the U.S.A. to spend money to maximize medals…much of the ROW views us stateside disparagingly already, and medal dominance wouldn’t help.

    Long run: Youth participation the best route. For both medal count and for a healthy society. Seems forgotten the healthy society part should trump.

  • All things considered and acknowledging its imperfections and inadequacies, the school system is the best sports system in the world because it allows for more participation. Unfortunately, we’re moving away from a school sports system due to funding cuts, and that certainly will lower participation rates, which ultimately effects performance. There are many areas where that is evident in girls basketball, despite the overwhelming success at the highest levels.

    The best thing that the USOC, NFHS, etc. could do for Olympic success would be to lobby for mandatory P.E. in elementary and middle schools and support middle-school sports programs with funding. From a USOC perspective, financially supporting school sports programs could allow them to influence the sports adopted, and more money could be invested in wrestling, boxing, fencing, field hockey, team handball, taekwondo, judo, and other sports where the U.S. tends not to medal as often as track, swimming, gymnastics, etc.

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