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Does elite sporting success influence public participation in sport and exercise?

We Australians like to think of ourselves as a great sporting nation, and at various periods in history that has undoubtedly been true. Our cricketers have often been hailed as the best in the world; our tennis players likewise (though not so much in recent times). Australian swimmers continue to win disproportionately large swags of Olympic medals, the Diamonds are simply the best in the international netball competition and we do very well in cycling, basketball, sailing, rowing and many other sports.


Sporting excellence doesn’t happen by accident. Athletes put in long hours of training – Malcolm Gladwell theorised that 10 000 hours of deliberate practice are needed to become world-class in any field, although that idea has been questioned recently. Coaches contribute their expertise, and parents supply transport, food, encouragement and sporting genes.

In addition, many sporting codes in Australia, including professional sport, receive some level of public subsidy. Governments spend taxpayers’ money on sport for several reasons, including maintaining national pride and identity. Hence, the public outrage that attended our woeful performance at the Montreal Olympics (1976 – five medals, none gold, our lowest totals ever) spurred the federal government to begin funding elite sport systematically, through creation of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) and other programs. Between the London and Rio Games, the AIS spent $332 million on preparing our athletes to compete in Olympic competitions, meaning the 29 medals won at the Rio Olympics cost an average of $11.4 million each.

Another justification for spending public money on elite sport is that it inspires increased participation by the general public in sporting activities and therefore leads to better health for everybody. In a paper published in the International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics in 2012, Jonathan Grix and Fiona Carmichael wrote of the widespread concept of a ‘virtuous cycle of sport’ (see below), in which thousands of people practising sport at the grassroots level leads to the development of a few Olympic champions – and simultaneously the existence of champion role models encourages thousands of people to take up sport.


Grix and Carmichael, referring to the period before the London Olympics, wrote that ‘sport, in and of itself, is understood as an intrinsically “good” thing; yet, investments of over £300 million for a 3-year period (2009–2012) in any other policy sector would command a great deal of explanation and justification.’

Australian governments have long adhered to the concept of elite sports as part of a nation-building agenda, as outlined above. A 2004 Senate report on women’s participation in sport states that:

Australians have continued to excel in elite sporting performance in the international context as a result of focused investment by successive governments. This investment recognises that elite sport is essential to the Australian sport and recreation system as it has three roles: assisting athletes realise their full potential; providing inspirational role models for existing and future participation; and evoking local, regional and national identity and pride.

What is the evidence that elite sporting success inspires ‘ordinary’ people to take up sport or be more active in general? Does the funding of elite sports translate into health benefits for the population at large?

The health benefits of physical activity.

First of all, there is no doubt that regular physical activity is important for good health. It reduces risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and helps to control weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and type 2 diabetes. It strengthens the musculoskeletal system, reducing the risk of osteoporosis and the severity of injuries sustained in falls. Physical activity also improves mental wellbeing by reducing stress, anxiety and depression.

If funding elite sport contributes to greater public participation in physical activity, then it is valid to claim that it promotes better population health. Let’s assess the evidence and explore its implications.

Does elite sport have a ‘trickle-down’ effect?

In the United Kingdom, despite their athletes’ unprecedented success at the Beijing (2008) and London (2012) Olympics, the number of people who participated in some kind of sporting activity once a week for 30 minutes fell from 15.7 million to 15.6 million between October 2013 and 2014. National data show a fairly steady decline in adult sporting participation since the peak measured in 2012.

Cora Craig and Adrian Bauman studied the influence of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics on physical activity and sport participation among Canadian children and adolescents. Using results from a survey of 19 862 parents, they could find no effect of the Games on objectively measured physical activity or the prevalence of overall sports participation among Canadian children.

In Germany, Arne Feddersen and Wolfgang Maennig showed that the number of members of tennis clubs fell during the golden era of Boris Becker, Michael Stich and Steffi Graf, and continued to fall after their retirement.

Mega-events such as Olympic Games are invariably touted as producing widespread and significant increases in sporting activity. However, reviews of the sports research literature suggest that ‘major sporting events have no inevitably positive impact on levels of sports participation’; similarly, the idea of a link between sporting role models and general sporting participation is not supported by evidence.

What might explain the poor relationship?

One of the paradoxes of elite sporting codes is that they are often sponsored by the manufacturers and retailers of unhealthy food and drinks, including the alcohol industry. Exposing people – especially children – to junk food advertising affects what they consume, and this has been demonstrated specifically with respect to sports sponsorship.

Junk food consumption contributes substantially to almost one in four Australian children being overweight or obese. These children are also less likely than their non-overweight peers to be involved in physical activity and to eventually contribute to the elite ‘talent pool’.

Mahtani and colleagues, in Can the London 2012 Olympics ‘inspire a generation’ to do more physical or sporting activities? An overview of systematic reviews, cited evidence that elite sporting success actually deterred general participation due to a perceived ‘competence gap’. They also suggested that any increase in activity following a major sporting event was likely to occur in people already involved in sport – meaning there was little or no improvement in population health.

Finally, as Joe Baker, Parissa Safai and Jessica Fraser-Thomas noted in Health and elite sport: Is high performance sport a healthy pursuit?, a wide variety of factors (parents with time and economic resources to invest in their children’s sporting activities; the existence of a supportive culture, including flourishing clubs; school-based and adult sporting facilities) must exist for full and equitable participation in sport, and these are far from uniformly distributed in Australia or worldwide.

Funding for grassroots versus elite sports

Australia’s expenditure on sport has long been weighted roughly 80:20 in favour of elite sports. This equation also applies to the national sports budget of the Netherlands, but there the balance favours grassroots sport.

Netherlands won 22 medals in Athens (Australia 49), 16 in Beijing (Australia 46), 20 in London (Australia 35) and 19 in Rio (Australia 29) – a steady performance. Adjusting Australia’s medal numbers to account for the Netherland’s smaller population gives 38, 36, 27 and 22 medals; still better than the Dutch, but not much better, and the trend is clearly downward. Despite these figures, the Australian Sports Commission’s 2016–17 investment allocation delivered more of the same: $98 million for high-performance sport and $20.4 million for participation.


What about other outcomes of sports funding that might indirectly benefit health?

Sport contributes significantly to national and local economies, as participants purchase clothing, sports equipment, club and organisation fees, and fees for admission to sporting venues. More directly, workplace sporting and exercise programs help to reduce absenteeism and health care costs, and increase productivity.

As a case study, the Sydney Olympic Games was touted as producing a legacy of improved sporting facilities and infrastructure, economic and environmental benefits, and increased tourism, all of which could be represented as leading to or enabling better health outcomes for Sydneysiders and Australians in general.

The Games certainly delivered new, world-class sporting and entertainment venues, allowing Sydney to host the 2003 Rugby World Cup and the World Masters Games in 2009. They led to creation of the largest metropolitan parkland in Australia, comprising 430 hectares of wetlands, woodlands and remediated lands, and over 40 kilometres of pedestrian and cycling paths. Australia’s first large-scale, urban water recycling system was established, saving about 850 million litres of drinking water a year.

In the final analysis, the economics of the Games has proved less cheerful. They were predicted to add $7.3 billion to the economy and create 156 000 jobs, but a Monash University study found that the Sydney Olympics generated a net loss of $2.1 billion. Similarly, the Tourism Forecasting Council predicted a ‘strong impact for four years after the Olympics’, but in fact international arrivals in Australia fell.

Do elite athletes benefit from their participation in high-performance sports?

Baker, Safai and Fraser-Thomas correctly noted that ‘individuals who routinely push their bodies to the limit … experience tremendous bodily wear and tear’. Stories of Australian Rules footballers playing despite concussion or other serious injuries, often requiring painkilling injections, are legendary. Nevertheless, the evidence about elite sportspeople’s mortality is positive.

In a systematic review of mortality and longevity in elite athletes, Srdjan Lemez and Joseph Baker reported that most studies found elite athletes lived longer than age-matched and sex-matched controls from the general population and non-elite athletes. One of the articles they reviewed described a meta-analysis of 10 cohort studies involving 42 807 athletes (707 women), which showed that top-level athletes lived longer than the general population and had a lower risk of CVD and cancer.

Conclusion

Despite widespread belief in the idea, there is scant evidence that elite sporting success has a substantial and/or sustained effect on participation in sporting and physical activity among the broader population, and therefore population health. The little research that exists suggests there is no relationship between elite sporting success and population health. A detailed cost-benefit analysis of the benefits of investment in elite sport versus direct investment in health promotion and public health would make interesting reading.

  • About the author: Campbell Aitken
  • Dr Campbell Aitken is a freelance editor and a senior research fellow at the Burnet Institute.

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