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Year on year elite sport has huge events and competitions. It has winners, losers and a whole bunch of clichés. The success of athletes in huge competitions is often coupled with its own, somewhat baseless, assumption that it will inspire a new generation of athletes.
A new wave of love for sport, people going out en masse to try and emulate their heroes, it is how politicians and organisers can justify spending hundreds of millions on bringing huge sporting events to town.
The ‘trickle-down effect’ is a theory in sport which is held as gospel yet has no real analysis backing it up. Speaking ahead of England versus New Zealand, England captain Eoin Morgan peddled the same idea, an England victory, he said, would “inspire a nation.”
Megan Rapinoe has rightfully been the poster girl for the US women’s soccer team. I have seen a number of articles on how she and her team have done something similar since their success. Simona Haleps stunning victory in the Women’s Singles final at Wimbledon has probably also provoked a similar reaction in her home nation.
There is very little evidence of this being true however. Pamela Wicker and Bernd Franc, two German scientists who studied participation in German amateur football over a 15-year period, found that following the Men’s 2006 and 2010 World Cups there were slight increases in participation but that the numbers fell following the 2002 tournament.
Overall, they concluded that success was a small factor for amateurs in the men’s game. For the women, it was even more damning.
Wicker and Franc said that “sporting achievements of female teams have no measurable inspirational effect on both male and female participation.” Rasmus Storm’s study on Danish Handball found no evidence of inspiration; Jan Haut’s international table tennis study came up short too.
Post tournament analysis in Japan of the 2011 women’s World Cup seemingly set the bar for where we are at and the problem that is potentially ignored. Japan won the 2011 iteration and participation by young women in the country did increase, so it makes sense to attribute that increase to the success. The problem was that it was not by a greater number than could have occurred by chance. For example, had Japan not even participated in the World Cup the participation numbers would still have been expected to be roughly the same.
This isn’t to say that top level sporting success has no effect; I believe it creates a buzz that could be capitalised upon. People taking to the streets, waving flags, cheering on their favourite athletes is not standard behaviour. In fact, I was in the UK last summer and it was difficult to go into any public space without hearing the cry of “It’s coming home!” The England team hadn’t even won anything, they were just doing well.
The London Olympics of 2012 were a prime example of this hysteria not being capitalised upon. The UK government issued a report following the games designed to be an ode to the resounding success of the event. The tagline for the games that year was “Inspire a Generation” and it seems they did just that. Seventy five per cent of people that were not currently active were then interested in sport. A mere seven years later and a new report suggesting 33 per cent of children do less than the recommended amount of exercise per day. That suggests that maybe the initial “success” was not translated into long term community benefits.
In my opinion, the “inspiration” should come from both ends of the spectrum: grassroots and elite level. When something is happening at the top such as success or the hosting of a big event, governing bodies both in politics and sport should look to push people towards their grassroots doorways.
Classes could be funded to get people through the door and immersed. At the Juventus Academy in Saar, we offer free taster sessions for that reason. How are you supposed to know you enjoy yourself before you’ve even tried? It would be fantastic if there could be more funded sessions for martial arts, table tennis and gymnastics. Encourage participation through direct opportunities for people who would otherwise give it a miss.
Currently, we have a rhetoric which is wrong. Elite sporting success does not inspire an influx of new athletes; we simply hope that it will get people to inspire themselves. With all the funding that comes with big sporting events I hope that there will, in time, be more of a push towards grassroots opportunities and to really seize the opportunity created by sporting success to make a lasting change.