There’s no clearly defined way to sporting success, writes Brendan O’Brien
Wednesday, mid-morning, in Dublin’s Conrad Hotel and the only discordant notes in the lobby are an elderly American couple arguing over the time one of them spent on the laptop that morning. They’ve already missed at least one hail storm, after all, but the mood is far more convivial and the atmosphere brighter inside the ballroom around the back.
It is 100 days on the button until the opening ceremony for 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and the Olympic Council of Ireland have hoovered up a good bunch of athletes, coaches, team leaders and other support personnel to mark the occasion before they are fed to an expectant media posse for whom all this will eliminate hours of fruitless phone calls and frustration.
It’s a feelgood occasion and so it should be. Everyone wearing a tracksuit has already booked their plane ticket to Brazil and the expectation is that Ireland will this year field its largest ever Olympic team. Whatever the numbers, it will benefit from a support system the likes of which their predecessors could only dream about in the less than good old days.
Pat Hickey, president of Olympic Council of Ireland and a man who inhabits the most stratospheric of heights in the wider Olympic movement, stands at the podium and sets the scene.
Athletes are congratulated, fellow administrators in various organisations are given their dues and he tracks back to the success secured in London which, he says, has boosted the numbers playing sports at home.
Let’s pick up on that last one.
Hickey isn’t the only sports administrator to trot that line out with such ease. It is taken for granted by most people around the world that high-profile sporting successes by individuals and teams automatically equates to an avalanche of interest from further down the food chain where supposedly starstruck youngsters aim to ape their heroes.
It’s a theory that been misused many times, as was the case when Euro ’88 and Italia ’90 were all but credited with introducing football to rural Ireland: a lazy assumption that ignored the thousands of outposts outside the major cities — or garrison towns, if you like — where it had always flourished. And it has been proven a lie once more by the 2012 Olympics to which Hickey referred this week.
One of the cornerstones to London’s successful bid at the time was the desire to inspire a generation to be better and fitter. There were some encouraging figures to show an increase in numbers for athletics and cycling and yet by the summer of 2015 statistics showed that the number of people playing sport once in a week in the UK were down by 220,000 in just six months.
The fact is that there isn’t a shred of factual evidence to back up the belief that big-time success trickles back down the pyramid in that fashion. That was apparent as long ago as 2009 when Arne Feddersen, Sven Jacobsen and Wolfgang Maennig, three academics at the University of Hamburg, decided to test out the theory and produced a paper on their efforts.
Their litmus test was the so-called ‘Boris Becker Effect’ that took hold in Germany when Becker, Steffi Graf and Michael Stich — 28 Grand Slams and 146 other tournament wins between them – rose to global prominence in the mid- to late-80s from a country where tennis was a backwater sport that merited just 95 hours on national TV in 1985.
That was the same year a 17-year old Becker won his first Wimbledon, but that coverage had mushroomed to 2,738 hours within a decade and the revenue taken in by the German tennis federation catapulted from €500,000 to €12m in even less time.
The natural expectation was that there would be a similar jump in the numbers of people joining tennis clubs.
What the academics found was a double paradox: a “negative tennis growth affect associated with the time period of the ascendancy of the sports stars” and then another negative finding when the trio faded from the international circuit.
The conclusion? No discernible positive effect on membership numbers by the efforts of Becker, Graf and Stich.
There were some suggested reasons for it: one was the suspicion that ordinary Germans may have felt that they could never hope to emulate such success in a country where the most famous players until then had been the likes of the pre-Second World War amateur Gottfried von Cramm and Helga Masthoff who once lost a French Open decider to Margaret Court.
Another was possible “tennis fatigue”. Whatever the reason or reasons, what is clear is the ephemeral nature of success on the biggest of stages.
How many German tennis players playing today could any of us name now? Or how many Swedes after their flood of talent through the 1970s and into the ‘90s?
What all this points to is that there is no magic bullet: no such thing as a virtuous cycle between the grassroots and the elite.
And that’s no bad thing if it serves to concentrate minds on the fact that the only way to the top is to concentrating the people and the structures required at the very bottom.
In sport, as a whole, there is simply no inverting that pyramid.
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