February, 2020

Text: Janneke Schilte. Translation by Jonathan Davies


“There’s a growing divide in sports. It’s bigger than expected.” says Maarten van Bottenburg, professor in Management and Organization Science at the Utrecht University. “Hard work and talent alone isn’t enough. Funding is an increasingly-determining factor in sports at the highest level.” Peakz sat down with van Bottenburg and talked about the influence of funding on high-level sports.

The professor has published several books, articles and reports on sports and sports policy, including the impact of sports on society and the current high-level sports climate. He sees a growing dependency on funding for talented athletes and says: “Talented athletes rely on the talent they were born with. That’s why athletes aren’t allowed to use doping. However, in practice, the playing field is far from level. Athletes are increasingly dependent on funding. Just look at Formula 1, an extreme example. It’s not just about the best driver, but also the best car.”


Worldwide race for medallions

Investments in sports are increasing globally. One country’s investments force another to raise theirs so they can compete. According to the professor we’re in a “worldwide race for medallions”. Research shows that countries that invest more in high-level sports, also increase their chances to win. “But, more investments do not equal more success” states van Bottenburg. “It requires an effective and efficient investment method. The Netherlands is ahead of the curve in this regard. Based on the investments we obtain results that exceed expectations.”

“A talented athlete without funding falls behind immediately”

The medallion race increases the level of high-level sports. “Individual athletes constantly have to do more to stay at the top,” says van Bottenburg. “Hard work and talent are less of a factor on results in high-level sports, because the level has increased exponentially. Athletes are dependent on the circumstance in which they perform. The tools an athlete can collect are also a factor. An incredible talent from India has less of a chance than the same talent in the United States or the Netherlands. Talent development is better there, and there are better facilities, trainers and internships. All those tools give a huge advantage to talent. And those tools all cost money.”


Funding puts pressure on the athlete

The necessity for high-level funding puts pressure on trainers, clubs, teams and athletes. Van Bottenburg names Ireen Wüst as an example. “Ireen isn’t just working on her own performance. She’s also responsible for her entire team’s financing. That team counts on her performance and her ability to attract sponsors. The bigger the sponsorship revenue, the more tools can be used, the more the team can prepare itself for the oncoming season. That has to take a toll on Ireen. I can imagine that pressure distracts from an otherwise full-focus on high-level sport.”

“Funding is an increasingly-determining factor for selection in high-level sports”

He continues: “A decrease in funding for one season is disastrous for a talented athlete. Their careers are very short. A temporary decrease in funds means an immediate handicap for the athlete.” That selection is harsh. The road to the top is paved with dropouts, according to the professor. “There’s only a very small amount of people that reaches the top of the world. I don’t know the exact percentage of people that drop out due to a lack of funding. Only a few receive media attention. The rest disappears into anonymity.”


Impact on society

High-level sports are generally well organized in the Netherlands. Talent with no, or limited, financial means still stand a chance to reach the top. Although those chances are decreased. “Sports is a way out for children from disadvantaged environments”, states van Bottenburg. “In sports, education and upbringing are less of a factor. The structural inequality they’re met with in society, should be less of a factor in sports. Of course it’s incredibly demotivating if it turns out that this structural inequality is also a factor there. The disadvantaged can feel even more secluded. Sport actually has a higher level of inequality than you would expect.”

“Equal opportunity makes sport more exciting” 

Peakz strives for easier funding for talented athletes all around the world. Suppose everyone has equal access to funding. What would that mean for high-level sports? “I imagine that performances will be more level” reacts van Bottenburg. “The differences between the top and sub-top will decrease. Now cyclists are privileged when they happen to ride for Sky (now Ineos). Small teams can’t compete with those gigantic investments. The guys in those teams can have all the talent they need; they’re not trained as well and have less tools at their disposal. If everyone has the same chances, competition will increase and so will the overall level. Athletes fan each other’s flames. Equal opportunity makes sport more exciting.”


Make high-level sports more exciting

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