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Sport: nothing more than a kid’s game in an adult world…



If you are interested in reading about all the good things sport can offer to individuals and society at large, you’d better stop reading because you won’t find it here. The reason is simple: many sport advocates have already done it before. They have referred to various personal and social benefits of sport and most likely have illustrated this with best practices and in some cases even with scientific data. More than once, they have quoted famous inspirational leaders (such as Nelson Mandela’s “Sport has the power to change the world”) or highly respected organisations that stressed sport’s great potential and contribution to society. Almost all of them have emphasized the need to use and recognize sport as a powerful means to personal development and increased social cohesion. Among other things, they have pleaded for more support for quality in guidance of sport and physical education at school, for more participation opportunities for the elderly, people with disabilities, ethnic minorities and specific ‘hard to reach’ groups. Some have even argued that sport can be regarded as an important contributor to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) ranging from ending world poverty to achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls by 2030. But whether or not sport is really up to this, is yet to be determined. It so happens that an increasing number of researchers have raised serious doubts whether these high expectations can actually be achieved through sport or - at least - in an unconditional way.

But in fact that is not the real issue here. The question I want to pose here is the following: has all this advocacy for considering sport from a broader social perspective made any substantial difference in actual policy support? In other words, is sport now widely accepted for its personal and societal value and do policy makers act accordingly? My guess is at least that many sport advocates believe that sport has reached a higher level of recognition compared to the past. And for sure we can see some positive changes. For example, today we hear lots of national and local policy makers refer to sport as a tool in relation to a variety of societal challenges. Among other things, sport has been called a door-opener to convey crucial messages about a number of major social issues such as, for example, HIV/AIDS, children’s rights, the environment, education and so on. To an increasing extent, it seems to be regarded as a popular high impact social vaccine for a diversity of societal problems on different levels. While this seems to illustrate the growing belief in the ‘good of sport’ among decision makers, it is noteworthy that at the same time it is often described as a cost-effective tool. Or in other words, high on impact, but low on costs. However, except for the fact that this seems almost too good to be true, I see two problems about this line of reasoning. The first is, as mentioned earlier, the obscurity regarding the real social impact of sport. As an increasing number of researchers has referred to the complexities to measure social outcomes through sport, how can we then determine its high impact? The second, while undoubtedly very interesting from a policy (and economic) perspective, seems - at least - somewhat naive. As others already indicated, can we really expect that broad ‘stubborn’ social problems can be solved by devoting only limited resources? Unfortunately however, the high impact / low costdiscourse seems to be a dominant one in today (sport) policy making. The underlying basic assumption about the power of sport appears to be so deeply rooted that mere provision of sport opportunities is expected to do the trick. And therefore only involves a low cost. It seems like no additional policy measures or actions are needed other than lowering barriers for more people to become engaged in sport. Outcomes such as personal and community development will then soon follow. Or at least that is the idea.

I have often wondered why this simple logic has been used even up today. One of my (simplistic) guesses is that we mostly only encounter success stories as we often see happy, highly motivated and socially skilled people in sport. Many then assume that this is a result of their sport involvement. And perhaps it is. However, it might also be that it is exactly because of these attributes that people started to become involved in sport in the first place. We usually have no idea why others do not engage or drop out. Again, others have made similar remarks before, but what I find disturbing is that this simple logic is often the basis for the way how decision makers look at sport. Just make it available and it will automatically lead to all kinds of wonderful things. And because it is ‘simple’, not many extra efforts seem to be needed. It is almost like a kid’s game in the adult world: not to be taken too seriously (although pedagogues and developmental psychologists would disagree). But from a more general policy perspective this means that it is not something where the real (adult) world should put much extra effort in. Not to be compared to more ‘serious’ policy domains in life: education, integration, employment, etc. It is also interesting to note that while an increasing number of decision makers have found their way to active sport participation for themselves, when they return from the gym or club to their offices and board meetings, they seem to forget about it and get back to the real important ‘adult’ issues. So despite the high expectations policy makers have regarding the social value of sport, at many levels, sport policy often remains to be of secondary importance. But what about the longstanding recognition for sport’s contribution to public health? One might argue that this is an illustration of its social impact and relevance. However, with the shift towards an emphasis on health enhancing physical activity (and a healthy lifestyle in general) - a much broader concept than sport -, it becomes clear that sport has lost a great deal of this legitimization basis for public investment. Perhaps the only real impact sport has on society at large at present is that it provides entertainment. Illustrative here is the high media interest for elite sport events (with the Olympics as the ultimate show).

I also experience as a researcher in sport science the secondary position of sport in policy. For example, when I look at the Horizon 2020 programme, the biggest EU Research and Innovation programme ever with nearly €80 billion of funding available over 7 years (2014 to 2020). One of its aims is to focus on research in order to tackle societal challenges in the EU. Sport has no place in it.


So coming back to my original question: has all the advocacy for considering sport from a broader social perspective made any substantial difference in actual policy support? Although it seems to have inspired policy makers to make use of a more positive rhetoric compared to the past, the fact that they have turned to a high impact / low cost discourse proves that they do not “put their money where their mouth is”. It might be time for sport advocates to start rethinking their strategy and try to explore ways how to convince others that sport can be more than just a kid’s game in an adult world.

Marc Theeboom

Professor Research group Sport and Society (SASO) Department Movement & Sport Sciences Faculty Physical Education & Physiotherapy

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