Comparing national elite sport policies

At the end of 2002 a consortium of researchers from three nations (Belgium, the Netherlands and United Kingdom) initiated an international comparative study on elite sports policies. These researchers expressed common needs, all from their own perspective, to fill the gap in scientific research regarding the relationship between elite sport policies and international sporting success and to benchmark their nation against others.

Their common purpose was reflected in the name “SPLISS”, which stands for Sports Policy factors Leading to International Sporting Success.

A joint research project was established, of which the first stage was an overall comparison of elite sport policies in six nations: Belgium, Canada, Italy, Netherlands, Norway and the United Kingdom.

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Addressing how elite sport impacts upon society

Researcher: Jens De Rycke

Research question: Nations investments in high performance sport is booming, which requests policy makers to justify their use of public taxes. It is predominantly argued – despite a lack of robust empirical evidence – that elite sport will trigger a number benefits for the population. The latter is highly contested among academics. Surprisingly, insights in how the tax-payer perceives the societal outcomes of elite sport is scarce. As the latter could provide valuable knowledge, the research question of this study is: ‘What positive and negative societal outcomes of elite sport are perceived by the Belgian population?’

Research methods: A scale of 73 items was build based on the positive and negative societal outcomes outlined in the Elite Sport Societal Outcomes (ESSO) Model. A representative sample from the Belgian population (n=1102) was obtained. Finally, multilevel analysis was employed to detect to what extend socio-demographic factors mediate the publics’ perception.

Results and Findings: The results indicate that the Belgian population generally perceived more positive than negative societal outcomes of elite sport. The most positively perceived outcomes relate to national pride, the status of athletes and sport industry commercial activities. Negative outcomes relate to excessive spending and effects on the local living conditions when hosting events. Also, Belgians seem to acknowledge the mental and physical destructiveness of an elite sport career.

Implications: Insights in what outcomes are perceived by tax-payers could support evidence-based decision-making regarding governmental investments in elite sport.

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Examining elite sport policies in specific sports

Research on elite sport policy tends to focus on the policy factors that can influence success. Even though policies drive the management of organizational resources, the organizational capacity of countries in specific sports to allocate resources remains unclear. This paper identifies and evaluates the organizational capacity of five sport systems in athletics (Belgium [separated into Flanders and Wallonia], Canada, Finland, and the Netherlands). Organizational capacity was evaluated using the organizational resources and first-order capabilities framework (Truyens, De Bosscher, Heyndels, & Westerbeek, 2014). Composite indicators and a configuration analysis were used to collect and analyze data from a questionnaire and documents. The participating sport systems demonstrate diverse resource configurations, especially in relation to program centralization, athlete development, and funding prioritization. The findings have implications for high performance managers’ and policy makers’ approach to strategic management and planning for organizational resources in elite sport.

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Paralympic athletes pathways and policies

The primary aim of this research program is to develop global understanding surrounding the factors optimising the successful development of elite Paralympic athletes both at the national elite sport system (research project 1), as well as at a sport-specific level (research project 2). The intention is to use this knowledge to inform national policy makers working towards improving the elite sporting climate in which Paralympic athletes train and develop as well as towards improving the success of their country in international Para-sport competitions.

Through engagement of key para-sport stakeholders, Para-SPLISS aims to develop an international network providing a communication platform that:

  1. Strengthens relationships between governments, researchers and actors of the Paralympic movement.
  2. Encourages knowledge sharing on best management practices towards the development of (elite) para-sport.

Supported by the SPLISS consortium and thanks to the effort of a diverse group of people over the period 2013-2015, the Para-SPLISS team was able to launch the project in April 2016. Para-SPLISS is currently supported by two complementary PhD projects.

PhD Project 1 – Developing a national policy framework for assessing factors influencing a country’s Paralympic success.

The first PhD project commenced in April 2015 at Victoria University in Melbourne (Australia) and is responsible for the development, validation and testing in an empirical environment of the Para-SPLISS framework.

The purpose of this research project is to identify and analyse the key drivers of effective national elite sport systems that contribute to a nation’s overall success in Paralympic competitions.

Two specific research aims have been set:

  1. To identify the key policy success factors which contribute to a nation’s Paralympic success,
  2. To identify the key contextual factors which affect the effectiveness of elite sport policies in the para-sport environment.

The long-term intention of this project (beyond the scope of this 3-year PhD) is to apply the Para-SPLISS framework in different countries to evaluate national sport policies developed and implemented to increase the country’s chances for Paralympic success.

A key aspect of this research is its inclusive methodology, which will be monitored through consultations with the Para-SPLISS advisory committee.

Project 1 research team:

Aurélie Pankowiak, PhD Candidate (Victoria University, Mebourne)

Prof. Dr. Hans Westerbeek, Principlal Supervisor (Victoria University, Mebourne)

Dr. Camilla Brockett, Associate Supervisor (Victoria University, Melbourne)

Prof. Dr. Veerle De Bosscher, External Supervisor (Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium)

For more information about this project, please contact Aurélie Pankowiak:    

PhD Project 2 – Building Athletes Pathways in Paralympic Sports: explaining individual sporting success.

The second PhD project is being developed at Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Belgium). The main aim is to examine the sport policy factors that influence the Paralympic athlete pathways by identifying the different stages of Paralympic athletes’ attraction, retention, talent ID/development and mastery/perfection stage.

Two specific research aims have been set:

  1. To identify systems and structures to optimise Paralympic athlete development pathways, sport and impairment specific;
  2. To understanding the relationship between macro/meso/micro level influencing factors and sporting success.

A conceptual model “Paralympic Athlete Pathways” will be developed focusing on sport and impairment specificity. The model will be validated and tested in an empirical environment. The implementation of the factors will be examined and compared in a comparative case study to explain individual sporting success in Paralympic sports.

Project 2 research team:

 Jacqueline Patatas, PhD Candidate (Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium)

Prof. Dr. Veerle De Bosscher, Supervisor (Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium)

For more information about this project, please contact Jacqueline Patatas: 

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Investigating the context wherein national elite sport policies are shaped

The aim of this research is to provide a complete understanding of the sport policies in South Africa (SA) with regard to mass sport for recreation involvement, and the elite sporting system created to develop high performance athletes. In the subsequent sections, various specific contextual factors will first be defined which may influence the sport policy implementation in SA. Furthermore, a synopsis will be presented on the post-apartheid sport policies and the imperative emphases outlined in each. A description will be provided on the organisation of the stakeholders in both mass and elite sport, and the sport-funding stream allocations to both portfolios will be illustrated. Lastly, the article ends with a discourse on the emerging issues and concerns of sport policy and sport in SA.

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Investigation of how contextual factors of countries may influence elite sport policy and athlete performances

This systematic scoping review aims to clarify how context conditions are defined and
and to what extent researchers operationalise this concept into shaping nations’ elite sport policy process and international sporting success outcomes. ‘Context’ is
something that many in the field of public [sport] management deem with significant importance, but few define it, and even fewer do so much to describe and analyse it (Pollitt, 2013). Hence, this literature review aims to describe the nature, potential use and value of the concept of ‘context’ of countries in the policy process of elite sport development and international success. The following primary review questions will be addressed: (1) How is ‘context’ defined or conceptualised within elite sport policy literature and other relevant academic studies?; (2) What methods and theoretical frameworks (if any) have been used for analysing elite sport policies?; and (3) To what extent do individual contextual factors shape international sporting success? This study hopes to contribute to our understanding of context conditions in developing elite sport systems. Finally, a unifying ‘macro-/meso-level context factors framework’ will be proposed that aims to clarify the many questions that remain about achieving optimal
elite sport environment in different nation contexts.

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Investigating national elite sport policies concerning winter sports

Since the early 1990s, competition in the Olympic Winter Games has changed notably in terms of events contested and nations taking part. Despite, these changes, which are overseen by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the number of medal-winning nations has remained relatively stable.
As a first attempt to illustrate this issue on a discipline-by-discipline basis, economic techniques are used to examine the outcome of competition between 1992 and 2014. The purpose of this paper is to measure: market size; the number of competing nations; and the balance between competitive nations in six disciplines.
Focusing on competitive balance, the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index is applied to measure the concentration of domination; while the Przeworski Index is used to quantify instability over time. Important changes are identified in biathlon (2010) and short track (2014). While the change in the former is consistent with the IOC’s substantial increase in biathlon events, the latter can be attributed to athletes changing their nationality.

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Talent Identification (the relationship between junior success and senior success in elite athletes)

Most countries attempt to develop systematic structures to identify gifted talented athletes and to promote their development in certain sports. However, forecasting years in advance for the next generation of sport experts is challenging. The aim of this study is exploring how junior athletes performed in senior and how senior athletes performed in junior. The aim is to facilitate talent identification and development program by identify a critical age at which athletes should start to perform in international competitions, and to what extent it is reliable to use junior success as a criterion to predict senior success.

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