The Art and Science of Fitness | Elite sport helps in getting the general population to be more active, or does it?
Often, the case built for elite sporting events is based on the assumption that they will make people more physically active. Does research back the claim?
“Excuse me, sir.” As I turned around, I saw a young girl running up to me, huffing and puffing. “Thank you for organising the half marathon at the school, and for acknowledging the effort put in by all the participants by giving medals to all who finished. I moved to Wynberg-Allen School a year ago and I have been struggling. I am trying hard in my studies and sports, but somehow, it’s just not good enough for anyone to notice me. I have been extremely disheartened. Thanks a lot again for making me believe in myself,” Amisha Sachdeva told me.
I had just finished helping my alma mater in Mussoorie hold a half marathon for students and guests. Senior students decided to run 21 kilometres, but others ran 10 kilometres and 5 kilometres too. As much as running has been a culture at the school pretty much since its foundation in 1888, cross-country running has focused on distances up to 8 km. Far more importantly, medals had been only limited to the top three — gold, silver, and bronze. Nothing unique, as that’s what happens everywhere. I was in the school in the 1980s and remember that sports teams consisted of students from a small pool of about 20. The rest back then, and even now, were just spectators, clapping for others, wearing their loyalty on their sleeves, ready to pick a fight for their team at the drop of a hat.
A lot of us can relate to what Amisha, who is now studying in a medical college, experienced and felt. If we weren’t winning medals, or at least making it to the team, no one was interested in us being active or not. That wasn’t the case with our school, as morning runs were compulsory for all. But sooner or later, for one reason or another, most lost interest in sports and in being physically active. And this is one of the few schools in the country that focuses on sports as much as on academics.
Leave alone folks who were inactive in school, even the ones who represented their schools and colleges in sports event become the epitome of sloppiness by the time real life hits them. That incident five years ago made my resolve even stronger to make the sportspeople, who are not aspiring to become the elites and the fence sitters, get off their backsides and move — something I’ve been doing for almost two decades now.
It also makes me question the conventional belief that elite sports (sports at the highest level of competition) and sports persons encourage the general population to become more active. For the same reason, a recent research article titled ‘Effect of Elite Sport on Physical Activity Practice in the General Population’ published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health intrigued me. Dr Alexis Lion and his colleagues looked at whether hosting elite sports events, elite sport success, and elite sports role modelling had any effects on physical activity or sports practice in the general population.
I witnessed this first hand, first in 2005, when London was bidding for the 2012 Olympics, then with the Delhi Commonwealth Games 2010 after I had moved to India. In 2021, the State of Qatar entered into a three-year collaboration project with the World Health Organization (WHO) to make the 2022 FIFA World Cup a beacon for physical and mental health promotion.
Since 1999, during each ICC Cricket World Cup, the World Congress for Science and Medicine Sports (WCSMC) brings together doctors, physiotherapists, trainers, other scientists and coaches to discuss new research in the science and medicine of cricket, with the primary focus on improving performance, preventing injuries and improving rehabilitation in case of injuries. Based on the discussions, the panel makes recommendations to national cricket boards like the Board of Control for Cricket in India and International Cricket Council to make changes such as how many overs should be bowled back-to-back by fast bowlers to prevent low back injuries.
I had built my case on the premise of physical and mental health promotion, during the 2007 ICC Cricket World Cup. I also issued a bid for the same at the WCSMC for India during the 2011 Cricket World Cup in the sub-continent, competing against Pakistan.
So, the argument becomes whether organising elite sports and having successful elite sportspeople as role models contribute massively to leading the general population to be more active. However, does this argument hold any water? I went about asking this question to a couple of colleagues who have been working in this space for almost three decades.
Sukhwant Basra, a former national sports editor at Hindustan Times for six years, is currently a tennis coach and a self-proclaimed delusional one at that, as he believes that one day, he’ll produce a Grand Slam singles champion from India. Basra agrees that there is some merit in the argument that elite sports lead to the growth of physical activity and sports amongst the general population.
“Emergence of Sania Mirza as a tennis star, Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu as badminton stars, and Neeraj Chopra as a truly world-class javelin thrower has popularised these sports and made a lot of teenagers pursue them. But elite sporting events like the Commonwealth Games and Hockey World hosted by India were a wasted opportunity as the powers-to-be exploited the situation rather than helping grow sports amongst the youth,” Basra says.
Jaideep Bhatia, who has taught tennis for over 30 years to people across all socio-economic divides, has a drastically different opinion from Basra. “Elite sports have done pretty much nothing to promote sports and physical activity at the grassroots level. Most sports academies have a linear vision of focusing on high performance, thereby making sport exclusive, and unaffordable. Sport for development allows a sport for all approach, and makes sport inclusive,” he says.
Vivek Mukherji, an independent journalist, and former managing editor of Sports Illustrated and former sports editor of Times of India's Chandigarh edition, makes an interesting point. “No matter what the claims be, it is unfair and far-fetched to expect any correlation between elite sports and physical activity in the general population. Most coaches at the grassroots have no clue about what it takes to excel at the highest level. During my visit to Australia in 2006 and then to Argentina in 2016, I observed that there is a focus on making children love sports, and improve overall fitness and technique during their formative years. Whereas in India from the beginning it is about winning at any cost. Sooner than later, they get injured and never pick up sports again. If we can't even keep the ‘believers’ active, how do we expect the ‘non-believers’ to become active?” Mukherji asks.
The legacy of the London 2012 Olympic Games was evaluated in 10 studies, which showed inconsistent results, as per the study by Dr Alexis Lion and others, mentioned above. An increase of 700,000 people participating in sports or physical activities once per week was observed in England after the London 2012 OG. But, as pointed out by Karen Milton and others in their 2012 study titled, ‘Intersectoral partnership: a potential legacy success of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games’, a proportion of the population participating in sport or physical activities once per week remained stable (36.6% in 2007/2008, 36.9% in 2011/2012, and 36.1% in 2015–2016) because the total population of England also increased.
Effectively, when you look at the bigger picture, the London Olympics didn’t have an immediate or lagged effect on population-wide physical activity.
As Lion and his colleagues pointed out in their 2022 study, “On a large-scale level, these events were often not associated with specific mass communications on enjoyable daily movement that could have stimulated regular physical activity sport in the general population instead of focusing on elite sports heroes.”
Looking at the promotion of our own leagues or our team’s world cup matches, it seems as if we are going to war with our opponents. Hatred and anger have seeped in everywhere.
Lion and colleagues found no evidence to support that elite sports modelling influenced increasing physical activity and sport participation in the general population. Personally, some of my elite sporting role models haven’t really lived up to being true role models, which goes beyond just excelling in sports. Some would argue that’s unfair on those elite sportspeople, but the same sportspeople never complain when they become millionaires because of their fan following. Even if you put aside their legal problems, once their professional careers are over, elite sportspeople aren’t the best role models for overall fitness. Look at Ronaldinho, Ronaldo (Brazil) and Boris Becker to name a few. It's probably because they follow an all-or-none philosophy, i.e. if you aren't competing at the highest, then why bother?
“We aimed to know if elite sport could inspire people to exercise. We did not observe any evidence. Therefore, the decision-makers should not use the trickle-down effect to spend public money to support elite sports. Sport is still one of the best ways to promote physical activity and exercise, especially among the youngest. Therefore, decision-makers should continue to invest in sports for all, e.g. sports infrastructures that can be used by the entire population. However, public money is still massively invested in infrastructures that are used only by elite sports. Sometimes, they are even abandoned after the elite sports events,” Lion told me.
Emphasising the role of policymakers, he said, “While elite sport is the logical sequel to competitive sport, policymakers should not support elite athletes and therefore justify their support by claiming that they will inspire a generation to be more active.”.
I confer with Lion. Even if success in a particular sport has led to an increase in the general population picking up that sport more than before, it hasn’t affected overall physical activity, which is why the idea of that elite sporting event was originally sold to the citizens of that country.
A sport like running, which I would argue is not even a sport but a basic instinct of being human, has participants in thousands when it comes to road-running events. The common thread connecting all of them is that they are enjoying themselves, having fun and connecting with their deeper self. We should pick up whichever sport or physical activity that we love doing.
The onus should be on each of us who are already practitioners of a healthy lifestyle to spread it all around and not wait for governments and policymakers alone. And for the first month or two, the non-movers shouldn’t be looking for fun, but committing to themselves that they’ll stick with that activity, as that’s how long it takes for habit formation. And the key idea is to become a better version of yourself every day.
Keep miling and smiling.
Dr Rajat Chauhan (drrajatchauhan.com) is the author of The Pain Handbook: A non-surgical way to managing back, neck and knee pain; MoveMint Medicine: Your Journey to Peak Health and La Ultra: cOuch to 5, 11 & 22 kms in 100 days
He writes a weekly column, exclusively for HT Premium readers, that breaks down the science of movement and exercise.
The views expressed are personal
Note: An earlier version of this column mistakenly referred to Ronaldo, a footballer from Brazil who was instrumental in their 1994 World Cup win, as Cristiano Ronaldo.
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