Money makes the world go round: Ingredients for success in elite sport

Bayern Munich have just won the Bundesliga title in Germany, with a handful of games to spare. Manchester City and Chelsea are vying for the Premiership title in England. Real Madrid and Barcelona, traditional powerhouses of Spanish Football, are competing with the less-fashionable Atletico Matrid for the La Liga championship in Spain. French clubs have traditionally, although not exclusively, dominated European Rugby with vastly superior wage structures to their English and Gaelic counterparts. What do all these clubs have in common? They are all stinking, filthy rich! In fact, all of the Football Clubs mentioned (with the exception of Atlético) are amongst the top 50 richest sports clubs in the World (according to Forbes magazine, at least). That’s some feat, given the fan base of American Football and Formula one teams, to name but two.

What about Olympic sports? Well, the five best-funded sports of Team GBs 2012 Summer Olympic campaign were (in no specific order) Cycling, Sailing, Rowing, Athletics and Swimming. The most successful Summer Olympic sports? You’ve guessed it, …Cycling, Sailing, Rowing and Athletics (you’ll realise if you follow the UK sporting scene that Swimming have had a funding cut as a result of under-performing at the games, but you get the idea!)!

So, is funding the only factor in determining success in elite sport? Not quite, but it certainly helps! For example, Nevill et al (2013) purported that legacy (Manchester hosted the Commonwealth Games in 2002) and increases in funding were the main reasons for the significant improvement in results at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Given my background, the case for a highly specialised Sport Science and Medicine programme has to be considered too. It cost a lot of money to host the 2002 Commonwealths, and to pay for the Sport Science, so the argument surrounding funding is both compelling and intuitive. Of course, home advantage (in the case of Manchester 2002 and London 2012) probably had an effect too, but not as much as you’d think. Nevill et al (2013) report that only seven of the extra eighteen medals won by Team GB were in subjectively, measured sports (where home advantage has been statistically shown be an advantage).

Several attempts have been made to identify the factors that lead to producing athletes with the best chance of being successful at an elite level. Broadly speaking, these factors can be classified as contextual factors (such as appropriate funding, …there it is again!), processual (for example, talent development models and unambiguous policy) and specific (sport science, competition structure etc.) (Houlihan and Green 2008). Of significance here is that some of these factors are controllable, while others are uncontrollable. We can’t do anything about the uncontrollable factors (obviously!), so controllable factors have been the focus of research in recent years. I, for one, am more interested in the controllable (after all, that’s what Sport Scientists do!), but it is important to acknowledge that uncontrollable factors will always have an influence (the huge populations of the US and China will always lead to them winning lots of medals with all other things being equal!).

One of the more evocative and thorough pieces of research examining the ‘recipe for success’ in elite sport is that of De Bosscher et al (2008), a six-nation research study that explored these controllable and uncontrollable features of performance environments. Using a qualitative research design, interviewing athletes (1090), coaches (253) and performance directors (71) across able-bodied, disabled, Summer and Winter Olympic sports in all six countries, the study found some interesting and important findings that are equally relevant today as they were when published six years ago. It would appear that late adoption of an elite sports policy (UK Sport initiated much of their strategy following an abysmal performance at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996) and having a large (ish) population and a lot of money (being a member of the G7/8 seems to have its benefits!) were all significant features of being successful. Being able to send athletes to warmer climates in the Winter, attractive positions for coaches from around the World to come to the UK and Government support all seem to be important too.

So, coming back to the original question, is it really all about the money? A more detailed examination of the Winter and Summer Olympic medal tables, using alternative secondary analysis like comparing against Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and population size, would suggest that in the majority of cases it really is! One obvious drawback is that, if funding is really the ‘be all and end all’, successful sports will always be successful (because funding generates success, which generates more funding) whilst other sports will fall further and further behind if this risk. Is it worth investing in sports who aren’t likely to be successful and/or benefit society (much debate has taken place in recent weeks about this as a result of the money invested in Winter Olympic sports vs the cuts in funding in other sports such as Basketball and Volleyball)? Australia seemed to have followed a ‘Here’s some funding and resource, let’s see if you can be successful’ approach and it certainly paid dividends in the 90s and early noughties, when they were a dominant force in World sport. Additionally, an over-saturation of funding at the elite end of the performance pyramid will (eventually) result in a drying-up of the talent pool (try picking an elite athlete from a bunch of overweight, under-active, poorly-resourced schoolchildren). None of these argument are original ones, but important nonetheless.

My opinion? Let’s just say that I’ve experienced providing support to elite athletes without resource and it achieved very little in the medium- to long-term. Equally, I’ve watched in awe, envy and amazement as British Cycling have gone about their pursuit of the Tour de France with a dedication to detail, organisation and support that would put some military operations to shame! How have they achieved it? One word, …Sky (oh, and some of the most talented managers, support staff and athletes in the World!).

DE BOSSCHER, Veerle, BINGHAM, Jerry, SHIBLI, Simon, VAN BOTTENBURG, Maarten, and DE KNOP, Paul (2008). The global sporting arms race: An international comparative study on sports policy factors leading to international sporting success. London: Meyer & Meyer

HOULIHAN, Barrie and GREEN, Mick (2008). Comparative elite sport development: systems, structures and public policy. London: Butterworth-Heinemann

NEVILL, Alan M., BALMER, Nigel J. and WINTER, Edward M. (2013). Congratulations to Team GB, but why should we be so surprised? Olympic medal count can be predicted using logit regression models that include ‘home advantage’. British journal of sports medicine, 2012 (46), 958


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