The more medals Canadian Olympians win, the fewer Canadians participate in organized sport: KPE researchers

Getty image of gold medallist Canada's Andre de Grasse poses on the podium after the men's 200 event during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games
Getty image of gold medallist Canada's Andre de Grasse poses on the podium after the men's 200 event during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games

Sport officials and politicians often talk about the trickle-down effect of elite athletes inspiring the nation to participate in sport and warn that, without increased public funding, there could be dramatic reductions in participation in [grassroots] sport. 

But, researchers at the Centre for Sport Policy Studies (CSPS) at the University of Toronto aren’t convinced. 

“We do not dispute that excellent performances by national athletes are inspirational,” says Peter Donnelly, a professor emeritus at U of T’s Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KPE) and former director of CSPS. “However, the effect of inspiration on increasing participation is far less clear.”

Donnelly co-authored a report with Professor Emeritus Bruce Kidd, a former Olympian, in which they argue that inspiration is not enough to break down the barriers that prevent so many young people from participating in sport in the first place.

“Family income, gender/sexuality, (dis)ability, geographical location and other factors can all, individually and in combination, have an enabling or a constraining effect on the possibilities of participating in organized sports,” says Kidd. 

The researchers used available data on sport participation in Canada, Sport Canada’s reported annual budgets and the total medals won by Canadian athletes from Olympiads since 1988 to examine the relationships between sport participation in Canada, the way that sport is funded in Canada and the Olympic success of Canadian athletes.

They found that:

  • The more federal funding Canadians spend on sport, the fewer Canadians participate in sport; 
  • The more Olympic medals Canadian athletes win, the fewer Canadians participate in organized sport; and
  • The more federal funding is spent on high-performance sport, the more Olympic medals Canadian athletes win.

“Prior to 1970, the federal government tried to invest in high-performance sport, broadly based participation and physical education in equal measure, and made multi-year shared-cost grants to the provinces and territories to assist with broad-based participation,” says Kidd. “In 1970, it established Sport Canada with a high- performance mandate and unilaterally withdrew from its support of provincial and territorial programs.”

This led to an ongoing decline in participation in organized, competitive sport among Canadians over 15 years of age - from 44 per cent in 1990 to around 27 per cent today. 

While there are other factors that can help to explain this decline, including an aging population and rising costs of participation, the researchers point to shifting federal priorities and the structure of Canadian sport policy as the reasons for increased investments in international sport success (e.g., the Olympics) and decreased investments in grassroots participation.

“Data in other countries show a similar pattern - more money means more medals, and medals cost a lot,” says Donnelly.

In the 16 years since the Beijing 2008 Olympics, the Sport Canada budget has more than doubled, now sitting at more than a quarter of a billion dollars each year, according to the report.

”As other countries in the ‘sporting arms race’ increase their budgets and expectations, it will cost more and more money just to stay in the same place in the Olympic medal table,” says Donnelly. “This has the potential to distort a national sport system in two ways: First, most funding is directed to those sports where national sport leaders see the greatest chance of being able to win medals and second, the vast majority of government funding for sport tends to go to high performance sport.”

The researchers offer the following solutions:

  • Survey all Canadian NSOs and provincial/territorial sport organizations (PTSOs) to determine their capacity to incorporate new participants.
  • Develop an ‘open house’ strategy during and immediately following major Games for the public to try out different sports; Coaches, instructors, athletes and former Olympians (when possible) should be present to talk about the sport and take people through some basic steps.
  • Target children and youth; low-income individuals; Indigenous, ethnocultural and immigrant communities; and, for certain sports, persons with a disability and older individuals looking for a form of physical activity.
  • Re-invigorate school phys. ed. programs and intramural and extracurricular sports; for those past school age, coalitions of sport organizations could use their facilities and expertise to introduce free basic skills development programs. 
  • Ensure widespread publicity for the participation initiatives.
  • Develop a clear subsequent use policy for major Games facilities that includes grassroots participation, similar to the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre, jointly managed by the City of Toronto and U of T
  • Develop an evaluation strategy to determine the success of participation initiatives introduced in association with major Games.

“People may be ‘inspired’ by the achievements of high-performance athletes,” says Donnelly. “However, if the material and structural conditions of participation are the same after the Games as they were before, then all the claims of a legacy of increased participation become empty promises.”

The researchers say they are encouraged by the recent announcement made by Minister of Sport in Canada, the Hon. Carla Qualtrough, that she will review the Canadian sport system and recommend options for reform.

“Ideally, this review will address the fairness and sustainability concerns raised in our report,” says Kidd.