Culture and national sport success

Sport provides one of the most visible examples of a society's efficiency in organizing, governing, and administering large scale endeavors.

I have been interested in the topic of how countries produce their national athletes since my coaching days in Southeast Asia. In 1982 I moved from the United States with its gigantic youth swimming culture and overall sport infrastructure to Malaysia, a country that had little of the sport governing firepower or developmental maturity I took for granted back home. I soon discovered that things I assumed were baked into the sport were really just the way it was in the United States, like the annual competition calendar. Championship meets, for example, that an entire season would be planned around in the U.S. could be scheduled for anytime of the year, canceled, changed, or moved in Southeast Asia. But the calendar was only one indication that things were different, others were cloaked in opaque administrative layers and deeply entwined in local culture. I had a lot to learn.

At the time of my first international coaching foray, changes required by the U.S. Amateur Sports Act were still percolating through many of the national sport governing bodies. USA Swimming was just 2-years-old and lots of its administrative infrastructure was adopted from the Amateur Athletic Union, which it was replacing. Now, 40 years later, there have been many changes to USA Swimming but a lot of the administrative structures from the AAU days still exist though they may be called something else. One of the results of the Amateur Sports Act was the elimination of the monopoly that the AAU held over a number of sports, thus allowing each sport to govern itself. This changed sport governance from a collective system, one where national sport efforts were the responsibility of a centralized body to more of an individual one where each sport became the master of its own fate. When you think about it this is more in line with how U.S. society itself is organized i.e. favoring individual agency over collective action.

For practitioners in the U.S. this switch to sport autonomy made sense. In other countries it might not. For example, the sport system in the Soviet Union prior to it going out of business was much more centralized, reflecting other governance structures within the country, most notably the economy. This centralization though was not the result of a socialist economy, it reflected the collective nature of Russian culture long before the revolution. The point is that social structures reflect culture, they are not reflections of governance, as is sometimes argued. Styles of governance, political as well as sport, can change but it is rare to find examples of institutional governance that differ from other social institutions within a society.

In a previous article I wrote that collecting growth and retention metrics helps a national sport governing body (NGB) understand the current state of their athlete pool and get a pretty good idea of what it will be in the near future. While demographics are important, culture is often the controlling factor in whether or not a country is successful in international sport.

It may be fashionable to assume that all cultures are equally valid, if only to signal political correctness. However, a culture's ability to achieve social, economic, and educational goals in the modern world varies. For example, the way a culture handles deference to age, sex, or authority can help or hinder effective performance. Malcolm Gladwell illustrated this in Outliers when he described the crash of Korean Air Flight 801. In that crash a tired, veteran pilot made mistakes in bad weather that a younger, less experienced co-pilot noticed but was reluctant to call attention to because of power distance between the two pilots and a communication style that was deferential to age and experience. As a result of the investigation of Flight 801 and several prior accidents, Korean Airlines noted these cultural legacies around communication and power in Korean culture and instituted specific training strategies to help insure they are not the cause of cockpit confusion in the future.

Cultural roadblocks to sport success thankfully don't involve loss of life but because obstacles are less noticeable they are often not noticed at all. To illustrate this let's take the case of Malaysia and the effect its culture can have on sport development.

Leadership, VIP status, and strongman governance

Malaysian culture is highly deferential to social status. The country has a system of honorifics with various titles of rank that recognize citizens for contributions to the country. These individuals -- VIPs in the society -- are usually successful business persons or popular politicians. NGBs often seek VIPs to serve as their president because it is assumed that a president with significant social status will be able to exert influence that benefits the NGB and its performance initiatives. This governing strategy couples the positional authority of the NGB office with that of the VIP's social status. Sometimes political or even royal affiliation is added to the mix making the office of president of the NGB akin to high political office.

It's not hard to see how a system of governance headed by someone with high social status and positional authority might stifle input from other NGB officials who may have knowledge and long-term experience but possess lower social status and little or no authority. The relationship between the VIP and the NGB is almost always one-way, benefitting the NGB; the VIP provides money or influence to the NGB rather than the other way round. The VIP does get a certain amount of prestige by heading the NGB but that usually depends on sporting success which has eluded most Malaysian NGBs over the past several years.

Deference to social status is expected in Malaysia so how can ordinary members of an association voice differing opinions without seeming to disrespect the status of organizational leaders? They probably won't, and thus the scope of an association's discourse will be narrowed. Resulting decisions will reflect the ideas of only one person or a very small group. (Is VIP leadership of sport associations a good idea?

As a result of this leadership model, long term initiatives are difficult to start and, if they are launched, usually don't last long enough to have any effect. And regardless of good intentions, most VIPs know little of how sport is developed or understand the long-term investment in time and energy that it would take to improve performances. The NGB tends to focus on well known practices like talent identification schemes, and athletes who have already reached the top of the heap in the Malaysian hierarchy. There's very little consideration given to what's actually needed to develop the sport overall or bring athletes to the elite level. It sounds harsh but elite performance is something that often happens in spite of rather than because of NGB involvement.

The lack of long term planning or developmental initiatives means that large pieces of sport infrastructure are missing.

  • Most sports, for example, don't have any kind of club system that is part of the NGB infrastructure. Clubs that do exist are usually commercial entities, only loosely tied to the NGB, and rarely have any governing role. They have no reason to believe they are part of the national sport scheme.
  • The competitive calendar for many sports does not provide appropriate events for developing athletes. Sport clubs that would normally conduct such events aren't part of the sport infrastructure and thus don't invest the time, money, and effort needed to host larger competitive events.
  • The VIP leadership model stifles innovation. There is sometimes renewed excitement for progress when a new 'personality' enters the game such as the appointment of a new sports minister or the NGB gets a new president, but unfortunately new faces don't bring new ideas. Old ideas are revived with a "Now we really mean it!" tone but the excitement that comes from these announcements or appointments is short lived.
  • With the VIP leadership model unless an idea comes from the top it usually doesn't get much traction.

Were Malaysia to follow the example of Korean Airlines and look for areas where their culture may be hindering sport progress and replacing it with something else they would find the inertia supporting the VIP leadership model hard to overcome. But a different model, one that expands authority within the NGB, recognizes that ideas can come from anywhere, and doesn't rely on the social status of NGB big shots to get things done would be more effective. But this hasn't happened…yet. And replacing VIP leadership in a culture where it is accepted and understood is risky.

Bureaucracy vs VIP leadership

As I noted above, sport in the old USSR reflected collective aspects of Russian culture. This led to large bureaucracies that contributed to the eventual collapse of the Soviet economy. It also supplied a lot of jokes about bureaucratic failures but bureaucracies are not inherently dysfunctional, and understanding their potential to get out of hand is the first step in preventing it. The USSR achieved significant sporting success. If they were hindered by an overwhelming bureaucracy we will never know.

VIP leadership is inherently non-bureaucratic but sport may be one of the areas that needs a bureaucracy for efficient administration. John le Carré wrote that "Secret services are the only real measure of a nation's political health, the only real expression of its subconscious." I think a good argument can be made that sport provides one of the most visible examples of a society's efficiency in organizing, governing, and administering large scale endeavors. Sport success or lack of it mirrors conditions existing in other social institutions.