Centralized vs. decentralized sport development systems

The Cold War battle of economic systems created sport development frameworks that are still used today.

Often in this newsletter I discuss sport development and the models used in different countries to achieve both mass participation and high performance. The evolution of these models began back in the 1950s when the Soviet Union (USSR) began participating in the Olympic Games. Almost all conflict between the United States and the USSR at that time was viewed as a battle of economic systems. Sport competition became a Cold War proxy; rivals could assert dominance of one system over the other based on athletic results. And much like the space race later on, both countries quickly developed infrastructure for high performance sport.

Throughout the 1960s and 70s these systems matured. Clubs, communities, and schools form the base of a mostly decentralized system in the U.S., and although the USSR went out of business in the 1990s its legacy framework of centralized control is still found in Russia, former Soviet republics, and in many other countries around the world with varying degrees of central control.

Centralized frameworks are popular for three reasons: Uniformity and standardization, better funding and resources, and increased focus on high performance.

  1. Uniformity and standardization of training makes administering centralized programs easier, and whether programs are located in only a few cities or throughout the country, they all look the same, which makes evaluation of results easier.
  2. Because centralized systems are usually smaller than their decentralized counterparts, they're better funded, which results in better facilities, more resources for athletes, and greater opportunities for training and competition.
  3. With a centralized system it is easier to prioritize high-performance sport, identifying and developing top athletes, thus leading to greater success internationally.

There are also some built-in disadvantages to a centralized system:

  1. Control is centralized “somewhere else,” so a lack of local input leads to a sense of detachment from the sport. Local administrators, coaches, and athletes feel they have no stake in their own progress or in the sport nationally.
  2. Athletes living in sparsely populated areas have reduced opportunities to learn, train, and compete. Resources tend to be concentrated in larger cities with a greater athlete population and more facilities.
  3. Centralized systems are not good at developing community or recreational programs. These lower level programs are the foundation of high performance and their absence in a central system is a problem. This is one of the reasons hybrid systems evolved. These allow local control and development of younger athletes while the centralized body concentrates on high performance.
  4. Bureaucracy has a tendency to get out of hand in a centralized system. Administrative levels grow and multiply making it difficult for local organizations to access the resources they need.
  5. Centralized sport frameworks can be cheaper, at least in a relative sense. Governments could not fund a comprehensive novice to elite performer program even if they wanted to -- the cost would be prohibitive -- so in that way a centralized system is cheaper. However, just as administrative bureaucracy eventually becomes bloated so does the cost of operating it.

Each country that uses a centralized framework creates its own variations. Real development systems rarely follow the textbook definition being presented here.

In decentralized programs sport clubs, community groups, and schools have much more autonomy to organize and run their own sport programs. In the case of sport clubs or schools this is usually done with minimal oversight from a larger national organization. Advantages of a decentralized framework include:

  1. There is a stronger sense of ownership at the local level. All practitioners and athletes (and parents) have a greater stake in what happens and how programs are administered than they would in a larger system.
  2. Athletes have greater opportunities, especially those in less populated areas since responsibility for the programs resides locally.
  3. Recreational and community sport, the bedrock of later high performance, is emphasized. This supports both the county's high performance aspirations as well as providing healthy physical activities for those who may not be interested in competitive sport.
  4. Smaller bureaucracies exist when sport is administered locally. Administrative bodies are more flexible and can more quickly adapt to changes or circumstances than a centralized body could.

The same things that make the centralized scheme attractive are missing in a decentralized framework:

  1. Confusion and decreased competitiveness can result from a lack of standardization and uniformity. Because many decisions are made locally, decentralized systems may have inconsistent rules, training methods, and competition structures.
  2. Funding to local bodies is reduced as money allocated for sport development has to be distributed across a larger number of organizations.
  3. Individual clubs and other local sport bodies cannot focus on high performance as well as a centralized system can.
  4. Multiple contexts, a signature of a decentralized sport system, can become complex and inefficient especially when athletes attempt to navigate their way through the various programs.

The systems described above are extremes. Circumstance dictates that most countries use elements from each. And although high performance is the goal there are a number of ways to get there which depend on several elements being present in each program. If items like financial support, cultural sport participation, adequate recreational and competitive venues, coaches training, and comprehensive competition structures are present then the developmental framework will be successful.

A country's sport development system is determined by its culture

But it's not merely a matter of 'choosing' which system to use; social institutions reflect a country's culture. The Soviet Union's centralized sport structure mimicked its collectivist social framework, while the USA prefers institutions that support individualism.

During the 1950s and early 60s, the United States infrastructure was more industrialized than the USSR's mostly agrarian economy. Sport facilities in the USA were common and individual effort and achievement were essential to a capitalist economy.

In the USSR training or competitive facilities were limited, even in larger cities, so centralizing sport training made a lot of sense. Loosely translated, the word 'soviet' means 'group', so it's easy to see how a collectivist mentality would be present in their social institutions.

While the USA developed a robust club system (decentralized), the USSR launched its first sport schools (centralized). The USA system was fragmented and comprised several contexts, clubs, schools, colleges, community groups, and others, all with their own rules, eligibility, and competitive structures. The Soviet scheme included youth groups, schools, workers unions, and the military, and were governed centrally by national governing bodies for the individual sports.

There have been modifications. For example, in the United States some sports offer programs that resemble the Soviet sport schools with 'academy' programs in soccer and a few other sports. And when I visited the Kiev Gymnastic Academy, a regional sport school, in 1989 I was surprised to find that their programs were also open to local families who wanted their children involved in the sport even though they were not in the invited athlete group. They could join for a fee, similar to a USA club program.

Despite fundamental differences and coincidental similarities both systems reached roughly the same performance levels because each included elements necessary to reach high performance while at the same time developing systems that worked within their underlying economies.

The Cold War period was a pseudo-conflict, a clash of economic theories i.e. communism vs. capitalism, between the USA and the USSR with sport, foreign aid, and other proxy elements used to prevent an actual military conflict. The USSR's economy -- more like a poor man's socialism rather than communism -- eventually collapsed. But before that happened it was able to develop high performance sport within an economy plagued by chronically limited resources.

The USA's sport system is a unicorn, it works very well in the USA but is not really exportable. Its reliance on school and collegiate sport contexts is not effective in other countries where school-based sport is not a thing. And its club system, while it may be the envy of the world in many sports, depends on an economy that can support it. This is also not possible in many other countries.

In terms of sport performance, neither a centralized system nor a decentralized one is better than the other. Both can produce the same result. Sport development, like every other social endeavor undertaken in a country, must reflect the country's economy and culture.