Faster, higher, further: improving incentives for European youth to pursue professional sports


Picture of Pavlos Kontides
Pavlos Kontides

Competitive sailor, Olympic medallist and 2022 European Young Leader (EYL40)

In 2019, 7mn people in the European Union worked in sports-related jobs, which account for almost 3% of the Union’s total gross value added, as reported by the European Parliamentary Research Service. Sport constitutes a considerable portion of the European economy, and youth are a big part of it. In 2021, 32% of people employed by the sports sector in the EU were between the ages of 15 and 29, according to Eurostat.

Sport is not only central to European economies, but to European communities. A high-level of involvement in sport can have a profound impact on individual lives. It teaches values such as self-control, self-discipline, time management, dedication, commitment and respect towards others.

Today, fewer and fewer young people, especially those from smaller EU countries, are pursuing a career in individual Olympic disciplines. Incentives for high-level sport are undermined by two main pillars.

Countries with a strong sports policies and funding are unsurprisingly no strangers to producing world-renowned athletes

Firstly, the expansion of social media has resulted in many youths becoming ‘hooked’ or ‘trapped’ in the virtual world, transforming life goals and aspirations through access to alternative career pathways with fast rewards for often minimal effort. What incentivises young girls and boys to pursue sport if social media provides a platform to grow an audience and earn money? Why turn away wealth, fame and glamour when success is only a click, tap or scroll away online? The effort-success value ratio on social media can be much more appealing than pursuing an individual Olympic sport.

Secondly, we must look beyond the virtual world and towards schools and governments. Schools play a catalytic role in developing a sports culture. Physical education is often a child’s first interaction with sport. And yet, nowadays, physical education is typically undermined and the first subject to be removed from the day’s schedule if adjustments are necessary.

Moreover, smaller countries usually reduce sports budgets in hard economic times, leaving athletes to ‘fight’ for adequate funding to compete at the Olympic level. As a result, youngsters who aspire to join the ranks of elite athletes are discouraged from advancing a career in an individual sport if overcoming the financial hurdle seems unrealistic. The realities of earning a living and sustaining a livelihood can easily push individuals towards a different career path.

On top of this, most governments only provide financial support after proof of an athlete’s success. High-level sport requires a long-term vision, as proven by countries that have already applied this strategy, such as Australia, Korea, Japan and Canada . Larger European nations, such as the United Kingdom, France and Germany, have established systems with specific development pathways for every sport from initial to Olympic support and training. It is, of course, much easier for wealthier countries to maintain better sports infrastructure, governing bodies and organisations, medicine, coaching provisions, talent development and youth participation. As a result, countries with a strong sports policies and funding are unsurprisingly no strangers to producing world-renowned athletes.

Sport must be accessible to young people from childhood

Successful elite athletes from smaller countries represent the exception to the rule and illustrate a unique story of extraordinary willpower – but valuing it as such is discouraging to young people’s aspirations. Governments need to understand that high-level sport offers much more than just medals.

Sport must be accessible to young people from childhood, while encouraging incentives are imperative for young people to pursue an Olympic career once they reach a competitive age. The European Union should create a sports programme and allocate budget to help athletes below the age of 18 compete at the Olympic Games. A board comprised of successful European Olympic athletes could examine all applications and select the beneficiaries, with a cap on the number of participants from each member state and a minimum of one beneficiary per country. Each iteration of the programme would run over a period of four years, following the Olympic cycle, and the board could also act as mentors to the aspiring Olympians, guiding them with their personal and professional knowledge and experience.

In parallel, the EU could also organise advanced webinars and seminars for coaches throughout the continent to help spread knowledge about the programme and improve outreach to rural or communities, giving all young people the same chance to become Olympians.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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