The Future of….The Olympics
– by Derek Bouchard-Hall, CEO, USA Cycling
Even the most casual observers of the Olympics will note that the Games have evolved significantly over the last couple decades.
Perhaps the most obvious is sports included. The IOC has had explicit objectives to keep the Games relevant to younger audiences, broaden their appeal, and include a wider range of countries participating – and added and dropped sports as a result.
Another commonly observed change is the professionalization of Olympic sport, with each successive Olympiad demonstrating the advancement athletes are making in developing every element of their craft through full-time focus and access to greater resources.
But in the 16 years between when I competed in the Sydney Olympics in track cycling to when I went to Rio as the CEO of USA Cycling, I have witnessed several more subtle trends in the Olympic Movement that would likely be missed by the casual sporting fan.
These trends are less obvious than new sports and the pace of breaking world records, but I believe they are actually more significant to the long term health and popularity of the Olympics.
The first is increasingly effective anti-doping efforts. Most sports fans understand that doping exists in professional sport, and the Russian doping scandal certainly kept the issue front and center in Rio.
Certainly, some have lost their passion for some sports because of associations with doping. But what I’m seeing is that anti-doping efforts are actually working, and things are improving. Not all sports are at the same place in their journey from denial of a problem to effective anti-doping, but all are on the journey and those out front are making enormous strides.
I believe cycling is the clear leader among all sports in anti-doping. No other sport is doing as much and is having as much impact. The only problem is, we’ve learned that effective anti-doping is expensive, difficult to execute, and significantly inconveniences athletes. Gone are the days when you can catch dopers by having them pee in a cup on race day.
Now, to combat modern methods that include the slight tweaking of naturally occurring hormones already within us all (vs. taking an exogenous compound whose mere presence in urine signifies cheating), regular exhaustive blood screening and unannounced out of competition testing is required.
But these methods work, and they will serve to restore confidence in what we are watching. Over time, I believe doping can and will be controlled – but it will take time and significant investment.
The second trend is the rise of women’s sport. With each successive Olympics, the women are drawing closer to men in terms of opportunity, support, and fan appeal. While in most professional sports women lag woefully and unjustly behind their male peers in this regard, at the Olympics they are much closer.
A key driver of this is focus on medals – with no difference being paid between the value of a men’s vs. a women’s earned. Many countries are therefore investing in developing their women’s sport, and opportunities are growing for women athletes. A good example is my organization, USA Cycling – we are actually now focusing more effort and resources on women’s cycling than in men’s.
The final, and perhaps most significant trend in terms shaping the Games over time, is country level sport specialization. Countries are increasing focusing a disproportionate amount of resource on those sports in which they have the highest medal hopes and, significantly, abandoning the others.
They are doing this to maximize medals earned for money invested – because countries are increasingly measuring themselves by medal count alone. Spending money on a sport whose highest placed athlete finishes 4th is considered a waste – no medal, no return.
The impact of this trend is that you are seeing some countries develop dominant positions in certain sports while ceasing to support others. Perhaps the best example of this is the UK, which has become dominant in track cycling (winning 6 of the 10 available Golds in Rio) by spending roughly 5-10x annually vs. its nearest peers.
On the other hand, it provides little or no support for a sport like basketball, which some argue would have greater impact on encouraging urban sport participation – though provide no medals (and no “return”).
If these trends play themselves out as I expect them to over the next couple decades, I see the future of the Olympics as one where doping is no longer a major story nor a major determiner of success.
I see the Olympics leading the world in promoting women’s sport and the gap between male and female opportunities shrinking. But I fear this progress will be offset by country level specialization leading to a polarization of national participation whereby a handful of countries dominate each sport.
Any given event might not feel like a competition between all nations, but instead simply a showcase for whichever handful of nations chose to focus on that event to win medals.
Like so many human endeavors, the Olympics will simultaneously demonstrate great progress and new challenges.
– with thanks to the author, Derek Bouchard-Hall, CEO at USA Cycling