Words by Kate Carter
Photography by Emily Maye
How do you create an Olympian? In a dystopian sci-fi film it would be in a lab, white-coated scientists twisting and combining the DNA of the best of the best into genetic supermen and women. In a country with fewer ethical restrictions, scientists may well be trying just that right now.
In the US, the general answer has been via college track and field, and the NCAA. But 2020 has strewn rubble and broken glass over this pathway. Cuts to track programmes have shaken the foundations of the sport, both for talented young athletes who might one day turn pro as well as for those who will only compete for the amateur ideal. With races and meets cancelled everywhere, funding slashed, and entire programs under threat, it’s a worrying time for the next generation of US athletes.
Yet to overseas eyes, the US system still looks incredibly professional, even if the athletes themselves are amateur. As a system for, say, 18-22 year olds, it takes some beating. And the money the NCAA generates is eye-watering - reportedly $1.1bn last year - although the vast majority of this comes from basketball and football, and it certainly doesn’t go to athletes.
So who is looking out for the athletes? If a programme is results-driven, who looks after those who fall by the wayside? And for countries who use public money to fund athletes, there’s also another rather fundamental question: what, when it comes right down to it, is the point? If we, the taxpayers, foot at least some of the bill, what are we getting for it? If the metric of success is “medals won”, how do you put a price on what each is worth? After all, if it doesn’t inspire a nation to get fitter, and healthier, then is it really worth it?
Here, we explore three systems of developed nations, and look at how they funnel athletes from the grassroots to the Olympics, and we ask, what would the perfect funnel look like?
The UK system
College sport in the UK is generally played on waterlogged, windswept sports fields on wet Wednesday afternoons in front of a few disinterested dog walkers. If you were to suggest to a TV scheduler that they put Durham vs Bristol university soccer on primetime you’d be led to a padded cell, once, that is, they stopped laughing hysterically. There’s literally one event between UK university teams that makes the news, and that’s the Oxford vs Cambridge boat race. That’s been going since 1829, and is generally viewed as a chance to spend all day in the pub. Which, come to think of it, is a very British way of doing sport.
So how do athletes get through the system? Generally, they are found at volunteer-run, grassroots athletics clubs - though whether or not you join one of these as a kid is really down mostly to luck and where you live. Athletics barely scrapes by as an organised school sport. Though to be fair, it’s not just that there aren’t really any athletics scholarships at college - there aren’t many scholarships of any kind. After all, until 1998, university education in the UK was completely free, though since fees can now reach £9,250 a year, you could say there really ought to be.
However, if you do show talent and thrive on the club - and national - scene, then there is the possibility of government funding - from the taxpayer, and from the National Lottery. This funding is completely podium-focussed. If you aren’t a realistic medal prospect in the next two Olympic cycles, then forget it. This, argue critics, creates a skewed system where resources go to the very few athletes in this country who are already household names, and who might already have big brand sponsorship deals.
On the plus side, if you do get UK sport funding, there is less pressure on you to perform immediately - or to go ‘pro’ and get a brand contract. And, after all, we in the UK currently have some of the very best middle distance talent in the world - outperforming Australia, Japan and even the US. Something in the system, blind to all but medals though it may be, must be working.
Meanwhile - and very separately - the recreational running scene in the UK is absolutely thriving. There is parkrun, there are low key and low cost races galore and running clubs aplenty. Alas, many talented runners are able to slip through the cracks of a volunteer-led system, and come to the sport too late in life to be serious elite contenders. As Tracksmith’s Andy Waterman wrote a few years ago, the UK is the best place in the world to be an amateur runner - but it can be tough place to be a professional one.
In the run up to the London 2012 games, much was also made of the legacy effect of hosting the games, and of inspiring the nation. Time has proven this hope unfounded - study after study has shown we now do less sport in the UK then we did before. The Olympic stadium where Brits Mo Farah, Greg Rutherford and Jessica Ennis collected golds within minutes on one magical evening in 2012 no longer even has a track: it’s home instead to West Ham United football team. The dominance of soccer over all other sports in the UK, neatly symbolised in one building.
In Japan, like in Britain, high schools don’t really have track and field athletics teams, at least in the US-sense, and very few Japanese universities have something you could describe as an “athletic department.” Different sports teams at the same college wouldn’t even necessarily share the same name, the way they do in the US.
But there is a huge proviso here: running, and specifically ekiden running, is massively popular as a sport in Japan - second in popularity only to baseball and attracting huge audiences on TV. To countries like the UK and the US, where TV coverage of distance running events is often woefully, embarrassingly awful, this level of enthusiasm for the sport is almost incomprehensible. Sports teams at high school certainly take running very seriously, and are well-funded (indeed Kenyan and Ethiopian runners are often scouted at high school level, for high school eikiden teams - Sammy Wanjiru, for example).
Post-college, a runner may join a professional ekiden team. More than simply sponsored by big companies, these are actually part of them - runners are employed by Honda, or Toyota, or whoever, as ekiden runners. The advantages for athletes of this system are that it offers financial security - you are on the payroll the same way any other employee is, and so even if injured, you still get paid. Some top teams will treat you purely as a full time athlete, others may require you to do a job for the company in another role, usually office based. The private funding means teams usually well provisioned with kit, coaches, nutritionists and facilities, funded trips to training camps and so on.
As Adharanand Finn, who spent six months in Japan getting to grips with the system there for his book Way of the Runner, tells me, “The support is great and there are a lot of teams all with 10 to 12 runners, so way more people can make a living running than in any other country”. There are, however, drawbacks, some of which may explain the mystery of why Japan produces so many high level runners, but so few at the very top, podium-level. Changing teams (or coaches, or locations) - is difficult - not least because loyalty is prized - and some coaches can be quite old fashioned with a strong discipline. “Ekiden runners have to run certain races” explains Finn, “If they want to run something else, say the Tokyo marathon, they need to 'ask' their bosses, effectively. Of course, there is some nuance in this from team to team and person to person, but basically you are part of the team first, and your own personal career and ambitions are second.”
Of course, there is an exception - Boston Marathon winner Yuki Kawauchi was until recently completely amateur and had a full time day job - hence his nickname, the “citizen runner”. But he is almost the sole one. Finn explains that despite being unpaid, “college running is bigger and more popular than pro running, so for most athletes it feels a bit of a come-down joining a pro team, and the coaches find many runners struggle to maintain their motivation to train. High school and college running is so wildly popular in Japan - especially the ekidens - that athletes are often physically and mentally burnt out by the time they become pro and their performances fall away - it happens time and time again that the top college runners fade away within a few years of becoming pro. It's a big problem.”
Growing up when I did in the UK, you could be forgiven for thinking all Australians were just born fast, strong and with inhuman hand-eye coordination: never ask an English cricket fan about the Australian team of the 1990s... Of course, the climate helps: 95 per cent of swimming pools in Australia are outdoor. Try that in the UK - or the US - and you’d be dealing very quickly with mass hypothermia. It’s undeniably a nation of outdoor-loving sports enthusiasts, with a huge sport and recreational tourism industry. It’s also one of few nations to have sent track and field athletes to every single Olympic Games since 1896, and they are regularly in the top five of the medals table, despite a relatively small population. Sport, then, is an integral part of Australian cultural life.
But really, their athlete development system is only a few decades old. In 1976, there was public outrage after the Australian team returned from the Montreal Olympics with only one silver and four bronzes. It had, to be fair, already been obvious to many that an amateur sport system reliant on volunteers could not compete with the increasingly professional systems other countries were adopting. And so, on Australia Day 1981, the Australian Institute of Sport was created.
What followed was a system of sports development that mirrored the political one - a federalised, tiered system at national, state and local level.There was also early enthusiasm for the sports sciences, to the point where research bodies and universities competed internally to be the best at improving Australia’s sporting performance. Most importantly, there was money - federal money, state money - for training, funding and athlete development, and particularly for sports where you could win more medals. Swimming has been a particular beneficiary of this.
And it worked - or at least, it used to. In more recent years, there’s been a feeling that Australian sport has peaked and is now in decline. The unthinkable has happened: getting beaten in cricket, in rugby, and a decline in success at the Olympics. “Australians are the new British (and even more alarmingly, the British are the new Australians)” said the Sydney Morning Herald in 2018. Why the decline? It’s hard to pinpoint a single cause. Like many nations, there’s a decline in sports participation at all levels, but many point to over-specialisation, and that following an “elite pathway” too early may be damaging opportunities.
The perfect system
The idea that - counter to the whole concept of the “10,000 hour rule” - specialisation is not necessarily a virtue is persuasive, at least for me - and it’s one that David Epstein’s book Range explores in depth. Epstein looked at studies on the development of elite athletes from many sports, and saw that those who delayed specialisation in favour of trying lots of different things were often better than their peers. Roger Federer is the poster boy for this theory: his mother, an actual tennis coach, refused to teach him, encouraging him to keep playing all other sports. By the time he finally did specialise only in tennis, he was playing young men who for years had worked with tennis-specific strength coaches, sports physiologists and nutritionists. At the age of 39, it certainly doesn’t seem to have done him much harm…
To my eyes, at least, the US college system is both hugely impressive - The facilities! The team spirit! The competitive opportunities! - but also perhaps a little too intense. Would an ideal system not embrace a broader window, rather than those intense years of 18-22, when the spotlight shines so brightly that many burn out? It's possible, surely, to still be a little more of a generalist at 18 and still shine later? In the UK, the funding system means that you'll be supported over a fairly long cycle - four, or eight years - if you show promise. Whereas if you don't come out of college in the US with a sponsorship deal, your career is pretty much over before it even began. It's the difference, I suppose, between a government-funded system, and one driven by market forces. Neither, certainly, is perfect.
One thing an ideal system would surely allow for is greater flexibility - and longevity. After all, Australia’s Sinead Diver, or America’s own Sara Hall and Roberta Groner prove that endurance runners can peak late - and keep peaking. But then, of course, it’s easy to cherry pick the best things about each national system, and rail against the worst. My own mix would be a fusion cuisine - I’d add a few cups of Australian and UK funding, a healthy slug of enthusiasm and support from Japan and season with the professionalism and opportunities of the US. But one thing I would also insist on - the stock to my athletic-system soup - would be participation for all, from the earliest possible age. You only achieve excellence in individuals by giving every individual the opportunity. Far too few children do enough sport full stop, let alone a full range of them. Lets get them all jumping over mini hurdles and throwing foam shot puts from kindergarten. When I rule the world, the decathletes and heptathletes will be as gods.
Back in the real world, I’ve always felt one of the fundamental problems in the UK at least, and one that stops talented 'generalists' from making track and field their sport, is the total disconnect between “athletics” and “running”. I'm always a little depressed by the number of my own running club team mates who have zero interest in it as an elite sport. They'd rather talk soccer (the fools!).
In countries I haven’t mentioned, but which year after year produce the finest distance runners - Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda - you could point out that there’s almost no mass participation running. Should the perfect system create runners at all levels, not simply just the top tier? Of course, the conditions there that ‘create’ athletes are so different from the market forces or government funding that drive US or UK models that it’s hard to directly compare (though I thoroughly recommend Adharanand Finn’s Running with the Kenyans and Michael Crawley’s soon-to-be-published Out of Thin Air about his experiences in the Ethiopian system if you are interested to learn more).
And of course there are the systems that function less as role models and more as warnings. From China, we learn alarming things about athlete abuse, and can only speculate on what they are doing with “sports science”. From Russia - well, we all know that systemic doping does indeed create Olympians, it’s just not a route anyone who cares about sports or the people who do it would want to follow. Of course, it's much easier to learn how not to do things, than how to do them perfectly. And maybe there is no perfect system, because every athlete is different. But each system seems to me to have their perfect moments. And for college athletes in the US, that moment is certainly under threat.
The Fall 2020 issue of METER has just returned from the printers and will be distributed with all Tracksmith orders throughout December and January (or at least while stocks last). This issue also marks a change for METER - we will be going biannual in print and bi-weekly by email. The print edition will become more collectable while the email series will feature the same high-quality, original journalism you've come to expect of METER in print. You can sign up for the email for free on the Tracksmith Newsletters page.