What does politics have to do with the Olympic Games?

The Olympic Games seen through the prism of government interest in sport

We are only a couple of days away from the 30th modern Summer Olympic Games and a little over a month from the 14th Paralympic Games held in London. For many, due to their broad social, cultural, economic and political character, these Games represent the biggest international event of the year. So it is not surprising that there has been a media campaign going on for quite some time now, connecting the Games to all sorts of things like nappies, maternal feelings, 150,000 free condoms for Olympic athletes and many other related “pieces of information”.

There are still many other less known but just as real “Olympic” facts: the Games, thanks to which at one time temporary ceasefires were declared in all armed conflicts, will now be under military protection; due to the fear of terrorist attacks, London rooftops are already equipped with air defence weapons; in the past, the Games served as an opportunity for political boycotts or protests; athletes used to be trained for the Games with the help of national doping programmes. These facts bring back the dark, unsportsmanlike side of the most important sports event in the world and trigger questions regarding the relationship between sport and government or national politics. This article will address this very issue, but I will approach it from a different angle. It will focus on revealing the true nature of the support from countries or their governments for the Olympics and Paralympics, by examining their everyday public (non-)engagement in sport.

For starters, let me consider the myth that politicians and the government have no business in sport as their presence usually tarnishes it. Judging from history, since the 19th century, sport has been seen as an extremely important part of education policy, and has thus been supported by government measures, particularly by liberal European governments, followed by the majority of the others. Sport was also recognised for its ability to bring people together and enable them to make good use of their leisure time; governments thus encouraged it to ensure the wellbeing of their citizens. In recent decades, governments have also emphasised the importance of sport for its health benefits. Another striking motive for governmental involvement in sport is the global symbolic recognition it brings to the country. This last symbolic aspect stands out especially when it comes to organising the Olympic Games: in the last three decades, organising governments (with the exception of the liberal governments of the USA and Australia) provided public funds to cover on average more than half the cost of the Games, but then started being much more careful after facing great net financial losses once the Games were over.

Source: Preuss, 2012.
Source: Preuss, 2012.

What about Slovenia? As far as its motives are concerned, the country is slowly but surely fitting into this kind of involvement in sport, which includes supporting the organisation of big international sports events, excluding for now, of course, the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Through legislation, the Slovene government has committed to support five categories of sports activities that are recognised as in the public interest: 1) children’s, youth and student sport, 2) recreational sport, 3) quality sport, 4) professional sport and 5) parasport. According to the available data, in the last decade financial support in the form of public funds for these categories amounted to 0.4% of GDP or 2% of the national budget. A little less than 20% of this is dedicated to professional sport, the category that is directly connected to Slovene Paralympic and Olympic athletes, to (co)finance training, participation in competitions, and to pay various insurance policies and bonuses for the achieved results. Strangely, in the Olympic year 2012, it was professional sport that received5% lower financing in comparison to its ten-year average.

Besides the above-mentioned 20%, the country also invests in professional sport indirectly by implementing different programme, information and financial measures to support public interest in sport. This spending is structured as follows: in the last decade, children’s, youth and student sport, which includes training for young professional athletes, got 18.5% of financial aid on average while the sum for recreational sport was 1.8%, for quality sport 0% and for parasport 0.2%. The other 60% of public funds, which are no longer directly linked to the predefined categories of public interest, are dedicated to sports infrastructure (a little less than 50%, which is a good 5% more than the above-mentioned average in 2012), sports societies, federations and institutions get approximately 5% (recently, the government has dedicated on average at least 70% of the amount to federations whose athletes compete in the Olympic Games, including Slovenia’s central sports authority – the Olympic Committee of Slovenia) and around 5% for organising international sporting events, carrying out technical tasks and so on.

Sources: Grujič and Jeraj, 2011, and the Annual Sports Programme in Slovenia for 2012.
Sources: Grujič and Jeraj, 2011, and the Annual Sports Programme in Slovenia for 2012.

Having seen this financial structure, only one logical question comes to mind: what interest does the Slovene government have in sport? What is its attitude towards professional sport and consequently to the Olympic and Paralympic Games? What is the role of sports infrastructure in all of this and what is its purpose in relation to public interest and professional sport? Does sports infrastructure represent the sixth category of public interest or is it “merely” a wasteful measure to satisfy public interest at the expense of other categories? Revealing data shows that the answer is not simple or transparent as the real “owners” or target groups for which this infrastructure is supposedly being built are undefined and unknown. Do these facts constitute a sufficient positive or negative argument for the interference of Slovene politicians and the government in sport? Are the above-stated facts a reflection of a balanced concern for public interest? Is this a good enough reason for important politicians to be able to shake hands with successful athletes at Olympic and Paralympic Games with a clear conscience? Do these facts constitute a valid proof that in this politically heated time, politicians will seek support among athletes or maybe even vice versa? Let me finish by giving you some information about the bonuses that athletes receive for medals, which might help put everything in perspective: 

Sources: The rulebook on co-financing conditions for the annual sports programme at national level in 2012, and online media in 2012.
Sources: The rulebook on co-financing conditions for the annual sports programme at national level in 2012, and online media in 2012.

All things considered, is the described attitude of Slovene politicians and the government towards the Olympic and Paralympic Games in the current socio-economic situation encouraging or not? Should sports people want to be supported by their country or be ashamed of it? If you ask me, I am certain about two things: firstly, I will be one of the 15% of Slovene spectators cheering for our athletes in front of the TV screen (but unfortunately not for the Paralympic Games as the national television sports programme does not feature live broadcasts of these Games due to their presumably unpopular character and to austerity measures) because I belong to the majority of people who do not need any tangible evidence to believe that the results of athletes, as well as people from other social profiles of course, do a great deal for the promotion of Slovenia; and secondly, I will still have to dedicate some of my free time during the holidays and the Olympic Games to one of my most important sources of livelihood, which is writing scientific articles and finishing the monograph that will reveal the results of a three-year research project on the fulfilment of pre-election promises by past Slovene governments.

 

Come on our team!

 

Author: Simona Kustec Lipicer has a PhD in political science and is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Ljubljana and a researcher at the Centre for Political Science Research, which is part of the same institution.

 

 

This article was written with the help of the following sources:

 

Translated by: Tanja Breznik.

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