|Regional Olympic Associations’ Role in Supporting Their Contestants and Competitors|
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) encompasses a number of elements that are involved in the Olympic movement and the wider sporting community. A large part of this are the National Olympic Committees (NOCs)that represent each of the countries that are recognised by the IOC. These NOCs are a critical component of making the modern Olympics work, ever more so in the era of professional sport, with perhaps their most important function being the support of the athletes in each country and ensuring many logistics required during an Olympic cycle are carried out.
There are currently 205 National Olympic Committees, organised into five regional groups by continent: Association of National Olympic Committees of Africa (ANOCA), Pan American Sports Organisation (PASO), Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), European Olympic Committees (EOC) and Oceania National Olympic Committees (ONOC). This provides a three-tier structure of organisation linking Olympic Athletes with the IOC, through NOCs and then the continental organisations.
The IOC tries to maintain good and direct links with its NOC members in order to be more effective in achieving many of its goals and requirements at the athlete and grass roots levels, however continental groupings are important to have in order to effectively organise and carry out international competitions as well as implement other cross border projects and initiatives relating to athletes and in other areas.
Each of the NOCs and continental organisations have a fair amount of autonomy in many areas, allowing them to meet the specific needs of the athletes, competitors and contestants that they cover. Each of them signs up to a number of IOC requirements and obligations, ensuring a level playing field in terms of laws, rules and other areas, and are governed and regulated by the IOC. However, the support provided by the NOCs to their athletes varies greatly in terms of organisational structure, financing, professional expertise and many other areas.
With the Olympics Coming to London, and with Great Britain being the home of many professional sports and one of only three countries to have been represented at every summer and winter Olympics, the British Olympic Association is an ideal example to use in analysing in more detail what roles the regional Olympic associations play in supporting contestants and competitors.
The BOA’s mission statement states that:
“The BOA’s principal role is to prepare and lead our nation’s finest athletes at the summer, winter and youth Olympic Games.”
The NOCs represent all their athletes within the IOC, and are also the IOCs link to each athlete. The NOCs therefore have a close link with all athletes from their country that wish to compete at an Olympics, making sure that the athletes have all the information that they need and meet all their obligations and requirements. In the world of modern sport, this is quite substantial and it would be very difficult for athletes to manage all the rules and regulation that are required by the IOC without the structures put in place by NOCs.
Requirements such as registrations, drugs testings, eligibility and qualifying, logistics and other areas all need to be met by athletes, and over the 4 year cycle of the Olympics there is a lot of potential for athletes to fall foul of the requirements. The way the NOCs support their athletes in these areas vary but in general the NOCs work closely with the National organisations that run each of the Olympic sports.
Throughout the preparation for the Olympics many aspects and requirements the NOCs are responsible for are implemented through the various national sports organisations. These organisations are usually better placed and help minimise the disruption for the athletes. Many already carry some of them out and have structures in place, so rather than imposing a single structure across all sports, NOCs such as the British Olympic Association work better by working closely with the national sports associations and provide any additional support as they need it.
This additional support for each sporting association can vary widely. The level of professional organisation can be very different for each sport, and the setup for each sport will be different in each county. For example, while the British cycling organisation is highly professional and a world leader, in other countries cycling may be a very minor sport. While the BOA may not need to provide support in a lot of areas for cycling, other NOCs may need to provide very significant support for their country’s cyclists. Conversely, they BOA will need to provide significant support to athletes that have limited support from their sports governing bodies that other NOCs may not need to be as involved with. While some sports, such as football, have significant global support structures for their athletes, the BOA and other NOCs will have a number of sports that have significant and varying support requirements and must analyse and prioritise what should and needs to be given.
Though the Olympics is a big occasion for all the sports and athletes that participate, it is not the main event for all of them. Sports such as football, tennis, basketball and rugby (rugby is not part of London 2012 but will make up the events in 2016) all have highly paid athletes with major world events in their respective sports which will be the main focus for the top athletes. In general it is these sports that require the least support from the NOCs for their athletes, while the sports that focus very much on the Olympics as the ultimate achievement will require more from the NOCs and work closer with them.
As with all professions, financing is an important part and sport is no exception. With professional sport becoming ever more competitive, the amount of time required by an athlete to dedicate to their sport through the four years or more preparing for the Olympics is highly substantial, and the costs involved can be even more so. Travelling to regional, national and international competitions, training equipment, coaches, training camps and so on can become highly expensive. It is mainly the case today that top athletes must receive some sort of funding if they are to be competitive come the Olympics, as if they had to work in other employment they simply wouldn’t have the time to dedicate to the training and preparation needed. This progression from amateur to professional athletes has largely taken place, particularly at the highest level, however there are still a number of sports and athletes that struggle financially while trying to maintain their performance levels.
Many sports do not require any additional funding. Professional footballers, for example, do not need the BOA to support their financial outlays. While again this will vary between countries as to which sports require additional funding support and which do not, by enlarge it is the sports with the Olympics at its pinnacle that the NOCs need to work the most with to secure their financial requirements.
The structure by which this support is given varies greatly between countries, but generally there will be a combination of funding coming from national governments, fund raising done by the NOC and the specific sports association.
In the case of the BOA, it is an independent body that does all its fundraising, though with the rights held for that country in many lucrative areas such as Olympic advertising, logo trademarks and sponsorships it is able to raise significant funds. However, most funding for athletes comes from the British Government and Lottery funding through Sport England, which is the national body in the UK that encompasses all sports, not just those at the Olympics. A key part of the BOAs role, therefore, is to represent its athletes and fight on their behalf for the funding that they need. A recent example came at the end of 2010 when the funding for the Winter Olympic Games in 2014 was set out. With Britain traditionally much less competitive at the Winter Olympics, funding is significantly reduced in comparison to that allocated by Sport England for the Summer Olympics. With many winter Olympic sports heavily reliant on this national funding, as their sporting associations are relatively minor, these funding decisions were crucial for many athletes and sports in being able to make it to the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, let alone be competitive when they get there. In this case the issue was due to a change in the funding structure, with the Winter Olympics becoming funded in the same way as the Summer Olympics by Sport England, meaning the most successful sports in terms of medals, and the ones most likely to be successful in the future, receiving more funding, and those under performing receiving less. This left some Winter Olympic sports in Britain facing much reduced funding, and in the case of the alpine skiers, whose sports association had just collapsed and therefore lost all their support from them, this was a real threat to their sport and athletes.
The BOA continues to be heavily involved in resolving this and other similar financial situations, and is one example of many that all NOCs have to deal with on a regular basis. One of the big problems is the conflict between funding elite sport and the funding of grass roots participation and development. Sport England is charged with maximising the success of Great Britain at the Olympics and targets its funding in the areas, sports and athletes that have the best chance of succeeding. While it tries to support as many athletes as it can, this is a natural focus and funding based on performance is an appropriate mechanism of allocation that many governments and sporting organisations use. However, sporting success is rarely achieved over night, and long term development is required before Olympic champions are produced. This needs sustained funding, and just because a sport has not been as successful as had hoped at an Olympics doesn’t necessarily mean that it is not progressing and developing well. Cutting that sport’s funding due to a poor result could significantly damage future potential success, and this needs to be taken into account when funding is finalised. The BOA plays a key role with Sport England in assessing the impact of funding on development, as do all NOCs within their respective funding structures.
Another key issue for many sports that are on the funding ‘borderline’ is uncertainty about future Olympic Involvement. It is not always known at the time of funding allocation what sports will be included in the Games. In the case of the example above, not even all events for 2014 had been confirmed at the time of the four year funding program outlined by Sport England at the end of 2010, let alone what sports will be on the calendar for the winter Olympics in 2018. This is just one example of where it is difficult for the NOCs and the various national funding bodies to assess where the most likely top athletes are going to come from and where the funding should be allocated
There is therefore a great need for funding flexibility to ensure potential future Olympians do not miss out, as although it is ideal to plan 4-6 year prior to an Olympics, it is often not possible to do so.
Wider Support for Athletes
The support NOCs give their competitors and contestants is wide ranging. Athletes will each have very different needs and the large numbers that the NOCs have to work with means this support must be flexible.
Each NOC has a responsibility to all of its athletes, not just the ones that end up at the Olympics. There are limited places available at the Olympics for each sports event for each country, and many athletes will not make the final cut for the Olympics, even though they may be of international or world class standard. For sports where there are particularly high levels of competition this is a particular concern. All athletes in the four year preparation cycle for the Olympics need to be looked after as they contest for places, and the NOCs cannot just focus on the athletes that are most likely to make up the final competitors. Closely working with each sports governing body significantly helps the NOCs achieve this broad branch support, but much support is provided directly from the NOCs to their athletes.
An athlete throughout their career can encounter a number of issues they will need help and support for. These can be sport specific, such as finding a new coach or trainer, sourcing equipment or drug testing. They may need help with travel arrangements, information on a country of destination, such as vaccination requirements, safety and visas, or information on IOC rules and regulations. They may also require more personal support. Many athletes can suffer from mental and physical ailments such as depression, injury, burn out or stress, as well as family and other personal issues. It is important that each NOC recognises and understands that athletes have a life outside of sport and that each has an impact on the other. Balancing the two and dealing with issues that occur within both are important if an athlete is to be in prime condition come the Olympics. The NOCs need to put sufficient support structures in place, again working with each sports governing body, so that the athletes are able to address the issues that they face with minimal impact on their sporting performance and wider aspects of life.
A key part to this support structure is the support needed for all the coaches and support staff that an athlete requires. The stresses and strains can be just as great for a coach or trainer as for an athlete, and providing the best coaches at the top of the game is key to producing Olympic Champions. This also an area that the BOA and other NOCs will work on and with individual sports to manage effectively.
At the Olympics
At the Olympic Games themselves, the responsibly of the NOCs for their athletes is arguably at its greatest. Through most of the year the athletes will mainly come directly under their related governing body, but at the Olympics they come together under one banner. Athletes from Great Britain and Northern Ireland from all Olympic sports that are to compete at the Olympics form ‘Team Great Britain’ and compete for that team. There isn’t a separate Olympic Cycling team association, Football Team Association etc. All athletes are part of Team Great Britain and the BOA become responsible for them. While the BOA will work closely with each of the sports before hand in the preparation for the Games and their needs as well as work with them through the Games, the BOA must provide large levels of organisation and support throughout the competition to its athletes across all areas of competition, accommodation, logistics, personal and more.
This is highly important for the Games to work effectively, particularly in the Olympics we see today. There are 205 country associations, which is a large number of organisations to handle for one competition as it is. Considering there are many thousands of athletes and support staff these countries bring with them, if they came broken up into each individual sport, the logistics for organising the event would become impossible. By having all a country’s athletes come to the Olympics under one banner ensures much greater coherence so that not only are the events run more smoothly, but the athletes are looked after more effectively.
This, as you can see, is why it is so important that the BOA and other NOCs build a close and effective relationship with each of their individual sports, as it enables the BOA to get a much better understanding of the requirements of each sport and their athletes, enabling them to implement them much more effectively at the Olympic Games themselves.
Regional Development and Promotion
The development of an Olympic athlete rarely starts a year or two prior to the Games taking place, or even 4 years out. In fact, it many cases the development doesn’t even start with that athlete at all, but with athletes before them. Many athletes cite inspiration from former idols for their success, and often it is an initial, often relatively low key development made by an athlete that paves the way for the success of the next athlete from that country.
Long term development and promotion of sports and athletes is therefore a key part of creating Olympic success and the NOCs play a major role in this area.
It is rare for an Olympic Champion to have shown little or no athletic ability from a young age. Spotting, developing and supporting young competitors and contestants at an early age is therefore important if a country is to turn them into word class athletes. This can be a decade long process even before they are able to turn professional, and maybe another decade before they win that gold medal. This lifelong support require significant time, effort and coordination that NOCs are at the heart of in many areas, in part because it is able to take a broad, long term approach that individual sports organisations or national bodies are unable to do, or have more conflicting pressures.
To be successful in this, the emphasis needs to be on maximising participation at all levels. The more people participating, the more likely a world champion will be found. The continual growth and development of each sport is therefore key to each NOCs objectives, and ultimately only serve to provide greater support to the Olympic competitors.
As one of the key aims and objectives of the IOC is to enhance humanity through sport and the Olympic movement, this broader social development is very much at the centre of the growth of the Olympics, and a key part of the work undertaken by the continental organisations. As well as managing various logistical aspects of the Olympics within these continental regions, they are also much more effectively able to enhance development by working together across borders. Though initially it may seem counter intuitive to help your competitors, the social benefits of sport can be profound and coordinating developments where appropriate will be to the advantage of all involved.
Each NOC will work with the others within their continental organisation on a range of issues within the IOC and on the ground to enhance their effectiveness in both areas in supporting their athletes as well as this wider development and promotion.
Bsc Physical Education, Sports Science and Physics, Loughborough University