Is dominance a bad thing in sport?

An athlete holding a trophy

How we might view the role of highly successful athletes in our Society

The Scandinavian countries take their winter sports seriously. These relatively small populations regularly defeat larger ones at international championships in nordic skiing, speed skating, biathlon and ski jumping. Their entire team roster sometimes crosses the line before other countries’ top competitors do. The current winter sports season has been particularly lopsided in these countries’ favour. In some sports, fewer non-Scandinavian countries than ever have reached the podium in world cups and championships. Some media channels have aired concerns that it might wipe out public interest, and perhaps the will of the (non-Scandinavian) athletes participating. It is, in their words, “bad for the sport”.

It is worthwhile considering how this situation may have arisen. Dynasties do come and go in all sports. Some extremely talented individuals and cohesive teams seem unstoppable, for a while at least. Unexpectedly long winning streaks are, statistically (and ironically), actually quite common every few years in most sports. But the steady presence of the Scandinavians on the winter podiums seems to outlast such anomalies.

Part of this is surely cultural. Many children grow up on snow and ice and can use skis and skates to get around for almost half the year. Part of it is also participation. These are historically popular sports and many join clubs, school and work activities that involve competitions at all different levels. But if we look at the numbers, larger, non-Scandinavian countries often have more participants in total. It is likely not simply a matter of picking the best of a larger lot.

But a simpler explanation is more likely: excellence breeds excellence. If you are pushed hard in training every day and in races every weekend by your closest colleagues, you will learn and push back. It is the embodiment of postulate 6: one’s best must always be given. In the most successful teams, members also share their training plans, strategies, and tactics with each other so that they can be tested and adapted as others catch on. As everyone challenges each other, everyone progresses. Some teams simply reach a level where their internal competitions are stronger than their external ones, and thus the internal progression is more pronounced.

This situation arises at all levels of sport. Think about the kid at school who nets at least two goals per game in intramural football. Or the high school volleyball team that has won their division five years straight. Or the former semi-pro father of four who wins every master’s level bike race in the province whether it’s a criterium, time-trial, or mountain bike mass start. Do the others give up and stay home? Does the kid, or team, or dad take it easier on their competitors?

The best improve the rest

A true athlete that understands sport knows that seemingly dominant members of our Society are what improve everyone. We see this when swimming or track and field events suddenly become “hot”, with records shattered in rapid succession after having remained untouchable for years. It might only be one athlete doing the shattering at first, but more often than not there are several competitors hot on their heels. And the most mind-bending feats of success in sport have almost always been fuelled by “rivalries” and repeated duels between champions.

Athletes that are not quite at that level yet may have a lot of work to do to get there. And yet, at any given race, or in any given situation, they can use dominant athletes to test their tactics, theories, and courage. There are successful examples of athletes moving to the Scandinavian countries to get closer to the best, and ending up becoming serious challengers. Some Scandinavian teams have invited in teams or members from other regions to train with them. They then gain experience from each other, when in need of a new push.

Our Society only benefits when our members are pushing their own, and each others, boundaries. If that leads to an inordinate amount of success for one or a few, that’s great. It means they are doing their best. Let that reflect well on all of us, while remaining a guiding light for us as well. It is a sign of our Society’s good health, and nothing else*.

Continual success should therefore by no means be considered “bad” for a sport – on the contrary, it may be the best possible development for an athlete. And, it is we, the athletes, that are sport. What the media and some officials are thinking about are things that are secondary to sport, like viewer numbers and ratings, and sponsor revenues. So let the television experts and newspaper columnists wring their hands unnecessarily. The rest of us will get back to work.

*Hopefully. More on this topic in relation to postulates 3 and 4 in a coming post.