PtG Article 03.06.2024

New study challenges European Model of Sport as EU ministers move to support self-organised sport

The Belgian EU presidency has opened a new avenue in European sports politics by recognising the need to support self-organised sport. This happens as a new study by Play the Game confirms that  Europeans largely organise their physical activity outside the competitive sports settings.  

Keywords: IOC Politics

While 38 per cent of Europeans participate in sport and exercise regularly, most do so in more informal settings, such as outdoors, as part of everyday commuting, or at home.  

Those Europeans who practice sport and exercise in a more organised setting prefer fitness centres and sports clubs.  

These are some key findings in a new study by Play the Game which uses EuroStat data on the physical activity of European citizens to assess and compare how physical activity takes place across the 27 EU countries.  

The study is published at the same time as the EU ministers for sport (the Council) have made a new resolution on self-organised sport

Under the Belgian EU Presidency, the ministers seem to invoke an important change of course. Instead of focusing only on the so-called European Model of Sport promoted by the Olympic movement, they now ask member states to “promote and support policies that foster the practice of self-organised sport as a means of encouraging lifelong physical activity and sport”. 

This resolution coincides with the findings of Play the Game’s study that analyses firstly, how active citizens are, and secondly, where they exercise.  

Study tests the European Model of Sport

Play the Game has been mapping sports and exercise trends in the 27 EU countries to find out whether the European Model of Sport is the best starting point for increasing physical activity levels in Europe such as it has been argued by the International Olympic Committee and most national Olympic committees across Europe. 

“In recent years, the Olympic movement has campaigned intensely and successfully to convince politicians that only the pyramid model of competitive sport is the best solution for increasing physical activity. This goes against most evidence collected for the past 30-40 years, and it is very encouraging that the EU sports ministers seem to understand the need for a new approach,” says international director of Play the Game, Jens Sejer Andersen. 

The European Model of Sport defines sports as a pyramid structure where grassroots sports form the basis of the pyramid, clubs and elite levels are placed on top, and federations oversee and regulate the entire system.  

Proponents argue that the pyramid structure is beneficial for everyone involved as grassroots sports are seen to develop elite athletes while elite sports stimulate grassroots sports through financial support and trickle-down inspiration. There is, however, very little evidence to sustain the notion that grassroots sport receives important support from elite sports, or that elite sports help attract new participants to sport.  

Study shows there are several models of sport in Europe 

Previous studies have found that the sporting reality in Europe is diverse and it is not possible to talk about one common European sports model. Those findings are also borne out by Play the Game's study which shows that citizens in the 27 EU countries have very different habits when it comes to exercising and many activities do not take place within the framework of a club or federation. 

Based on statistical analysis, the study divides exercise habits into four different clusters of countries along a north-south and east-west divide. For instance, the Nordic countries have the highest rates in terms of how frequently citizens exercise, while participation is lower in the Eastern and Southern European countries.  

In terms of the settings for exercising, the highest proportion of sports club memberships are found in Western European countries, while citizens in Eastern European countries more often exercise at home or while commuting. 

Overall, Play the Game’s study confirms once again that Europeans have a preference for exercising in more informal settings compared to the organised sports structures of the pyramid model for sport.  

The EU Council comes to the same conclusion in their resolution by drawing on data from the Eurobarometer on sport and physical activity. For the first time in many years, the European Model of Sport is not even mentioned in a grassroots sport-related document from the EU. 

Play the Game’s international director emphasises that competitive sports and their organisations have much to offer and bring numerous social and cultural qualities to the world of physical activity:

“Olympic sport does account for a very large active membership and should of course have a say in European politics. However, its lobbying powers are counterproductive when not supported by evidence. The sports ministers have finally reviewed the evidence and concluded that EU must support broader interests than those represented by the Olympic system.”  

Download the report

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