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Lucy Ferriss
Lucy Ferriss
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Elite Sports Abroad

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I spent some time during my sabbatical this past spring visiting friends and relatives in Belgium and France, where I also conducted interviews with several administrators at the national centers for elite sports in those countries. I’ll be reporting on differences between the American and European systems in a later essay for MomsTeam, but here I will simply note some of my personal reactions to the conversation with Paul Rowe, who is in charge of elite sports at Bloso, the Flemish sport federation.

The Belgian System

Even though he turns down most requests for interviews, Paul took a good chunk out of his day to talk to me, because he finds the issues surrounding youth elite sports fascinating and the Unites States’s approach to sports training interesting to compare to that in Belgium. As a bilingual country, Belgium has a particular challenge in supporting its ambitious athletes, but like other European countries, it relies almost entirely on local and state taxes to support town, provincial, and national organizations in every sport that is played internationally, with particular emphasis on Olympic sports.

Flemish youth who show promise at the local level are recommended by local coaches in their sports to provincial centers; those who excel at the provincial level are similarly recommended to the national programs. All coaching, travel, coordination with academics, and fitness training are provided by these programs; the parents pay next to nothing, and attend their children’s sports events not because they have to take them there but only because they want to watch. “The most important thing for us at Bloso,” Paul said, “is that the process be meritocratic, and that it be egalitarian.”

Meritocratic and Egalitarian

The most astonishing thing about the interview, I thought when it was over, was how shocked I was to hear those two words in connection with elite sports! You would think that an American would be used to “meritocratic and egalitarian” applying to almost every aspect of life. But in fact, I have grown accustomed to the notion that elite sports are for…well, the elite. In fact, even calling individual sports with international or Olympic potential “elite” sounds elite. The Flemish call them “topsports.” The French call them “sports of high level.” That we Americans, who once touted ourselves as the land of equal opportunity, should think of certain sports, or certain levels of sport, as out of the question for young people of a given socioeconomic background suddenly seems un-American.

Yet the reason for Bloso’s claim to a democratic, egalitarian process is, of course, a tax system that includes levies for all these clubs and training needs, including special academic facilities and international travel for topsport athletes. Do taxpayers ever object to being forced to subsidize, say, their neighbor’s daughter’s figure-skating career? I asked Paul. “Why should they?” he said. “It’s the cost of a couple of beers a year for each taxpayer. And athletes like Kim Clijsters bring the country a lot of positive attention!”

A Couple of Beers?

We Americans, I fear, like our couple of beers a year. It is impossible to imagine the United States adopting a system like Belgium’s. Our approach to balancing the demands of high-level sports against all the other demands of life must, in the end, be more individual and must help us find our way through a system that disapproves of state control and high taxes, even when the alternative is private control and corporate sponsorship.