Which countries are most successful in sport?

Sport and Politics / Society

Helmut Digel


Dr. rer. soc., born 1944; Studied German, sports science and educational science at the University of Tübingen; since 1999 professor for sports science and director of the institute for sports science at the University of Tübingen.
Address: Eberhard Karls University, Institute for Sports Science, Wilhelmstr. 124, 72074 Tübingen.
Email: [email protected]

Publications among others: Top sport - opportunities and risks, Schorndorf 2001; Thinking about the Olympics - About the meaning and future of the Olympic Games, Tübingen 2004; numerous other monographs and articles on top-class sport in international comparison.

Verena Burk


M. A., Dr. rer. soc., born 1966; Studied sports science and German at the Technical University of Darmstadt; Research assistant at the Institute for Sports Science at the University of Tübingen.
Address: like H. Digel.
Email: [email protected]

Publications among others: (together with Helmut Digel and Heike Sloboda) high-performance sport in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Weilheim / Teck 2003; Sports coverage in the dual television system. Public law and private programs in comparison, Darmstadt 2003.

Helmut Digel and Verena Burk draw an international comparison of high-performance sport. In doing so, they take particular account of the education and training system and the military of the respective countries.

Introductory remarks

When the 28th Olympic Games open in Athens on August 13, 2004, around 10,500 athletes from 201 countries will compete in 28 sports to compete for 16 days in sporting competition and for their winners in 301 competitions to determine. The services provided were achieved through hard and almost daily training, which, however, takes place in the various countries under very different social, cultural and sporting structural framework conditions. For a long time, the relatively simply structured relationship between athlete and trainer has changed in favor of a complex personal network of high-performance sport in which, in addition to these central players in high-performance sport, other people, organizations and institutions play important roles in preparation and implementation have taken over athletic performance. In particular, specific performance-promoting framework conditions or resources that are or are made available in a society for the creation of performance in top-class sport are in demand. In order to be able to systematically record, describe and compare these resources, it is helpful to use the analytical grid of a success-resource model, with the help of which the central resources of the organization of high-performance sport can be identified.

Today, the resources of high-performance sport can be located on three different levels: on the level of society, in the respective organization of high-performance sport in a nation and in its environment, which is particularly relevant to the high-performance sport system. If one summarizes the decisive resources of high-performance sport, which are directly or indirectly related to sporting success, then different resource patterns emerge depending on the sport and nation considered. In contrast to earlier projects [1] to determine and interpret determinants for sporting success, in the concept presented here an approach is chosen that does not look closely at the meaning of a few indicators. Rather, a broad frame of reference is used to trace the complex structures of high-performance sport.

The findings presented below result from an investigation that was started in 1999 and focused on the eight most successful nations at the Olympic Games. Information about high-performance sport in Australia, China, Germany, France, Great Britain, Italy, Russia and the United States of America was obtained by means of written and oral surveys. The umbrella organizations and selected professional associations as well as state institutions of sport in the respective countries were surveyed. Document analyzes and literature studies were also carried out. The interpretation of the collected data was finally validated communicatively in cooperation with selected national experts.

If we consider the society of a competitive sports nation as a resource for the system of high-performance sports, it can be assumed that social and cultural framework conditions have a central influence on the probability of a country's sporting success. In order to identify the central resources of high-performance sport, it is therefore essential to look at certain characteristics of a country. It can be assumed that these country-specific framework data act as background variables and have an independent influence on the characteristics of individual elements of the other levels. Selected aspects of the social structure, in particular the population development, but also the political and economic situation of a country were taken into account.

On the second level - that of the organization of high-performance sport - one can differentiate between a large number of individual categories that are important for successful performance in international competitions. Examples include the search for and promotion of talent, the training and further education of the trainers, the participation of the population in sports, the competition offers, the organizational structures and their personnel and, last but not least, the means and forms of financing (see Fig.) .

From the environment of the system of high-performance sport, some social sub-systems in particular prove to be particularly significant. Given the numerous performance interdependencies between the various social subsystems, high-performance sport primarily experiences performance from business, politics, the military, science, educational institutions and the mass media. In the following, the interdependencies of high-performance sport with the education and training system as well as the military are presented and the recognizable similarities and differences between the eight countries are discussed.