by Kevin Azzopardi
Half a century ago, sport was generally considered a leisure activity pursued mainly for socialisation and recreation. Things have changed drastically since then, and virtually all disciplines today are moving rapidly towards professionalisation. Perhaps this fundamental transition is best illustrated in the transformation of the Olympic Games: originally, only amateur athletes were allowed to participate in events, but from 1986 onwards, the International Olympic Committee began opening the games to professional athletes too.
This change can also be observed at the level of community sport. The importance of sport to both individuals and societies has grown considerably in recent decades and, with this, athletes found new opportunities for development and specialisation.
Policymakers, too, are increasingly taking a strategic approach to sport, positioning it as an investment in national health as well as in the national brand. More people are responding positively to campaigns promoting an active society and, although physical activity and sport are distinct spheres, the former usually reinforces the value of the latter.
Meanwhile, sports are evolving away from formal championships and official leagues as global trends shift to unstructured models of performance.
By adopting models that have proved successful in other areas, particularly the business sector, sports are finding new niches and firing up new fan bases. This is a welcome development because it is making sports accessible to more people while diversifying the range of disciplines.
Importantly, forward-looking approaches to sports are creating new funding sources. Financing is crucial for the professionalisation of disciplines; however, we must be careful to protect the integrity of athletes and events whilst simultaneously not allowing other goals to compromise the game. The value of sport remains the basic ambition to excel.
Besides broader participation, a revolution is also happening in the form of activity with the rise of esports. For years now the big players behind this special category of gaming have been lobbying to introduce competitive events in the Olympic Games, and we might be awarding Olympic medals to esports champions before long.
Analysts from many quarters expressed concerns about the effects of esports on the sporting culture, but the two remain separate domains and there is little to indicate that physical sport disciplines are going to be replaced by electronic simulations anytime soon. This is a trend that reflects the digital world we are living in. Same as tennis had given birth to table tennis and more recently to e-tennis.
Simultaneously, sports, in general, are drifting away from the traditional disciplines and alternative activities such as skateboarding, adventure sports, flying disc or kite flying are becoming ever more popular. Indeed, many athletes practising non-traditional sports have nurtured a global cult following for their skills and accomplishments, but performers do not typically seek celebrity status the way that stand-out figures in other sectors do.
Although sports have a deep communal value, it is an inherently individual undertaking. The purpose of sport is to improve one’s personal qualities and set higher standards. The disruption caused by the pandemic was a huge blow to athletes who could not perform to their usual levels. The suspension of tournaments and championships was mentally devastating on players who live to compete and become better at what they do.
At the same time, the situation also served to demonstrate the importance of sports, professional or amateur. As restrictions slowly start to be lifted around the world, we can expect sports to burst out of the blocks.
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