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Elite Athletes vs Couch Potatoes: can the Rio Games bridge the divide?

2 August 2016

In the lead up to Rio 2016, Dr Chris Neff is joined by Senior Lecturer Dr Steve Georgakis to discuss the growing commercialisation of sport and the impact this has on participation.

Steve was on his way to represent his country at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics when he suffered a career-ending injury. While devastating at the time, he credits this experience with cementing his love of sport and interest in pursuing research in this area.

In this episode Chris and Steve question the role of the Games. Is it worth all the money we spend on it? Does it encourage us to exercise more, be healthier or even a more patriotic nation?

Host: Dr Chris Neff
Guest: Dr Steve Georgakis
Producers: Michelle Blowes and team
Editor: Caitlin Gibson

Dr Steve Georgakis
Steve was appointed to the Faculty of Education and Social Work in 2002 and has a long standing interest and passion in physical education and school sport, teacher education, history and sociology of sport and pedagogy for learning.


Elite Athletes vs Couch Potaoes: Can the Rio Games bridge the divide? 

[Music plays]

Chris Neff: As a young man, Dr Steve Georgakis was an elite athlete on his way to represent his country at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Then, at just 22, he suffered a career-ending injury and overnight this bright future dissolved. But his love and passion for sport never went away. Over the last 20 years, Steve has published extensively about his research into the growing commercialisation of sport. And he is especially interested in how the professionalisation of the industry impacts how we engage with sport at a grassroots level. Dr Steve Georgakis is a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney. And with the 2016 Rio Olympics fast approaching, today on the podcast we’re going to be talking elite athletes versus couch potatoes.

Are the Olympics worth all the money we spend on it? Does it encourage us to exercise more?

This is Open for Discussion. I am your host, Chris Neff. Steve welcome to the show.

Dr Steve Georgakis: Thank you for having me. And a sad story but a true story that many people don’t really know about my former sporting career.

Chris Neff: Would you mind sharing with us what happened?

Dr Steve Georgakis: Aaah, look I played injured for about a year…

Chris Neff: This was soccer… or football?

Dr Steve Georgakis: Soccer. And just prior to the games there we had a match against South Korea and completely tore my groin muscle off the bone. So I was out of the games, which was a huge disappointment, but it, um galvanised my interest in sport. And in many ways it was a blessing.

Chris Neff: Sport is one of those national pastimes of Australia, a lot of Australians build their identity around sports, so it plays a central role. Are Australians as obsessed about sport as they were 20 years ago?

Dr Steve Georgakis: Look it’s a core value of being Australian and of course the high point of Australian sport was about the time of the 2000 Olympic games. We had a number of individuals who were athletes who became Australians of the year. We were the world champions in a whole range of sports. And of course, in this high point of sport, in the year 2000, we came fourth on the medal count. And it became this force that really united all the different sections of Australian society.

There’s been a decline now and even though we may be obsessed with sport, the obsession is not as great as around the turn of the last century.

Chris Neff: Does the increased attention to a sport, necessarily mean that the country… that they do more athletic activities? That it sort of spurs on, you know, it gets people up and moving. Does the whole country join in in an Olympic year or when a country hosts the Olympics?

Dr Steve Georgakis: Look, great question Chris. The answer is not a simple one. What we do know is that for a lot of Australians, for a lot of youth, the Olympics becomes just about spectatorship and watching our great athletes win medals. And of course, the commercialisation of the sport, money that has been put into the sport, has resulted in these amazing performances at the Olympic games. But on the flip side of that it’s become this commodified entity… the way to involve yourself in sport, is not to actually go out and participate, but to actually watch it on TV and look at all of the products that are advertised and are part of the Olympic games.

Chris Neff: So if it’s switched to a commoditised business model, that doesn’t necessarily lead to more participation, but definitely leads to more spectators in an industry of gambling and… a number of things. Why is the public investing in this?

Dr Steve Georgakis: More than 2000 years ago, the Romans gave this ideology a term and they called it ‘give them bread and spectacles’. And it’s this idea that you can control the masses by giving them enough wealth and jobs, and then giving them spectacles; getting them involved in things that really don’t add to the meaning of life. So I believe it’s a way of, you know, keeping people happy and get them feeling nationalistic about um… and this idea that we’re a superior nation because we earn gold medals at the Olympic Games.

Chris Neff: I think that’s a really important point Steve; that this sort of commodification of the Olympics. That you end of up with, you know, an increased business interest, a shift from participation to spectatorship and gambling that goes on around the Olympics.

Dr Steve Georgakis: I grew up in a period where sport had held this educational value. You participated in sport to make friends, to open up the Australian way of life; going to a beach, swim[ming], running around, hiking… and that’s the reason why we all played sport. We are now in this age now where young kids, aspiring athletes realise that sport is about making money. And there’s this great battle between the two forces.

Chris Neff: It seems that there are issues of class, and ability and race and sex and gender identity that are much more complex than flicking on a TV and watching the Olympics or watching an AFL match. What would you say about the factor of money? I mean…

Dr Steve Georgakis: Class is a big issue and I’m glad you mentioned that because unfortunately in 2016, participation in sport at the youth level is based on a particular class that you’re in. In a lot of these elite independent schools, which receive an incredible amount of money from the Government, these kids have compulsory sport, male and female. Unfortunately in the government school system there is no compulsory sport.

People often talk about the Finnish model of education; you hear it all the time. What they don’t tell you is that on the hour, in any particular school in Finland the kids do 15 minutes of rigorous physical activity. It becomes this way of actually improving educational attainment.

I think as a country we’ve got to make a decision about the place of sport in our society and this correlation between sport and big business is wrong to be quite frank with you.

Chris Neff: OK, so Steve what are the benefits for people who do sport? I’m a lawn bowler, that’s my… I play tennis, I swim, I was a competitive water skier… but really if I was going to say my favourite, it would be lawn bowling. What do you think are some of the benefits of doing sport and are there sports that are more popular in Australia than…

Dr Steve Georgakis: I consider myself one of Australia’s leading lawn bowl coaches. So, I’ve developed this technique of teaching anyone how to lawn bowl in 10 minutes. And it’s this inclusive way, and of course, this is the way that all sport should be taught. So it’s not really about what sports kids should be playing, they should be playing across a range of sports. They should be doing target sports like lawn bowls, they should be doing invasion games like soccer and netball, and they should be doing individual discipline sports like swimming and gymnastics. But the key here is to give the kids a wide range of experiences.

Chris Neff: I’m fascinated by the way you categorise the different sports, like when you said soccer and football was an invasion game. Is that, like do all sports have different categories that they fall in to? That sort of teaches us these skills?

Dr Steve Georgakis: Look Chris, there are a number of benefits of playing sports; in this age of obesity we think that we play sport for the reason of addressing health issues, but it’s more than that; it’s a about academic achievement. A kid that’s settled and fit and strong is going to study better. There are also all of these social learning that takes place.

Another important reason here is this idea that you can learn certain values in playing sport; working towards a goal, strategy, all these other benefits. So it’s purely not just about going in to a gym and sitting on a cross-trainer with your headphones on listening to Britney Spears or Rhianna. You were laughing when I mentioned lawn bowls, there are so many different aspects of lawn bowls that make it such a great sport.

Chris Neff: I take lawn bowls very seriously, for the record Steve.

And there’s also the, sort of, interpersonal communication with people that you might not have necessarily met before. Like when you do different sports, different people do different sports. So I know, here at Sydney Uni I was a member of the ping-pong club. And I was the only, aaah American in the group and there were a number of Chinese, Japanese, Korean… who took turns kicking my butt. And… but it was a fantastic way to communicate with a group of people that… when else was I going to meet a group of 20 Koreans!

[music plays]

Did you know the University of Sydney has over 20 students and alumni competing in Rio 2016? Keep up to date by following their progress at University of Sydney Facebook and Twitter.

You know we’ve talked about some of the shortfalls around grassroots participation; declines in the way youth are participating in sport and yet we still see increasing amounts every year of federal or state dollars going to the Olympics and going to elite athlete programs for the Commonwealth Games, for the Olympics. Is that money well spent?

Dr Steve Georgakis: It is money well spent from a perspective of keeping sport as one of the core values of Australian culture. And I think it’s a good thing. This idea that we take pride in these young athletes who are our great models doing well at The Olympic Games. And as you probably know, the only way you can do well at the Olympic Games is to have this specialised focus system where you target medals, and of course, this is where the majority of the funding goes. But on the flip side there, we have to understand that success at the Olympic Games has very little correlation with increased participation in sport. But we don’t see any of that; we see sport as being this institution, which grooms our youth in to being elite athletes. If you’re not in the, you know, top one percent, sport has a very negative meaning.

Chris Neff: Well it can be… because if you are watching people on TV… I sort of do this based on my age, so when I watch Wimbledon or I watch The Olympics I think ‘I don’t think I could do that’ and so, it almost has a negative trickle down effect on repressing… like, keeping me as a couch potato. Like, ok, fine I’ll open a bag of potato chips and watch the game. So…

Dr Steve Georgakis: I’m getting a little hungry [laugh] at the moment there. Look, the issue is that a lot of Australian youth won’t take up track and field sports. Because at a very young age they look at the elite athletes doing these amazing things at the Olympic Games and kids realise straight away that ‘I’ve got zero chance of actually doing that, so if I’m not going to go to the Olympics, I’m not going to take up any sport whatsoever’. And that’s a very, very problematic issue.

Chris Neff: And you were saying that one venue that would be really important in doing that is schools? Like the way that schools do it.

Dr Steve Georgakis: It’s the only place. If it’s ever going to happen; if we’re going to have an Australian society of youth who are fit and enjoy physical activity, they can only learn this in the school setting.

Chris Neff: You mentioned that, you know, one of the great advantages of the Olympics is that it provides role models, national role models, and you know, you were making the point earlier that this is part of the national identity. You know, what are your thoughts about doping, match fixing and gambling that goes on around the Olympics?

Dr Steve Georgakis: The real problem as we saw in sports like professional cycling, and other sports of course, is that if you really want to compete with elite athletes you’ve got to go out there and dope. So the problem is not with the athletes, the problem is with the various sporting organisations and regrettably with the Olympic movement itself. We’ve got the recent shocking news that the doping lab in Rio has been shut down. We know that in the London Olympic Games in 2012, there were all these athletes now that are going to be shamed as dopers. And what that means is that a lot of parents who are interested in their kids taking up professional sport, will pull them away and ultimately we’ll switch off and we’ll stop watching sport altogether.

Chris Neff: So there could be the danger that they move from, you know, participation to spectator and whether it’s doping or match fixing or gambling, or live betting, whatever it is; could turn off the spectators as well.

Dr Steve Georgakis: it is, it’s happening already. The doping is completely out of control and it’s other forms of corruption as well. Um, the Tour De France, we’re going to be checking for, I don’t know if you’ve heard this, motorised bikes.

Chris Neff: People are motorising their bikes…?

Dr Steve Georgakis: Yeah…

Chris Neff: So what are they going to do? Put the bikes through the x-ray machine? They’re going to use the doping machine on the bikes!?

Dr Steve Georgakis: It’s insanity really, and it’s just moving more and more away from what sport was supposed to be about.

Chris Neff: So, if we’re going to continue funding for the Olympics, and I’m a bit more sceptical I think than you are, um in terms of the value. Is there a way that the government or parents or civic organisations could be more engaged to help youth at that grassroots level? Or do you… where you highlight that there’s a disconnect between what’s sort of going on with the Olympics and what’s going on at grassroots?

Dr Steve Georgakis: The answer is a simple one, and again it’s this idea of re-institutionalising sport in the education system. Um, and the idea is that you still have the pathways for elite athletes, you still specialise and you target certain sports, but you’ve also got to encourage mass participation there. And if you focus on both of these, I think you’ll be able to achieve a lot of outcomes.

[music plays]

Chris Neff: Can I ask you, what’s your favourite sport to watch?

Dr Steve Georgakis: Get ready for this one; all of them except for golf.

Chris Neff: Aaah.

Dr Steve Georgakis: And I always take a few weeks of work and watch the Olympic Games…

Chris Neff: You take time off work for the Olympics?

Dr Steve Georgakis: I love the Olympics and, um and what they stand for.

Chris Neff: Sport brings out a lot of different emotions and it’s a very complex thing. And I hope our listeners have enjoyed our, aah…. picking it apart and putting it back together and getting ready to watch the Rio 2016 Olympics.

Thank you very much Steve.

Dr Steve Georgakis: Thank you for having me.

You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or Sound Cloud. You can find me on twitter @christopherneff. Throughout The Olympics be sure to visit our website for unique insights from the universities experts on the games.

Thanks for listening to Open for Discussion, a University of Sydney podcast.


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