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Krisensymptome im Sport:
The Crisis in Sport. In: International Journal of Physical Education 31 (1994), 2, 7-14.


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(This article was submitted in 1989. lt could not be published earlier. Its content is however of lasting actuality)

Modern sport is exhibiting symptoms of a crisis (BÜHL 1984, 1-90) which suggest that it is undergoing a critical phase of development. Tendencies calling into question what was once taken for granted can be seen worldwide. Sport institutions are finding it difficult to adapt to rapidly changing conditions in their environment. Furthermore, protest and alternative movements are trying to undermine the prevailing value system, as a result of which a certain loss of coherence in the organizational structure and ideological orientation of sport has become increasingly apparent.

1. The Crisis in Top-Level Sport

In discussing the causes of the crisis, we can first of all mention modern top-level sport. The cost threshold in top-level sport now threatens to exceed the utilization threshold in many sports. This is due in part to the amazingly high international level of achievement, which has forced increasing professionalization in sport (NEIDHARDT 1985, 71-81). At the same time, busy competition schedules and frequent training - often several times a day (particularly in the case of children and young people) - have brought athletes closer and closer to the biological limits of their capacity. The increasing incidence of injuries to athletes´ ligaments, tendons, muscles and joints attests to this; some of these injuries art serious, and they are often not allowed to heal properly. Moreover, the enormous pressure to succeed which lies behind the dominant mentality of "victory at any price" has contributed to a rapidly growing temptation for athletes to improve their individual performance through manipulative means such as doping and pharmacological aids of all kinds (STRAUSS 1987). Likewise, athletes´ will to demonstrate fairness at the pinnacle of highest performance in sport more and more often appears to be adversely affected by a scenario of aggression and violence - sometimes to a disquieting extent (PILZ et al. 1982; GOLDSTEIN 1983). The inner value structure of Olympic sport, which repeatedly proclaims the principle of "the inviolability and dignity of the athlete", is thus in actual fact threatening to degenerate into nothing but empty words.

While the growing ideational and material dependence of top-level sport on the state and economy is also cause for concern, the extremely high costs of the modern competitive system could hardly be financed without substantial public allocations and/or support from commercial sponsors. The price to be paid

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is increasing infringement on the inner autonomy of sport and a prevalence of supply-and-demand-oriented marketing principles, particularly in the show business of mass-media sport. As a direct consequence, sport forms are categorized as rich sports which are attractive for TV or poor ones not worthy of sponsorship, and the sport system if drifting apart into financially strong high-performance sport and financially strapped sport for the masses. Most fateful of all, the professionalization, politicization, and commercialization of modern top-level sport and its disregard for basic ethical values are apparently so intertwined that some critics fear an irreversible spiral of alienation (SEPPÄNEN 1984, 113-127; HEINILÄ 1982, 235-254), which would inevitably end in a modern version of the "fights of the gladiators".

2. The Growth Crisis

The second cause for the crisis in sport lies in its rapid growth, in conjunction with a fundamental kind of qualitative process of change likely to intensify in the near future (LEVY 1984, 17-22; CLAEYS 1985; DIGEL 1986; RITTNER 1984; HEINEMANN 1986). Not only did new segments of the population begin participating; they also increasingly articulated changed needs as regards sport. New sports like squash and surfing sprang up. Fashionable trends like jogging, aerobics, stretching, and body building met with unimagined popularity. The boundaries between sport and other forms of physical expression (pantomime, clowning) as well as other leisure and vacation activities became increasingly obscured. Above all, the basic principles of the past became less clear and unambiguous. Traditional sport with its orientation toward performance, competition, youth, men, fairness, and team spirit was increasingly relativized and impeded through expectations brought to it by women, older people, marginal social groups, foreigners, and people involved in fitness and therapeutic sport. This development was largely unintentional. The concurrent differentiation of sport into more and more subunits gradually raised fears about the continued existence of its original essence. There was growing concern that the heterogenity of interests and plurality of value patterns could destroy the identity of sport as shaped by Olympic ideals and thus destroy sport´s inner unity.

Specifically, post-industrial values characterized by increasingly insistent demands for "quality of life" were making themselves felt in sport. There were general calls for the reconciliation of technology with nature, the "re-enchantment of the world" based on corporeality, entirety, and presentness. Notable key concepts were self-realization, participation, and the individualization of life styles. This development had direct consequences for sport (LEVY 1984; CLAEYS 1985, 237/238; DIGEL 1986; HEINEMANN 1986; GRUPE 1988). The new games movement expanding worldwide was most vocal in calling for more sensuality in everyday sport as well as greater cooperation and more different kinds of games which could be played together by the young and old of both sexes. By the 1980s at the latest, a heterogenous sport movement had developed from these beginnings. While the movement comprised numerous branches, it nevertheless represented the direction that was gradually prevailing, and increasingly urgent demands for alternative sport forms were being heard (FLUEGELMAN & TEMBECK 1976; ORLICK 1978).

The principal point of attack was the elimination of the conventional features of sport such as the often rigid standardization of time, space, and social interaction (RITTNER 1984, 4-7). Conscious opposition to the formica and neonlight culture of traditional sports took the form of a more confidence-inspiring atmosphere with music, colour, and congenial service in which narcissism sometimes assumed a pervasive significance. Furthermore, a wide variety of sport forms was intended to offset the lack of physical exertion and the directness, tension and drama of our hi-tech world. Last but not least, a group of comfortably small size often became much more important than the large organization above it.

The sport establishment tried in numerous ways to rise to the challenge of these post-modern development trends. However, the actual impulses for an innovative departure from conventional structures in sport came not so much from the sport institutions themselves as

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from subculture groups in an around organized sport. Above all, the growing number of commercial purveyors of sport (department stores, hotels, fitness studios) often proved more innovative, flexible, and creative, usually discovering market-oriented openings faster and exploiting them more thoroughly. The Olympic sport movement thus suffered a decline in importance which was not insignificant, although its extent varied from country to country. Despite all the appeasement, suppression, and reduction of the problems, as well as all the efforts to find pragmatic solutions, the situations still harbors a threatening explosiveness; it generally destabilizes the system.

3. The Crisis in the (Voluntary) Sport Organization

Strictly speaking, the present crisis in (voluntary) organized sport stems from an imperfect balance between traditional elements and modern tendencies, which is the result of overall social upheaval and the transition to a post-industrial society (BELL 1973; NAISBITT 1982; BÜHL 1984, 91-191). As this confrontation is still in full swing, no final conclusions can be drawn as to the further development of sport. On the one hand, adherence to the traditional, with its emphasis on fairness, honorary posts, common good, and (party-)political neutrality, can be seen in sport. On the other hand, there is disagreement, at times even perplexity, regarding the degree and extent of the change in direction. Many warn against total openness of sport forms and view a consolidation of the existing membership structure as more sensible than unrestricted growth. Others say that organized sport must keep up with the times, or the times will pass it up.

But to what extent should sport be opened up, and does openness make sense? Where must the line be drawn? Is it possible to walk the fine line between self-determination and determination by others? Has fairness in the meantime been superseded as the central lesson to be learned from sport, or can this development still be counteracted? Does established Sport provide a sufficient basis for the new orientation of sport? Should complementary purveyors of sport, particularly commercial purveyors, be integrated into the sport movement? Is this allowed? Is it possible? Is sport perhaps facing an inevitable split as it drifts apart into sport for the masses/leisure sport and high-performance sport/professional sport? Finally, what difficulties does the leisure-sport boom, which encompasses various sport forms, entail for the organizational principle of clubs and associations, which are organized according to specific sport forms?

4. Tendencies in sport practice

Three tendencies are already so firmly established in sport practice that it appears virtually pointless to debate their pros and cons any longer. It is time to acknowledge realities and make the best of them:

4.1 Professionalization

The trend toward professionalization and fulltime employment in sport can no longer be topped. One reason for this is the general change from idealism to materialism in the Western industrial nations. In addition, more extensive training schedules and a growing catalog of requirements with rapidly rising standards for time and, above all, technique gradually placed athletes, trainers, coaches, and sport officials under too much pressure, or even demanded the impossible of them. The result was a step-by-step professionalization of sport - particularly as regards practice and training but also in administration and organization - accompanied by increasing oligarchization and bureaucratization of sport structures (WINKLER 1984, 31-86; WHITE & BRACKENRIDGE 1985, 95/96; SLACK 1985, 145-166).

4.2 Commercialization

Likewise, the wholesale commercialization of sport can no longer be halted but must be accepted as a fact (HEINEMANN 1984; 1987). The increasingly stable interrelationship between sport and the economy can no longer be undone, if only for the reason that sport desperately needs the economy to overcome its financial problems. Sport was not merely a victim in this context; rather, it must clearly assume a share of the responsibility for its closer relationship to the mass media, advertising, and commerce

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(SEIFART 1984, 304-316). Today no one quite knows what to make of this relationship as far as sport ethics art concerned. Nonetheless, the view that a process of this kind should not be condemned from the start in a society oriented toward a market economy seems to be gradually prevailing, even if the position of sport was thereby weakened and its dependence on economic calculations decisively increased.

4.3 Politization

Less spectacular for the most part but no less significant was the politization of modern sport (ALLISON 1986), which indeed occurred even though it was claimed over and over that sport was (party-)politically neutral. The history of the Olympic Games can also be read as a series of political arguments – and thus a continuation of politics with other means (EDWARDS 1984, 172-183). The background of this development lies in the growing social and political significance of success in sport, which is drawing the struggle for medals and top placement further and further into the realm of state representation and the legitimation of political systems and thereby also into a fight for national prestige. By allotting what were sometimes considerable public funds for Olympic buildings, training, and the like, the state exerted increasing influence on sport issues in the West as well as in the East. Olympic top-level sport in particular thus became dependent on the national budget to an extent which should not be underestimated. However, this at least resulted in the gradual undermining of the subsidization principle, as the case of the FRG illustrates (DIGEL 1988, 68-77). The permanent financial burden on the state, primarily from top-performance sport, doubtless also led to a change in the corporatistic relationship – i.e., the partnership between sport and state - at the expense of the free sport movement. The state has as a rule thus far restricted itself to controlling the use of its funds and has not attached any direct strings to them. lt has also repeatedly affirmed the status quo of "free sport". Nevertheless, the danger of insidious state control at the expense of the relative independence of sport will always exist in the future.

5. Strategies for Overcoming the Crisis

Upon consideration of possible strategies for overcoming the crisis in sport, it becomes immediately apparent that the present problems can indeed be solved and need not inevitably end in chaos. lt would thus be inappropriate to spread apprehensions. Nevertheless, the sport crisis will turn out to be a chance (BÜHL 1984, 193-199) only if the destructurization of forms which still persists to some extent is followed by a phase of active reorganization based on realistic political considerations rather than utopian dreams. The same holds for half-hearted attempts confined to eliminating mere superficial phenomena without perceiving the underlying symptoms. The worst approach of all is to turn a blind eye to structural problems, letting things simply take their course or not hesitating to project inner inadequacies onto others; behavior of this kind makes it virtually impossible for sport to do anything but stumble along from one crisis to the next. The primary aim must therefore be to attain a high capacity for dealing with problems in the field of sport and - even more importantly - to retain this capacity. Only in this way will sport be capable of long-term development in these fast-moving times.

In conjunction with this proposed direction and aim, the following six strategies for overcoming the crisis suggest themselves:

5.1 Unity of sport replaced by subunits

The complexity of modern sport and its functional differentiation into more and more subunits no longer allows the fiction of a homogenous, uniform ideology oriented only according to Olympic values to be maintained. This was never the case in the first place. Furthermore, this point of view leads all too easily to stagnation of the system. lt is preferable to proceed from a system of interdependence which grants a relatively high degree of autonomy - particularly of an organizational nature - to the subunits of sport such as high-performance, leisure, or health-related sport and so on while simultaneously preserving the overall context (HÄGELE 1989, 9; NEIDHARDT 1985, 77). The special interests of the individual subunits, which often constitute a problem today, thus no longer

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directly affect the general interests of the whole. By virtue of the greater diversity and variability of the interdependent relationships, the mutual control exercised by the various function centers among themselves, and the competition among them, a system of this kind is generally more robust, resistant to crises, and sensitive to its environment. At the same time, it is less susceptible to one-sided extremes and the formation of monopolies, which are inevitably evolutionary dead ends. The price to be paid is a high degree of uncertainty which is, however, more than compensated for by the greater macrostability of the entire sport system.

5.2 Keeping minimal consensus on a definition of sport

Nevertheless, with its highly complex system of interdependence on various levels sport is always in danger of being split apart by the specific interests of different subunits. lt is thus absolutely necessary that a certain minimal consensus comprising the inner nucleus of values and the central definition of sport be maintained. The inviolability and dignity of the athlete as an individual and the community of sportsmen and sportswomen are hence not empty phrases from on an Olympic movement which is gradually becoming outdated; rather, they are and shall remain the lowest common denominator of an ethic which deserves to be defended - and the deepest legitimation of sport which exists (GRUPE 1988). This is the yardstick by which the present discussion about unlimited growth in sport and possible restrictions must be measured. Anyone wishing to combine the advantages of maximal expansion with those of strict limitation - particularly in uncertain times - should be lenient for as long as possible with those who deviate from the system, but then fight them radically when leniency is no longer possible. Otherwise, the general credibility of the whole is sooner or later at stake - within sport´s own ranks as well as beyond them. Mere lip service to an obviously deplorable state of affairs is no help and must be eliminated by means of unambiguous measures. In realistic terms, this refers equally to the widespread misuse of word fairness as well as to the pervasive doping problem or the continual playing down of high-performance sport for children.

5.3 Balance of federalism and centralism in the structure of modern sport

The traditionally federalist structure of modern sport, with its division into clubs, associations, National Olympic Committee, and International Olympic Committee, ensured these subunits a relatively high degree of independence from the start, event though the variety and abundance of possibilities for participation in sport were often relativized by a uniform ideology dominated by the Olympic sport movement. Nevertheless, the general globalization of relationships intensified the worldwide trend toward centralization and hierarchization of organizational power in sport as in other areas - at the expense of the local and regional element. This development will be intensified yet further by what are viewed as factors beyond control, such as persistent problems relating to areas of responsibility and control in modern high-performance sport. Complaints that federative structures hinder performance and that the avenues of control are insufficient to allow unified action at the federative level will sooner or later force further centralization at the expense of decentralization, particularly if performance should also decline critically in international comparison. Yet as necessary and indispensable as it may prove to increase the efficiency of the whole and concentrate the existing power in one area of sport or another, preferably top-level sport, a balance of power between federalism and centralism, rather than confrontation, will always be necessary if the best of both worlds is to be attained.

5.4 Compromise between idealism and materialism in regard to sport clubs

Much the same can be said of the relationship between idealism and materialism in sport. Here as well, the indisputable trend toward professionalization - and hence large clubs - should not lead one to conclude that patterns of action based on ideals and value concepts - hence voluntary posts and small clubs - are generally losing influence and importance (GRUPE 1988, 58/59). This cannot be the case, if only because small clubs embody to a large extent the inner, unrenounceable essence of

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sport, its fundamental principle. Motley, multifarious structures are more apt to be beneficial at club level than a short-sighted monoculture. The clubs of the future should thus be characterized not by a conformity far removed from reality, but by the harmonious coexistence of small single-purpose clubs, medium-sized, multi-purpose clubs, and large clubs. Only this union of various kinds of clubs can render the clubs truly strong and competitive in the long term.

In other words, the future of sport will largely depend on whether and to what extent it is possible to institutionalize an extensive pedagogization of sport ethics (HÄGELE 1989, 10).

5.5 Acceptance of commercial sport offerings

Seen in this light, commercially organized sport as offered by sports shops, travel agencies, and hotel chains is not merely a poor substitute for sport which is inferior by virtue of its lack of self-determination. The principle of the common good and the obligation to assume socio-political tasks are of course lost here. Sport is instead directly subject to the laws of the market and more or less rigid cost-benefit calculations. Nevertheless, this does not rule out the sport ethos being introduced into the professional ethos of commercial purveyors of sport; for whether they want to or not, such establishments must continually strive for the well-being of those engaging in sports if they want to prevent their customers from looking elsewhere.

Walking the fine line between ludic, intrinsic cultural values and non-ludic, extrinsic economic values is certainly never easy and involves many problematic elements. In general, however, sport in private gymnastics and fitness studios is not purely repressive, a global accusation sometimes made out of concern for the continued existence of sports clubs. lt is doubtless irksome to organized sport that complementary sport can meanwhile point to considerable growth rates. Moreover, by the 1980s at the latest, commercial sport had gained increasing influence, as a result of which established sport experienced a decline in importance which is not to be underestimated. At any rate, sports clubs and associations, have now lost their unrestricted monopoly, at least in non-competitive sport. They must now share the demand for sport with others to an increasing extent. However, this circumstance is not only a disadvantage as far as the further development of sport is concerned; if we consider the organizational stagnation of established sport, the unaccustomed competition certainly brought about a hardly conceivable innovative impulse. Strictly speaking, the sport movement cannot be equated with the limits of Olympic sport in any case, since it always comprises the entirety of all organizational forms which actually exist. The purveyors of complementary sport should thus not be treated as opponents to be fought, but rather as competing partners who are deserving of respect and represent a direct challenge to look for alternatives. Peaceful coexistence must therefore be possible, because complementary sport has never called established sport into fundamental question.

Furthermore, established sport can learn from private sport that the pervasive trend toward post-materialist values cannot be met by clinging to the conventional, but only by introducing new organizational patterns which attach greater importance to hedonism, individuality, and informal socializing in small groups and cliques. The reawakened neo-romantic "zeitgeist" heightens the challenge to engage in fun, play, and adventure in an atmosphere of gentleness, softness, and colour which is oriented toward the present; it is thus somewhat at variance with drill, rigidity, prosaic mechanization, specialization, and the formalization of life. Both approaches should not be overstressed (HÄGELE 1989, 8).

5.6 Controlling the outside powers to sport

Finally, as to the external relationship of sport to politics, economics, and the mass media, it will largely be a matter of erecting barriers against the increasing influence of outside powers on sport in the future. Relationships with the outside must therefore always be kept under control (NEIDHARDT 1985, 76) if today´s inevitable exchange processes and coming to terms with the political and economic environment are not to pose a constant threat to the inner essence of sport and if a collapse through absorption outside of the system is not to become virtually unavoidable in the long run.

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The more sport appears as a unit and a closed interest group fully aware of its public importance, the more influential and less threatened its position with respect to third parties. lt is furthermore absolutely necessary for sport to learn to deal considerably more effectively with other spheres if it is to be treated as an equal partner of politics, economics, and the mass media, a partner which on the one hand gives due consideration to the interests of approaching outside forces but at the same time knows how to defend its own interests adequately (NEIDHARDT 1985, 75/76). This understanding of the situation is largely lacking in sport today, primarily because of the image of sport as a private self-help organization relatively closed to the outside world, an image that was cultivated for decades. Without this insight, sport is virtually destined to be taken in.

Realistically speaking, sport can no longer flirt with "party-political neutrality" and at the same time complain that parties and factions pay mere lip service at best to supporting sport. In the future, sport must be much more intent on being directly represented in political organs through its own lobby.

Finally, as far as the economy is concerned, sport should never allow itself to be absolutely and wholly at the mercy of the marketing strategies of sponsors and patrons. Rather, it should seek to maintain its relative independence through mixed financing from different sources. lt should also always be borne in mind that the economization of sport introduces even further inequality in sports clubs and associations, a trend likely to intensify in the future. A more complete return to the values of solidarity and community, especially between high-performance sport/performance sport and sport for the masses/leisure sport, could produce a mitigating effect which would best prove the power of integration and the unity of sport.


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