Cross-national comparison with lots of bone and a paucity of flesh and blood

Hallgeir Gammelsæter
Molde University College

Jeroen Scheerder, Annick Willem & Elien Claes (eds.)
Sport Policy Systems and Sport Federations: A Cross-National Perspective
334 pages, hardcover.
Basingstoke, Hamps.: Palgrave Macmillan 2017
ISBN 978-1-137-60221-3

The topic for this volume, edited by Jeroen Scheerder, Annick Willem and Elien Claes at the universities of Leuven and Ghent in Belgium, is the relationship between sport (con)federations and governmental bodies, which is compared across eleven European countries as well as Australia and Canada. Native researchers and researchers residing in the focal country author each of 13 country chapters. According to the introduction, the authors were instructed to (1) do a short sport relevant country profile, (2) analyze the structure of organized sport based on Hallmann and Petry’s (2013) framework, (3) describe the legislative framework of the country that relates to sport (or affects sport), (4) scrutinize the support of the sport federations, including public funding and if/how it is related to performance management, and (5) point out similarities and differences with other countries and if there are any development ongoing in the sport policy of the country.

Overall, all authors stick to the guidelines and subsequently the country chapters are very similar in structure. This facilitates accurate comparisons between countries, but the downside of this standardization of writing is a technical prose that tends towards displaying the countries less as live communities and more as a variety of abstracted sport policy systems. For readers looking for sport policy or sport systems details in any of the selected countries the descriptions will be valuable, although details will eventually be obsolete. Anyway, this is a book for those studying sport policy or working on sport policy development.

Whilst the topic of the volume is the specific relationship between government and sport (con)federation, this author was distracted by the broad approach of the chapters describing literally complete national sport systems and struggling to direct the lens towards the interface of the government and the sport national bodies.  While it is there, so are many other relations, for instance the funding of sport clubs and facilities, which in some countries heavily depend on municipalities. It is obviously difficult to single out one relationship in a complex network of relationships across national, regional and local levels of government and sport governance.

Moreover, the data collected is not such that we get any real sense of what the named relationship is like. Hardly any interview data, document quotes, acting persons, stories or incidents interrupt the sanitized monotony of the writing. There is little that reveals what goes on between governments and the federations, other than “funding”, “monitoring”, “reporting”, “education”, etc.  As pointed out by the editors on the very final page, (con)federations are perhaps not one species but a myriad of organizations that differ across sport discipline, size, history, culture and more. This limits comparison unless it is abstracted to the extent it is here.

The editors suggest seeing the relation either as a principal–agent relationship or as co-governance, but none of the frameworks is discussed at length.

Perhaps the project fell captive to the ambition to generalize: to capture all, with the result that what is displayed is a satellite picture that is insensitive to the movement on the ground. This view does not capture effects on the relationship of incidents similar to those we have seen recently: the Aluko case (race harassment) in the English football association; the sexual abuse of US female gymnasts by Dr. Larry Nassar; or the ripples of Oslo 2022, the bidding of the winter Olympics by the sport confederation in Norway. True, events like France’s poor performance at the 1960 summer Olympics in Rome is pointed out as precipitating the revamping of French sport policy (cf. Nicolas Scelles, on France), and Lithuanian independence from the Soviet Union in 1990 and Slovenia’s split from Yugoslavia in 1991 are noted as decisive moments. Nevertheless, many more events out there have impact on government’s relations to sport federations. Not many of them have found their way into the book. More often than not, context is absent.

A lesson from the project is perhaps that it would have been better to compare a selected number of national sport governing bodies across nations.  With the chosen approach it is understandable that the authors could not delve into episodes similar to the ones mentioned, but the effect is that the project ends up undertaking a closed systems approach, leaving out the influence of important stakeholders: the media, athletes, international sport confederations, sponsors and corporations, and sport’s own leadership.

This brings me to another issue, or reflection, which concerns more than the authors of this edited volume. While published in 2017, there is nothing in the volume that reminds us of what has happened at the international sport scene in the years leading up to 2017. For instance, all the nations covered by the chapters have national Olympic committees presiding over Olympic sport, but any ripples from the troubles of the IOC is levelled out in this compilation of papers. The same goes for the FIFA, IAAF and other international confederation scandals. In the book, these events are non-existent and sport is untainted by its own misconduct (for instance, the organizing of national doping prevention is either lacking or mentioned only in passing). The question is if it is relevant to describe and assess national sport policy and policy relationships without relating it to transnational sport events, processes and troubles.

Elaborating further on the point of influential relationships, I would have liked to see a more detailed discussion of the theoretical frameworks laid out as a guide for scrutinizing the relationship between governments and sport federations. The editors suggest seeing the relation either as a principal–agent relationship or as co-governance, but none of the frameworks is discussed at length. While some national chapter authors refrain from theory references, about half adopt a principal–agent understanding, usually without further discussion. Personally, I am not sure sport confederations and federations in these countries see themselves as agents for their governments, many would rather see governments as the agents and their members (and citizens) as their principals, but unfortunately, these kind of questions, and the implication of reducing complex networks to a-contextual dyadic relationships, are not addressed in any length. In the final chapter, there are but a few (unconvincing) traces left of the theoretical approaches.

For readers of the book I recommend starting with the last chapter, building up appetite for going forward for more detail. The concluding chapter summarizes the country chapters and provides a more distinct research question than stated in the introduction; “the aim is to look at how policies and sport systems result in developing different kinds of capacity at the level of sport federations”. The discussion of how governments capacitate federations is perhaps the main contribution of the volume. Interestingly, the editors conclude that high dependency on governmental support does not necessarily translate into high capacity in the federations. It follows from such a conclusion that there must be factors outside the government-sport (con)federation axis that influence both capacity and outcomes in sport federations.

Copyright © Hallgeir Gammelsæter 2018


Hallmann, K. and Petry, K. (2013). Comparative Sport Development – Systems, Participation and Public Policy. Heidelberg: Springer.


Table of Content

  1. Does It Take Two to Tango? The Position and Power of National Sport bodies Compared to Their Public Authorities
    Jeroen Scheerder, Elien Claes & Annick Willem
  2. Australia: Evolution and Motivators of National Sport Policy
    Camilla Brockett
  3. Belgium: Flanders — Sport Federations and Governmental Sport Bodies
    Elien Claes, Jeroen Scheerder, Annick Willem & Sandrine Billier
  4. Canada: An Evolving Sport System
    Lucie Thibault
  5. Denmark: The Dissenting Sport System in Europe
    Bjarne Ibsen
  6. Finland: From Steering to the Evaluation of Effectiveness
    Hanna Vehmas & Kalervo Ilmanen
  7. France: Organisation of Sport and Policy Towards Sport Federations
    Nicolas Scelles
  8. Germany: Autonomy, Partnership and Subsidiarity
    Christoph Breuer & Tobias Nowy
  9. Lithuania: The Organisation and Governance of Sport
    Vilma Čingienė
  10. The Netherlands: How the Interplay Between Federations and Government Helps to Build a Sporting Nation
    Koen Breedveld & Remco Hoekman
  11. Slovenia: Towards a Social Configuration of the Sport System
    Gregor Jurak
  12. Spain: Putting the Pieces of the Sport System in Place — The Role of the Sport Federations
    Ramón Llopis-Goig
  13. Switzerland: The Organisation of Sport and Policy Towards Sport Federations
    Emmanuel Bayle
  14. UK: England — National Governing Bodies of Sport and Government Agencies
    Vassil Girginov
  15. Conclusion: The Role of Sport Policies and Governmental Support in the Capacity Building of Sport Federations
    Annick Willem & Jeroen Scheerder 
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