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Elite Capture in Sport for Development

Over the last thirty years, the field of sport for development (SFD) – the intentional use of sport to achieve social development goals – has exploded at the national and international levels. The developmental potential of sport is recognised directly within the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, and a network of media, research and academic institutions has increasingly been built to support the field.

At its core, SFD is animated by a belief that the popular, social and interactive nature of sport can be used to bring people together, foster skill development and tackle social challenges. That means that programmes often focus on providing mixed group sporting activities and experiential learning in order to foster social relationships, increased life skills and greater awareness of social issues. As with other civil society actors, these programmes are funded by a constellation of organisations, including governments, foundations and corporations.

Almost since its inception, the approaches to SFD and its structure have been subject to intense criticism. On the one hand, many have expressed concern at how the individual-focused nature of interventions limits the broader social impact of SFD programming. On the other hand, numerous scholars have highlighted how the sector reproduces social inequalities by reinforcing the values characteristic to neoliberalism or colonialism.

But these flaws aren't just a byproduct of SFD's inherent nature. Instead, as I argue in a recent academic paper, these tendencies have been prompted “by a process of elite capture whereby elites work to co-opt and disarm SFD as a social movement that may pose a risk to their interest”.

With elite capture, I follow the concept proposed by Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, where the advantaged few direct resources that could serve the many towards their narrower goals. To achieve this, elite institutions set, enforce, and legitimise standards that reinforce their dominant position and counter any meaningful, systemic change. Through the standards imposed on the field, elites ensure that interventions remain short-term, individual-focused affairs that do not actively challenge dominant power structures.

Elites start by setting standards for the field. They play a significant role in SFD policymaking at the international level, with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) being a key example. The IOC's influence within the United Nations helps cement its vision of the autonomy of sport, Olympic values, and development in critical policy documents. These standards are further reproduced through the numerous quality criteria and awards that populate SFD. For instance, the Beyond Sport Awards, which are supported by major North American professional sport leagues, place the work of local SFD NGOs on the same footing as initiatives from professional leagues. In this world, the National Hockey League, a historically white, exclusive, and conservative league gets praised for its social values and climate initiatives alongside smaller, volunteer-driven activities in the Global South. More broadly, these awards serve to exclude any activistic or systemic view of SFD by clearly delineating which types of SFD activities are deemed ‘award-worthy’.

The standards set are further enforced by elite organisations’ ability to allocate significant funding towards programmes. The IOC has morphed into a major funder, as have other international sport federations and corporations such as FIFA, UEFA, Adidas and more. These funds often support short-term, administration heavy, individual-level interventions. Funds can only be used for pre-defined activities, and the success of any intervention must be proven through the measurement of pre-defined indicators. This ensures that SFD organisations remain focused on short-term programme delivery and immediate, individual outcomes as opposed to working on larger, systemic issues.

Finally, these standards are legitimised by the significant funding elites provide to evaluation and research in the field. Though concerns about the quality and quantity of evidence in SFD have long been raised, the sector remains littered with reports, press releases and academic articles espousing the effectiveness of interventions. This allows elites to illustrate that their funded programmes ‘work’, and further legitimise the standards that they set and impose on the field, while also deflecting any conversations about broader systemic changes.

The constraints described here, and their negative impact, will surely be at least partially familiar to practitioners in the field. The crucial question then becomes, how do we escape capture? This is no easy question. The seeds of a solution already exist within the more critical approaches proposed within the field, including interventionist or structural approaches, as well as within aboriginal worldviews or critical pedagogy. Yet, as Táíwò notes, we must also construct new structures of financing and organisation to support more critical interventions. That means we must move beyond merely focusing on our activities on the pitch, and instead consider how we want to structure the field as a whole.


Louis Moustakas

Professor (FH) Sports Management and Sports Sociology

University of Applied Sciences Kufstein

Blog posts represent the views of the author and not that of Sport&EU or its members

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