by tim harper : founding director at harper performance CIC
"I like it a bit to the British and the Irish going abroad on holiday. The first thing they look for is an English pub, the second thing they look for is a pint of Guinness and the third thing they look for is a fish and chip shop. The only thing they accept is the sun. They don't take on anything that's good or decent or different abroad... If we do that we're sunk."
Jim Telfer; British & Irish Lions Forwards Coach, 1997 Tour to South Africa
Substitute ‘sun’ for athletic talent, 'pub' for Western coaching staff, and 'Guinness' for over-inflated budgets and you've got a pretty accurate description of how the West or ‘Global North’ has long treated the development of high performance sport in the 'Global South' or developing world. An opportunity for armies of affluent white folk from places like the UK to spread the gospel of elite performance, just the way they see it, to people from disadvantage, with little regard to the relevancy, accessibility or long term sustainability of their project and even less concern as to what end, beyond enhancing their own CV's, their project is actually driving towards.
The script is largely the same for most sports, and is rarely borne out of any particular malice. On the contrary, most of the time, efforts to develop sports performance in less economically developed countries comes from an impassioned desire to "do good" and help others. All noble stuff, but unfortunately, 'doing good' cannot be used as a permanent smokescreen for being ineffective or worse still destructive just because it makes us feel good.
There are countless examples of projects designed as part of CSR-type activities with multinationals, Western universities or NGB's pumping money and resources into sports teams, leagues or academies in places like Africa or international governing bodies attempting to expedite growth and development of elite performance in sporting minnows with misplaced short-cuts and cookie-cutter like mimicry of what has worked back home - but so as to avoid this post coming across as a mud-slinging exercise, I'll do my best to refrain from specific examples as much as possible. It's not hard to find examples though... Google!
It's an all too familiar tale, Western coaches, practitioners or directors, with blank cheque budgets and loose and fast objectives to produce "results" pitch up in places that have long-battled to maintain a decent standing in global sport through usually, a complex myriad of reasons, but rarely if ever, simply because of incompetence. The Western-backed project garners big funding, usually from overseas to fuel hugely over-inflated budgets to facilitate quick-to-build transformational return on investment. Facilities are donated, programmes are shipped in from overseas, familiar Western colleagues are flown in from around the Global North and just like in the quote I started with, the only thing that's really accepted is the local athletic talent.
But then, more often than not, one of two things happen.
One, it's BOOM time, the programme, team, academy is a huge success and quickly, produces slick advertising material for their corporate sponsor, clamouring to put their name to latest rags-to-riches story and the coaches are glorified as saviours by their hosts, at least in the short term. So they, in turn are snapped up by teams and organisations back home, after all, they have families to start or lives to settle down to and this was just a short term adventure for them.
Two, the altogether more depressing scenario is that the programme, team or academy is a BUST and doesn't return on investment or hits a few too many obstacles to become a success story, so the funding dries up, the bubble bursts and the programme collapses.
In both scenarios the legacy remains the same for failed sports programmes in the developing world. There is no legacy. There's no local coaches to pick up broken pieces, there hasn't been any investment on developing local talent when you've got to ship in experts from overseas all the time. There's no local economy that has the capacity to meet the funding requirements that have been built up to a simply unsustainable level by foreign investment. What's left is a very small group of very developed athletes, and no vision for the future beyond platitudes about 'rebuilding' and 'transition' to satiate a hungry local fanbase.
So, whats the alternative?
Simple. Stop trying to undermine the process of development! Sports development in the Global South is one of the few places where neo-colonial practices and nonsensical short-termism is allowed to continue unquestioned and unabated. We have a role to play in the development of these sporting programmes, after all, we profit both socially, politically and financially a great deal in the Western world from the notion that sport is the great leveller, but that role isn't one of "we came, we saw, we conquered" but instead one of contextual sensitivity, that our knowledge and experience is borne not from superiority but from privilege and it's only right we help disseminate and democratise that expertise to those less fortunate, but only under the careful and headstrong guidance of those most affected by its implementation.
The development of elite performance, in sport or anything else is slow, sometimes painfully slow, and is all about gradual, incremental changes and long term, locally driven strategy with a big emphasis on making each and every step fully sustainable, relevant to the locality, accessible to local people and driven by continuous, long term improvement and not miracles. If Western universities, big corporates and other money men want in on the stories, then that's the dream they should be selling, not quick-fixes or short term returns-on-investment but legacy - for those stories, the stories of real change, echo for generations and have the power to transform sport entirely.
But I get it, for some, it's exciting to play God in the sporting destiny of impoverished nations, to throw money and quick-fix solutions at something and see prolific growth, even if under the shelter of an unsustainable bubble, but I can't help but think, if the objective really is to make sport fairer, level the playing field and give a hand up to those kept down by circumstances beyond their control then there is another way...
And that's what we're fighting for, along with our partners in the Global South, we're using the privilege that our team have had pretty much from birth, i.e. the opportunity to garner world-class educations and collect experience in the highest echelons of elite sport for decades to build local capacity in sports science, nutrition and medicine that will provide the foundations for long term, pragmatic and sustainable development in sporting programmes across the world so that whoever you are, wherever you come from and whatever your background, you are afforded opportunities worthy of and relevant to your promise.
In our next post, we're going to outline how our 'East African Sports Science Internship', based in Kampala in partnership with the Football-For-Good Academy will see us help develop high-performance practitioners from Uganda to an international standard, capable of trailblazing performance support in their home country without the need for expensive, often misplaced and unsustainable boom-and-bust foreign intervention.
Whilst you’re here, we’re a non-profit social enterprise that exists to tackle inequality in sport and support sportspeople from disadvantaged communities across the developing world. Utilising a team of some of the leading performance-support practitioners in elite sport from the Europe, the USA and Australia, we work in collaboration with stakeholders across the Global South to co-develop accessible, relevant, sustainable and above-all else, locally driven solutions to elite sports development.
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