This summer appears to be a particular busy one! It seems that one top sporting event follows another. Active sportsmen/women, coaches and support staff, and the interested spectators and viewers all need good stamina. The FIFA Football World Cup 2018 is a highlight—a tournament with an expected worldwide TV audience of more than 3.4 billion and an anticipated FIFA revenue reaching $6 billion. In any top sport event widely played at the grassroots level, making everyone a “highly qualified expert” offering “comprehensive expert advice” to his or her national coaches, the media presence is massive and the money involved is huge.
This year, the group phase produced some unexpected results such as the defending champion, Germany’s, defeat against Mexico in the opening match and 2 other former title winners, Argentina and Brazil, playing only a draw in their opening matches against the unfancied Iceland and Switzerland. While participation at such an event is already a good achievement, as the examples of Iceland and Panama—both champions of hearts—clearly demonstrate, regular high achievers at such tournaments seem to be striving for higher levels of success. For example, Germany attempted to become the third nation to defend their title, aiming to follow in the footsteps of Italy (1934 and 1938) and Brazil (1958 and 1962) with back-to-back wins of the trophy. The fact that, so far, only 2 nations have managed to defend their titles is a clear indication that both the delivery of top performances and victory in 2 consecutive championships is a complicated and difficult mission to accomplish.
The surprise results in the early phase of the FIFA World Cup indicate that something like the “special rules of a tournament” or the “own the dynamics of a tournament” actually exists. However, it is also possible that variable outcomes are so-called smaller or weaker competitors focusing on one game after the other (in some cases, celebrating a match win or draw, like winning a title) and giving it their all. On the other hand, the more-favored nations may tend to follow their great vision as highest priority, and, by focusing on this goal, they may be susceptible to lacking attention or even attitude in matches in the group phase. While there is disappointment when the personally favored team is knocked out, the general excitement and media interest seem to be getting even bigger when surprising results happen. We, the sport-scientist community, always endeavor to support coaches and players by doing our best to make a difference to give “our” athletes or teams the advantage to achieve their best performance(s) and—all being well—win. This supporting sport-science research can be basic or applied in nature or may help identify and deal with the special dynamics of a tournament. The importance of sport-science support in elite sports is reflected by the fact that, internationally, many top clubs/teams have sport scientists on their staffing list, and our recent IJSPP special issue “Physiology and Performance Research on Football (Soccer)” (Volume 13, Issue 5, May 2018) showcases many informative physiology and performance studies.
The competition at any high-profile sporting event serves various aims: Of course, any participating athlete wants to win and/or achieve at his or her personal best. Besides competitive success, there are other aims such as increasing individual market value, securing funding, finding a new club/team, and sponsorships. The same applies to coaches. In addition, in a way, we, the sport scientists, compete indirectly at these events too. If research outcomes of a scientist translate successfully into exceptional sporting performance, this brings profile and reputation that can generate more research activity and funding. While this is nice for successful athletes and supporting scientists, it can lead to an imbalance of research output in the various areas. It seems easier to secure research funding in areas where there is a bigger public interest and, consequently, more spectators and money involved, like in football compared with research, for example, in the Paralympic sport of blind football.
The Blind Football World Championships also took place this summer, June 5 to 18, 2018, in Madrid. In spite of exceptional performances with clear indicators of some rapid evolutions in all aspects of performance-determining factors, it hardly received any media coverage. At this tournament, Brazil managed to win the world title for the third time in a row (2010, 2014, and 2018) and for the fifth time out of 7 in total—an impressive achievement that remained more or less unrecognized.
As an associate editor of IJSPP, I sometimes wish to have more manuscripts on sports that have only minor media presence. In these “lower profile” disciplines, sport science can probably make an even greater difference. To use the above example of blind football again: This is internationally regarded as one of the Paralympic sports that has the greatest research needs in preparation for the Paralympic Games in Tokyo 2020.1 If only 1% of money that goes into football (soccer) research would be available for research in Paralympic football, such disciplines would have the opportunity to develop even more significantly.
Therefore, we—the spectators—probably are all winners in terms of excitement watching events like the FIFA World Cup 2018 with all the drama and unexpected results. Furthermore, sport scientists might be winners in generating more interest and activity in science and more research funding, given the huge public interest. However, others athletes and scientists are somehow losing out because they work in niche areas like blind football, where only few athletes play the sport at the grassroots level and where there is only minute media interest. However, competition in science is like competition in sports—we all have to play by the rules and we cannot all win!
Magnes S. Rio 2016: Olympic and Paralympic sports medicine strategies and lessons learned for Tokyo 2020. Paper presented at: ACSM 64th Annual Meeting; January 6, 2017. Denver, UK.
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