dw– “Where we used to get 10 talented youngsters, we now get just two,” Jörn Elberding told DW.
The managing director of prominent German sports club Bayer Leverkusen has been observing this shortage of elite young talent for several years now.
“Things have certainly changed. These days you really have to look hard for it,” he added.
Bayer Leverkusen has produced numerous world and Olympic champions, so it’s a serious problem when a club of its stature struggles to attract talented young athletes. So serious, in fact, that the German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB) is now looking at ways to counteract the trend in a major way.
“We need to turn things around by implementing new concepts,” Dirk Schimmelpfennig, the DOSB’s board member for competitive sports, told DW.
Part of the DOSB’s plan is to start by trying to motivate young people to become more active. But what they are trying to achieve is to reverse a long-term trend that can’t be reversed overnight.
“(Germany’s) record in Tokyo reflects a development that has taken place over the past 30 years,” Schimmelpfennig pointed out.
Germany won a total of 82 medals (33 gold, 21 silver, 28 bronze) at the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona. That total dropped to just 37 (10 gold, 11 silver, 16 bronze) at this past summer’s Tokyo Olympics.
Poorer motor skills among German youth
“It is becoming increasingly clear that young people and children are falling behind in terms of their motor skills and becoming less and less active. This has been exacerbated by the pandemic,” Schimmelpfennig said. “The first thing we need to do is to get children moving again.”
Researchers have also been seeing the phenomenon for some time.
“There is no uniform picture when it comes to problems with motor skills,” Christine Joisten, head of the Department of Movement and Health Promotion at the German Sport University in Cologne, told DW. “Of course, there are still children who are sufficiently active and move well. But as the level of education gets worse, so do motor skills.”
This leads to obesity, a lack of mobility and, as a consequence, even less desire to be active. And not only the pandemic is to blame.
“Studies have shown that, around the turn of the millennium, the level of motor skills dropped again due to changes in media consumption. In the meantime, however, it has stabilized at a low level,” Joisten said.
What role does funding play?
While you might think that Germany is not alone in this problem, other countries are doing much better.
“Sport plays a greater role in other countries … In the high-performance area, other nations have been quicker to act and have been more efficient, especially those that have caught up with us, such as Italy, France, Japan. We also have a very complicated funding system,” said Schimmelpfennig, who also wants to see structural change.
But a key factor in determining success at the elite level is always funding. Bayer Leverkusen managing director Elberding points to how the United States nurtures its top athletes.
“Some colleges invest €100 million ($116 million) annually in sports,” he said. By comparison, in 2019 the German Ministry of the Interior allocated just under €83 million in federal funding to all of the country’s Olympic federations combined.
Political support needed
The path to getting more young people to be active, to producing more elite athletes and consequently winning more Olympic medals, has to start at the grassroots level. The DOSB is hoping for support from a new German government.
“First of all, there has to be the political will to push to promote (physical) activity,” Schimmelpfennig said. “We have to get the motivation to be more active into daycare centers and into elementary schools. This is important for socio-political reasons but also in terms of health.”
By getting more children to become active and improve their motor skills, you can also become more efficient in assessing talent, Schimmelpfennig said. He added that some politicians have expressed support for the DOSB’s ideas.
“We have to look for talent now,” Elberding said. “The crucial question is: Do we actually want sports and medals in Germany?”
The Bayer Leverkusen managing director noted that what is needed is not only greater financial resources, but more fundamental changes, like getting German society as a whole to recognize the importance of sport — or for Germany to host the Olympic Games again.
“Society has to be ready for that.”
This article was translated from German.