Revisiting the Swedish Sport Model

Revisiting the Swedish Sport Model

Posted: Mon, 18 Aug 2014 11:34

Revisiting the Swedish Sport Model

Revisiting the Swedish Sport Model

Alan Bairner

With London 2012 and Glasgow 2014 now events of the past, it is a good time to consider whether we British should be patting ourselves on our collective backs or if it is time to consider the possibility that, in the quest for Olympic and Commonwealth Games medals, something may have gone missing. In the course of such deliberations, we may also wish to consider what we can learn from some of our nearest neighbours.

The claim that sport matters more to people in the Nordic countries than in places like the United Kingdom is based on a particular understanding of sport. It would be more accurate to say that people in Nordic countries are more likely to be directly involved in sport as active participants and volunteer coaches than is the case in most other western societies. Inevitably this creates a very different impression to a context in which many people watch sport and read about it in the papers but are far less likely to have been involved with competitive sport at least since they left school and often even earlier (Bairner, 2010).

Sweden is regularly described as 'a sporting nation' (RF, 2002; 3). Over the years, this has often referred to sporting excellence. More consistently, however, the description refers to such aspects of the Swedish sports system as participation levels, voluntary leadership, diversity, international cooperation, and democracy. The model can best be regarded as 'a large popular movement related to civil society' (Carlsson et al, 2011: 306). None of this should imply that the Swedish sports model is without its failings. There, as elsewhere in Scandinavia, as Skille (2011: 336) notes, 'sport subsidies from the state traditionally go to monopolistic umbrella organizations' as they do in the UK. In Sweden, however, the main such organization, Riksidrottsförbundet (RF), emerged as a popular movement during the early days of Swedish social democracy (Lindroth, 1974) and, although undeniably existing within its ruling orbit, local sports clubs feature far more prominently in Sweden than in Britain as community resources. Although Skille (2011: 335) is right to describe the Scandinavian model as 'debatable, and debated'. He is equally correct to point out that 'historically there has been a fairly harmonic relationship between the voluntary and public sides of sport in all Scandinavian countries based on a mutual dependency' (Skille, 2011: 331) and to remind us that 'compared to most other countries, participation rates in sport are considered high in Scandinavia (Skille, 2011: 332). One can add that sport in Sweden and in the other Nordic countries has been less bedevilled than is some countries by the cult of celebrity which is so prevalent in British sport.

According to RF guidelines on children's sport in Sweden, 'the focus should be on playfulness, all-round-training, and children should be able to practise different activities' (Støckel et al, 2010: 635) The concept of the multi-sport club is vital for the latter. Young people can learn to play a variety of different sports within a club which may have at its pinnacle elite performers who have traditionally been informally educated to regard themselves as no better than any other club member. One wonders if this is ever replicated in Premiership football academies in England.

In Sweden as elsewhere in the developed world, however, organized sport is obliged to compete with a number of inactive leisure activities; this has led to a decline in participation levels (Støckel et al, 2010). Thus, Jakobsson et al (2012: 3) ask – 'almost all start but who continue?' Nevertheless, the reliance on voluntary grass roots organizations as opposed to schools for the largest provision of sporting opportunities for young people means that the Swedish model is less susceptible to the vagaries of governmental edict. In the UK, as Mackintosh (2014; 432) has noted, 'after 13 years of New Labour control and investment in the school sport and physical education (PE) landscape, the election of the new collation government in 2010 brought with it the potential for considerable change in the sector'. Amongst the most prominent changes was the dismantling of the School Sport Partnership scheme which had achieved much in terms of ensuring that state school pupils were given opportunities to play sport. Arguably they may have played a part in recent British sporting successes particularly at the Commonwealth Games where several young athletes shone. Without schemes of this type, it is almost certain that the UK will become even more reliant for Olympic medal success on the products of private schools. Another way of looking at it, of course, is to ask – why should we even care about medals and trophies?

Even in its heyday, the Swedish model was never a model in the sense that it could easily be replicated in other countries; the Nordic countries possessed certain intrinsic cultural and environmental characteristics that other European societies lacked. For that reason, the Swedish approach to sport has been peculiarly Swedish or perhaps, more accurately, peculiarly Scandinavian. That need not mean though that others should not seek to embrace some of the values inherent in the Swedish approach.

For some years now questions have been asked about the decline of Swedish tennis as memories of Borg, Edberg and Wilander are conjured up. Swedish football too has been relatively unsuccessful in recent years. There are also arguably fewer Swedish track and field stars than ever before. In the UK at present, a slump in performance in Olympic sports would almost certainly be regarded by many as something of a national disaster. But is that really what it should be all about, particularly if evidence emerged that more investment was being put into participation in recreational sport and less into the quest for gold? Isn't letting the people play a better use of public funding than helping the few to win?

Alan Bairner is Professor of Sport and Social Theory at Loughborough University


Bairner, A. (2010)What's Scandinavian about Scandinavian sport? Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics, 13 (4):734-743.

Carlsson, B., Norberg, J. & Persson, H. T. R. (2011) The governance of sport from a Scandinavian perspective, International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics, 3 (3): 305-309.

Jakobsson, B. T., Lundvall, S., Redelius, K. & Engström, L.-M. (2012) Almost all start but who continue?: a longitudinal study of youth participation in Swedish club sports, European Physical Education Review, 18 (1): 3-18.

Lindroth, J. (1974) Idrottens väg till folkrörelse. Studier in svensk idrottsrörelse till 1915. Uppsala: Studia historica upsaliensa, 60.

Mackintosh, C. (2014) Dismantling the school sport partnership infrastructure: findings from a survey of physical education and school sport practitioners, Education 3-13: International Journal of Primary, Elementary and Early Years Education, 42 (4): 432-449.

Riksidrottsförbundet (RF) (2002) Sports in Sweden, Farsta, Sweden: Riksidrottsförbundet

Skille, E. Å. (2011) Sport for all in Scandinavia: sport policy and participation in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics, 3 (3): 327-339.

Støckel, J. T., Strandbu, Å., Solenes, O., Jørgensen & Fransson, K. (2010) Sport for children and youth in the Scandinavian countries, Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics, 13 (4): 625-642.

Tags: Policy, Sport, UkSport, community sport, school sport, sport england


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