I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic and talking to several people about it. I feel that there is probably quite a lot of research into the subject… but you’ll just have to put up with my thoughts for now.
I didn’t know that it was an odd thing to play sports but now it is seeping into me that it may be a little odd here in Austria. When I first arrived, the population seemed so active. Every weekend, the hills are alive with the sound of crampons and skiing poles. Huts in the middle of nowhere at the top of mountains are filled with red-chapped-lips, snow-smelling glowing people who have casually wandered up to a height above anything in my poor home country just to have a beer and a laugh with friends. Do these same people play sport? The answer is no, not in the way that I know it.
In the UK, Ireland and America, there is a strong tradition of inter-school and inter-university sports. You identify with your school and your university: you wear their hoodies and their hats. You play for the sports teams, you watch other teams play and you socialise with your’s and others’ teams. In 2012, there was even a move to make playing in competitive team sports compulsory for all primary school children in England. America takes the concept of inter-collegiate sports into a whole other world of 90,000 capacity-stadia and $3 million coach hirings. While I’m not advocating sport to a level where the child gets forgotten amongst parental ambition and money, team sports do teach valuable lessons. Teamwork, leadership, selflessness, time management, organisation, respect, politics and self-awareness are all part of sport.
Yet in Austria, this system just doesn’t exist. People may play for a private extracurricular club but they usually pay a lot of money for this. The clubs that exist don’t give you much for your money sometimes: an ex-semi-pro basketball player highlighted the lack of facilities and appalling coaches provided by his local club which contributed to a general lack of commitment from all players. At university, you meet people through your classes, not your shared extra-curricular activities. Some departments may have clubs but you can’t join them if you’re from outside the department. You can forget about being a Science student with an interest in amateur dramatics. If you take a sports course, it forms part of your degree credits: not something you do just in your spare time then.
In the Scandinavian countries and Finland, there is also a reliance on a club system. Yet these clubs are often well-funded, well-run and require a level of engagement bordering on a religion. Why is it so different here? Why the seeming disdain for organised sport? How are Austrians so active and so successful in the Winter Olympics? Maybe the answer is that the general population is not as active as I thought. In 2015, the European Commission and the WHO published country fact-sheets on the physical activity of the populations (here). Only 26% of females in Austria are physically active on a regular basis. This is lower than Ireland (31.9%), Germany (35%) and England (50%). Despite it seeming that everyone here can ski by the age of 2, there are rumours that skiing is not the common skill that it once was and the next generation are not in fact starting life on two planks.
For now, I’ll just keep wandering around those mountain huts and learning how to get down a mountain on skis in an acceptable manner.