Relatively weak medal yield of sports soldiers – SPORT & POLITICS

Award ceremony for four-man bobsleigh. (Photo: Imago)

The performance of the German athletes1 in Beijing in 2022 is pleasing with a total of 27 medal wins and second place in the nation ranking. The following statements are not intended to deny this, but to help ensure that athletes from those German sports associations with relatively few medals will find better conditions in the future.2

Ten years ago, for the first time in London 2012, statistics indicated that sports soldiers – contrary to general perception – were less successful at the Olympic Games than other professional groups.3

(Too) little has changed: 55 sports soldiers were able to qualify for Beijing 2022; the sports soldiers thus made up 37% of the 150 strong German Olympic team (Bundeswehr 2022).4 The professional group of sports soldiers is most strongly represented, followed by the 30 police officers and 26 full-time athletes.

However, in Beijing 2022, sports soldiers again proved to be less successful compared to other professional groups.

In Beijing 2022, 17 of them won a medal; 30.9% of sports soldiers come home with a medal.5 Five sports soldiers won more than one medal.

The most successful group was (mostly funded by the German Sports Aid Foundation) Pupils, students and normal employees: Out of this small group of only 14 athletes, ten win medals, ie 64.3%. Three of the athletes from this group won more than one medal. The success rate of pupils, students and normal employees is more than twice as high as that of sports soldiers.

The second most successful professional group were the police officers. Here 10 out of 30 Olympic starters return home with a medal.

Incidentally, the most unsuccessful occupational group was that of full-time athletes: 26 starters, but no medal. With the exception of snowboarder Annika Morgan, the full-time athletes are all ice hockey players. This illustrates the partial sensitivity of such statistics: if the hockey team had won a medal, the full-time athletes’ success rate would have been 96%.

The relatively poor number of medals won by the sports soldiers in Beijing 2022 not only confirms the above-mentioned experiences at the 2012 Summer Olympics; the result fits seamlessly into summer and winter games since in Sochi.6


The reduced track record of sports soldiers is to be seen against the background that it is primarily athletes who were among the most successful in their younger years who receive Bundeswehr posts.7

There is some evidence that athletes in the Bundeswehr do not develop as well as would be possible without the Bundeswehr.

This could be the result of a socialization effect. The lack of demands in or the lack of suggestions from other areas of life can also reduce the ability to perform in one’s own special discipline. In particular, long-serving employees could develop better in sport if they did not concentrate on the apparent perfection of a single performance dimension, sport, in the Bundeswehr. Sports soldiering, which is de facto sham soldiering without military activities, does not fill the athletes. Medals can be lost due to the narrowing of the athlete’s everyday life.8

Sports soldiering is also problematic in many other respects (Völker 2010):

The sport gives up its distance from the state; the classic image of holistically developed athletes is abandoned in favor of the state amateur à la Eastern bloc.

Since the sports soldiers are easy for trainers and officials to use, they crowd out other professional groups. Too many sports soldiers do not follow any regular training; often they are left with nothing after many years of top-class sport. It is a problem for (top) sport if the image is consolidated that top athletes have hardly any appropriate social participation opportunities after their sporting career. In the long term, milieus with an affinity for education are kept away from top-class sport, which damages the performance development of top-class sport in the long term. There are also regulatory/regulatory problems due to such bogus employment relationships.

It is the task of sports leadership to create framework conditions under which the athletes can fully develop their performance potential and, if possible, become medal winners. The discussion should be open-ended but based on appropriate data and statistics. The structure discussion may show that the Bundeswehr can also play a certain role in promoting sports. This may apply to

  • some regions (e.g. Alps with few training and study places)
  • some disciplines in which the Bundeswehr can contribute special expertise (biathlon and shooting sports) – from the point of view of subsidiarity, however, only if the athletes do not have sufficient other sources of financing such as sponsorship income
  • for limited periods in athletes’ careers (6 to 12 months before the Olympic Games, total per athlete throughout the career but for a maximum period of e.g. 24 months)
  • with simultaneous systematic training promotion and demand for Bundeswehr soldiers. It is not enough that the Bundeswehr (has created) the opportunity to complete a degree or civilian and/or military training alongside the Bundeswehr and top-class sport. Sports soldiers should be encouraged to undergo such training.

However: even if (more) successes could be generated from Bundeswehr funding if such structures exist, this does not mean that it makes sense from an economic point of view. Being a sports soldier would not make sense, especially if such successes could be achieved more cheaply – and while avoiding the undesirable side effects mentioned above – through other funding channels, for example through the German Sports Aid.

It could be a good idea to use a Tatonnement process to approach an optimum for the proportions of different types of funding in sport: as long as the success rates of the different types of funding differ, the corresponding publicly financed funding volumes should gradually be shifted from the less successful systems to the more successful systems. For example, after each Olympics, 10% of the funding volume could be reallocated from the less successful systems (in this case: Bundeswehr) to more successful systems (in this case: sports aid). Of course, the demand of the former chairman of the athletes’ commission, Max Hartung, to include other funding institutions (sid 2017) can also be discussed.

Evidence of diminished track records has been around for ten years now. In view of the recurring lack of evidence that Bundeswehr sports funding makes sense in its current form, the question arises as to why sports and politics are insisting on the continuation.

One explanation could lie in budget restrictions and budgetary principles. Although it makes sense from a social point of view to shift part of the Bundeswehr’s funds to Deutsche Sporthilfe, there are likely to be problems cutting the Bundeswehr budget and increasing the budget of the Federal Ministry of the Interior accordingly, so that it can be used for sports aid, for example can. However, budgetary principles are ultimately there to ensure that public funds are used efficiently – they may need to be adjusted.

Wolfgang Maennig is an Olympic champion and Professor of Economic Policy at the University of Hamburg.

1 I would like to thank Carsten Creutzburg for excellent support in creating the database.

2 Of the 12 gold medals, which are decisive for second place in the nations ranking, 9 were won in the bobsleigh, luge and skeleton disciplines.

3 See Maennig (2012).

4 The Bundeswehr takes into account Paul Fentz (figure skating) and Joel Dufter (speed skating) not; On the other hand, on the pages of Team D they are also considered sports soldiers, cf. and

5 When Paul Fentz and Joel Dufter are added to the group of sports soldiers, theirs increases Total number to 57. The rate of medals winning the sport servicewomen is reduced to 29.8% in this case.

6 Corresponding calculations are available from the author on request.

7 See also below Maennig (2012).

8 A selection effect is also conceivable, in which risk-averse, less educationally inclined or athletes who were particularly successful at a young age but (because of this?) cannot maintain their relative level of performance in the future, take the path of the sports soldier. Mixed forms of selection and socialization effects are conceivable. I owe the information about the selection effect to Eike Emrich, whose work on the performance of elite sports schools points to another source of the selection effect: graduates of elite sports schools very often choose the path of sports soldiers. Incidentally, contrary to the general perception, elite students are no more successful, at least in summer sports, than athletes on the “normal” way to school (Emrich et al 2009 and Flatau and Emrich 2011).


Bundeswehr (2022), Olympic nomination of the German winter athletes for the XXIV Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. 55 top athletes of the Bundeswehr were nominated,

Drepper, D (2011), On the Sense and Nonsense of Sports Soldiers,

Emrich, E.; Fröhlich, M.; Klein, M.; Pitsch, W. (2009), Evaluation of the Elite Schools of Sport: Empirical Findings from an Individual and Collective Point of View. In: International Review for the Sociology of Sport 44, 2-3, S. 151-171.

Flatau, J.; Emrich, E. (2011), The organization of sporting success – On the question of market or hierarchy in top-class sport using the example of the elite schools of sport Sportwissenschaft 41, 2, pp. 100-111.

Maennig, W. (2012), London 2012 – The end of the myth of the successful sports soldier,

Sid (2017), Athletes’ Commission: Broadening the scope of sports funding, March 8, 2017

Völker, M. (2010), Almost a military festival. TAZ daily newspaper from February 6th, 2010,

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