5 ways to justify the term 'elite'
‘Elite Health’, ‘Elite Car Audio’, ‘Elite Wines’, ‘Elite Bras’
Clearly these are just brand names, just as the bloke around the corner who runs a business called Olympic Windows, is claiming special status (unless window fitting has become an Olympic sport recently). But the word ‘elite’ seems to be cropping up everywhere, (damn it, it even made the title of my last book!) What does elite mean and how do we differentiate whether an elite claim is actually elite.
Let’s start with what you think. In your opinion what would you consider to be elite? Before you go off to look at the dictionary definition, let me do that for you;
[ih-leet, ey-leet]
“the choice or best of anything considered collectively, as of a group or class of persons.”
That’s lovely, thanks Dictionary.com, but what does that mean to you? Let’s see what you think. What would be your answers to the questions below?
Let’s try a sport example. How many of the top runners in the world would you consider elite? Is it only the top 10, or maybe the top 8 for a World or Olympic final? Perhaps you’re a little bit more open. If you get to a World or Olympics then would you consider these speedy runners as elite. So what is it?
Elite is;
  • Winner only
  • Medallist
  • Top 8
  • Top 10
  • You decide – Top …
What about team sports? Are ‘the best of the best’ only those that have won the domestic league or international trophy? Are players elite if they are in a good team?
Or would you consider the non-finalist Olympians to be ‘pretty’ elite? Would you consider teams that make the semi-final ‘elite-ish? Now we have introduced levels of eliteness, so I have properly muddied the waters.
My hackles were raised not so long ago when I saw a paper that claimed 632 elite regional level athletes. Now call me Mr Picky-Pants but, first 632 is a lot of elite people – the very nature eliteness is being the best. This sounds an awful lot like 93% of people thinking they’re good at multi-tasking or wanting 60% of schools to be above average
The very nature of the term elite conveys an exclusive group. Second, the term ‘regional’ didn’t sound that elite to me (mainly because that was about as good as I ever got as an athlete and I didn’t feel even remotely elite).
I personally don’t have the answer as train of thought ends up in all sorts of funny places (all Olympians! No wait, some athletes have ‘easy qualifying’, and there’s always the really slow swimmer, ok lift it up a bit, the semi-finalists at least! No, wait that’s too weird, how about finalist? Oh hang on not all events have finals, ok, top ten. Why ten, is it only because we have ten fingers and toes? Yes probably, we have a decimal system and I am jolly well going to use it!)
In a chirpy discussion sometime in 2012 with a group of PhD students about defining elite on just this subject, I stood up and pronounced, “I’m going to do a review”. I then stomped out of the room and put elite into Pubmed. This didn’t help, because Pubmed shows an inexorable rise in the use of the term elite, but as far as I can see, I don’t see more and more elite athletes volunteering for studies. When I realised how many articles there were to review, then invited Andy Shaw, my gullible enthusiastic PhD student to do the grunt work collaborate with. We set out just to establish how authors were justifying the elite status of their participants. We didn’t set out to define the levels at which individuals can be labelled elite – consensus didn’t seem possible or probable
We wrapped the work up into a paper and try to submit it to a few journals, who more or less, ‘didn’t get it’. Perhaps the paper is crap, perhaps having ‘elite’ indiscriminately scatter through their papers helps them flog journals, we’ll never know! So I have attached the paper here for your delectation. In a nutshell, here’s what the exploration showed me;
  • Elite is in the eye of the beholder, because…
  • The term ‘best’ does not specify a quantity – that’s up to your judgement
  • The term elite requires ‘best of anything considered collectively, e.g. a group”
So the paper dissolves any hoity-toitiness about how elite a group are if they are indeed categorised. Authors chose to report eliteness in many different ways, which is fine, because no one comparator does the job well. But, Oh my days 4% of the papers considered, gave no substantiation of the term at all. Come on, give us an inkling as to who you might be investigating!
I would say the most satisfactory papers are those that gave you multiple descriptors, from different angles. My original line of enquiry was to explore for the purposes of working with physiological type sports, but if I widen this out a little, I propose that it should be standard for the term elite to be accompanied by substantiation in as many of the following ways as possible;
  1. Competitive level
  2. Volume and quality of training/rehearsal
  3. Years of preparation and competitive/delivery experience
  4. Capability (mental, skill or physical)
  5. Absolute competitive performance (e.g. performance times)
In short, if you use the term elite, define it!
To access the paper in it’s pure rejected form click here
5 ways to justify the term 'elite'

About steveingham

Dr Steve Ingham is one of the UK’s leading figures in sport and one of the world’s leading performance scientists. He is steeped in high performance and has been integral to the development of Britain into an Olympic superpower. He has provided support to over 1000 athletes, of which over 200 have achieved World or Olympic medal success, including some of the world’s greatest athletes such as Jessica Ennis-Hill, Sir Steve Redgrave and Sir Matthew Pinsent. Steve has coached Kelly Sotherton's running for heptathlon and to 4x400m Olympic medal winning success. Steve has worked at the English Sports Council British Olympic Association, English Institute of Sport, where Steve was the Director of Science and Technical Development, leading a team of 200 scientists in support of Team GB and Paralympics GB. Ingham holds a BSc, PhD and is a Fellow of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences. Steve is author of the best selling ‘How to Support a Champion: The art of applying science to the elite athlete’, discussing and inspiring the importance of learning and adapting to reach our maximum potential. Steve established Supporting Champions with the ambition of helping ambitious people to find a better way of creating high-performance. Steve hosts the Supporting Champions Podcast on sharing his pursuit of understanding and exploration in performance.

Leave a Comment