Skip to main content

Gonzalo Bravo: Reflections from sabbatical

The following is an essay by Gonzalo Bravo , a professor of sport management at West Virginia University, about his recent sabbatical to his native country, Chile, for the Pan American and Parapan American Games last fall. The essay provides a brief history of the often-overlooked competitions and the impact that the games have on athletes, nations, and the host country. He also shares the challenges and experiences of collecting data for upcoming research projects, his volunteer experience at the games, and the personal and professional rewards from the unique sabbatical experience.

Last fall, I had the opportunity to complete a sabbatical leave in Santiago, Chile. This enabled me to concentrate full-time on the data collection process of four large-scale research studies during the XIX Pan American and VII Parapan American Games held in Santiago from Oct. 20 to Nov. 26, 2023.

While the Pan American Games, and more recently the Parapan American Games, have been held every four years without interruption since 1951, these events lack the allure and media coverage, particularly in the United States, as other sporting mega events such as the Summer or Winter Olympics.

However, the Pan American Games is still considered one of the largest sporting events in the world. The games provide athletes the opportunity to compete not only with the best from the Americas, but world champions and finalists and medalists from the Summer Olympics. It also is an opportunity for others to classify for the upcoming Summer Olympics, and it serves as a potential steppingstone for some to be considered world-class in their sport.

With 1.3 million spectators, the Pan American and Parapan American Games hosted in Santiago became one of the highest-attended editions in their respective histories. A total of 6,414 athletes representing 40 national Olympic committees across the Americas, plus a delegation of 137 independent athletes, competed in 57 sport modalities (i.e., archery, baseball, basketball, beach volleyball, cycling, etc.) over 17 days. The games were dominated by Team USA which totaled 286 medals, followed by Team Brazil with 205 medals, and Mexico with 142 medals. Chile, the host country, finished eighth among the 41 delegations competing with 79 medals. Included on Team USA were two Mountaineers – Mary Tucker and Gavin Barnick – who competed in rifle. Tucker won two golds and one silver, and Barnick won a bronze.

Several years ago, when I found out that the Pan American and Parapan American Games would be coming to Santiago, I knew I did not want to miss the opportunity to attend the games, and I wanted to be involved in a research study that examined the social impact of the Pan Am Games. This sporting event would be the largest and most expensive sporting event ever hosted in Chile with an estimated cost of $1 billion. Because Chile is considered a medium- to high-income economy with limited resources, I felt it was important to examine the impact of a sporting event of this magnitude on the host country. Thus, these games presented the ideal context for my project. As someone who conducts research in comparative (international) sport management, this sabbatical leave was an excellent opportunity for me to advance my research agenda with full focus on several large-scale research studies related to the 2023 Pan American Games.

There are multiple challenges in conducting a research study and collecting data in another country, from obtaining permission to collect data inside of venues to knowing how to create incentives for people to complete surveys. Thus, an endeavor of this magnitude is only possible with the collaboration of other researchers.

The idea to conduct a research study on the Pan American Games was born during a spontaneous online chat with colleagues from Chile and Spain in 2022. Later that year, a group of four colleagues and I discussed the possibility of traveling to Chile to conduct not just a study on the social impact of the games, but also the impact on volunteers, tourism, and gender equity. During my sabbatical leave, I was responsible for coordinating and the data collection process of four research studies regarding the 2023 Pan American and Parapan Games in Santiago, Chile:

  • Social impact of the games as perceived by residents
  • Perceived value of tourists and visitors who attended the games
  • Motivation and empowerment of volunteers during the games
  • Perceived gender equity and equality in athletes, coaches, and officials who participated in the games. 
Data was collected for all four studies by using online questionnaires that were distributed through different strategies to reach the largest number of individuals within each target population. During the games, data was collected inside the venues simultaneously for two studies (social impact on residents and perceived value tourists and visitors). Our team of researchers distributed flyers that provided a link and encouraged people to complete the survey. To encourage participation, participants had the option to enter a drawing for merchandise from the Pan American Games that was valued at $300.  

Our team also collected data five weeks before the games by sending emails to large databases from two universities and one sport organization in Santiago. Also during this time, a non-probabilistic convenience sampling was obtained through a Facebook advertisement inviting residents to complete the survey. 

For the study about the volunteers, the link and invitation to complete the survey were sent by the organizing committee via e-mail to a database of 20,000 registered volunteers. For the study on gender equity, the organizing committee agreed to send the survey to all athletes, coaches, officials, medical personnel, and other members of the delegations who participated during the games (a database of more than 18,000 e-mails).

The data collection required a significant amount of time and effort. For the studies that collected data inside the venues, the task was massive. Our group worked 20-consecutive days and an average of eight hours a day. The efforts paid off, though, as we collected more than 8,300 surveys for the two studies. The other two studies distributed by the organizing committee reached fewer numbers, but were significant, nonetheless, to pursue our goals.

Reflecting on this experience, I can say that this was a unique and extremely rewarding experience both professionally and personally. The sabbatical leave allowed me to conduct work in the field at one of the largest sporting events organized within the Americas. Aside from the excitement of being part of the games, this sabbatical provided me with the opportunity to reconnect with colleagues and friends from my native country, Chile. Without their support, this project would not have moved forward. I am also appreciative of the support from the administration in the College of Applied Human Sciences and the School of Sport Sciences, who, after attentively listening to my initial plan, suggested that the best way to get the most out of this opportunity was to request a sabbatical leave.

The excitement from this unique experience has not ended with my return to day-to-day activities on campus. On the contrary, there is so much to do, and I am energized to complete the many projects that resulted from this experience. Certainly, this work will keep me busy and entertained for some time to come.

    Share this story 
  • LinkedIn logo