Is the health legacy of London 2012 already lost?

running-track-olympics-2012-sports-medicineWill London 2012 be the first games to have tried and failed to deliver a national sport participation and physical activity legacy?

Professor Mike Weed, Director of the Centre for Sport, Physical Education and Activity Research (SPEAR) at Canterbury Christ Church University, is convinced it may be. 

From the ambitions of the final bid presentation that secured the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games for London, through the legacy promises made in the previous Labour government’s action plan in 2008, the coalition government’s rationalised Plans for the Legacy published in December 2010, the sporting, social, cultural and economic development legacies have been referenced many times in Olympic planning.

Labour’s legacy action plan and the coalition government’s more recent priorities each appear to give billing to legacies in different areas however, the sport participation legacy is undoubtedly ‘first among equals’ in the minds of the IOC, LOCOG and the UK media.

In Singapore in 2005 Lord Coe, Chair of the London Organising Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG), secured the 2012 Games for London with a final bid presentation that included a promise to inspire a new generation to choose sport.

Yet, as the popular press is fond of reminding us, no previous Games has succeeded in raising participation in sport and physical activity. Systematic review of previous multi-sport events in the BMJ in 2010 concluded that “the available evidence is not sufficient to confirm or refute expectations about the health of socio-economic benefits for the host population of previous major multi-sport events” (McCartney, et al, 2010).

However, this is not the full picture. Whilst it is true that no previous Games has resulted in sustained increases in sport and physical activity participation in host populations, no previous Games has attempted to raise population levels of sport and physical activity participation.

Sport participation

Participation data has merely been examined afterwards to explore whether Olympic and Paralympic Games have passively affected participation levels. As such, and as noted by the authors in their conclusions, the 2010 BMJ review should be interpreted to mean that there is no evidence for an inherent sport and physical activity participation legacy effect, in which benefits occur automatically from hosting an Olympic and Paralympic Games.

So what does this mean for London 2012? Was it reasonable to suggest that a sport and physical activity participation legacy could be possible? In short, yes. The lack of evidence for sustained population level effects following previous Games which did not attempt to deliver sport and physical activity legacies is not an indication that such a legacy could not be leveraged from the London 2012 Games.

In fact, a worldwide systematic review of the research evidence, conducted by SPEAR for the Department of Health (Weed et al, 2009), shows that there is evidence that mechanisms associated with Olympic and Paralympic Games have had a positive effect on sport participation where specific initiatives have been put in place to leverage such participation.

Such initiatives have however not been on a large enough scale to effect population levels of sport and physical activity participation, hence the lack of evidence for an inherent effect found in the BMJ review.

The Demonstration Effect

SPEAR’s review for the Department of Health provides evidence for two mechanisms which could be scaled up to affect population levels of sport and physical activity participation. The first of these is the Demonstration Effect, whereby people are inspired by elite sport, sport events and sportspeople to participate themselves.

However, and most importantly, the Demonstration Effect only works with those who are already positively disposed towards sport. As such, it can encourage those who participate a little to participate a little more, or encourage those who have participated in the past to participate again.

What it does not do is get those who do not and never have participated in sport to start playing. The problem is that people can feel daunted, they see someone like Kelly Holmes winning double Olympic gold and think that is so far removed from what they feel they could do, that it’s not even worth trying. This is called a competence gap.

A festival effect

For those that are not sporty, a second effect can be harnessed; a Festival Effect. A Festival Effect taps into an individual’s sense of community and desire to be part of something bigger than and beyond the sporting competition, and can be leveraged by emphasising the cultural and creative value of the Games, and not mentioning sport at all.

This has the potential to reach the less active or even the sedentary, but for it to work, initiatives must be rooted in local cultural and community activities and tap into pre-exisiting ‘value hooks’ such as family or eco values.

One example might be the use of the commitment some individuals’ have to green values, which can be matched with the sustainability agenda of the 2012 Games, to get people involved in initiatives that clear and enhance local parkland, thus getting such people active, almost without them realising it.

Getting the message right

The key, however, is to ease up on health and exercise messages, and in particular to tone down what might be called ‘finger wagging’, especially where it is directed at the less active and sedentary.

Among such people, messages that are overtly about the science of health and exhorting people to become healthier fall on deaf ears, as the less active and sedentary are wholly fed up with being told they are unfit and unhealthy, and so tend to disconnect from the content of such messages.

So, armed with this evidence, surely good progress must be being made towards delivering a sport and physical activity legacy from the London 2012 Games? Well, unfortunately not. Evidence from the largest and most robust survey of sport participation habits ever conducted, Sport England’s Active People Survey, suggests that population levels of sport participation in England have increased by an average of only 38,000 a year over the last three years.

The problem appears to have been that, although evidence suggests that London 2012 could have boosted the nation’s sport and physical activity participation given the right strategic approach and investment, there is little indication that policy has been based on evidence.

Instead, legacy aspirations have been pinned on the hope that there will be an inherent inspiration effect from the Games. The government’s Mass Participation Legacy Plan, Places People Play, focuses almost solely on supply: of facilities, of fields, of leaders, and of opportunities. However, this is not Field of Dreams – there is no evidence to suggest that if you build a sport supply infrastructure, people will come.

A lack of progress

In short, the lack of progress towards delivering a sport and physical activity participation legacy from the London 2012 Games is a policy failing, in which legacy strategy has not been informed by the available evidence.

Nevertheless, a policy failing is not one of the explanations that have been respectively offered by Lord Coe and Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary. Lord Coe has recently suggested that the Active People Survey is not capturing the sport participation legacy, and that it is not to be trusted because Sport England, who commission the survey, have “singularly failed”.

As alternative evidence, Lord Coe suggests that ‘if you speak to [the British Cycling performance director] Dave Brailsford he will tell you he’s got half a million more cyclists than pre-Beijing’.

However, the Active People survey provides official National Statistics, and since 2005 has been carried out on behalf of Sport England by two of the most respected market research companies in the UK, IpsosMORI and TNS-BMRB.

Each year it has a sample size exceeding 175,000, which provides accuracy to within 0.2%. The same cannot be said of the anecdotal view of a national performance director, however genuinely-held it may be.

A legacy lost?

In contrast to Lord Coe, Jeremy Hunt has not sought to explain the lack of progress towards a sport and physical activity legacy by suggesting that National Statistics are flawed. Rather he has suggested that the wrong legacy target was set by the previous Labour government, which promised to get one million more adults participating in sport three times a week between 2007/8 and 2012/13.

This target has now been dropped by the Coalition government because Mr Hunt says that a ‘more meaningful national measure’ is required. However, with less than 50 days to go to the start of the Games, a ‘more meaningful national measure’ has yet to be announced. Consequently, and somewhat conveniently, there is currently no nationally endorsed success indicator against which government policy to deliver a sport and physical activity participation legacy can be judged.

With almost no time left to enhance the impact of the 2012 Games on sport participation, it seems that London is heading towards a story of unfulfilled promises and of legacies lost. In which case, London will have the somewhat ignominious honour of being the first Games to have tried and failed to deliver a national sport participation and physical activity legacy.

Further reading

1. McCartney et al (2010). The health and socioeconomic impacts of major multi-sport events: systematic review (1978-2008). BMJ 2010;340: c2369
2. Weed et al (2009). A Systematic Review of the Evidence Base for Delivering a Physical Activity and Health legacy from the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Department of Health.