Can the London 2012 Olympics really ‘inspire a generation’?

‘Legacy’ was the buzzword of summer 2012. Here in the Woodland, even with all this snow on the ground, I’m still able to bask in the warm glow that comes from knowing that our London Olympics and Paralympics were such a huge success.

It was common knowledge that hosting the Games was going to cost a fortune (more than 8 billion UK pounds!) and at a time of economic crisis there was much criticism and concern about hosting such an event. One of the persuasive arguments for hosting the Olympics was the belief that it would leave a legacy in the UK. Indeed, it would ‘inspire a generation’ and we would see this reflected in the number of people participating in sport and being physically active.

The benefits of this particular aspect of the much talked about legacy are obvious. Physical inactivity has a massive negative influence on health worldwide, is it possible that a major multisport event could really have a positive and lasting impact on the health of a population?

An interesting overview of systematic reviews was carried out recently to examine if hosting an Olympic or Paralympic games does lead to increased participation in sports. The primary outcome measured was increased involvement in sporting activity specifically in any of the 36 Olympic sports. Secondary outcomes measured included increases in other forms of activity, public perceptions of sport during and after an Olympic games, barriers to increased sports participation and any other non-sporting health benefits.

After a search of relevant databases they identified two reviews of good quality that were suitable for inclusion. This is what they found:

  • There is little evidence of an increased uptake of sporting activity following an Olympics games event
  • Other effects on health e.g. changes in hospital admissions, suicide rates and drug use were cited but there was insufficient evidence to see an overall effect
  • High quality, evidence-based studies are needed to measure the true impact of the London 2012 games
  • Ideally studies should be commissioned before, during and following the completion of the event.   They recommended that such methods be executed in advance and following the 2016 Olympic games in Brazil

But:

  • The study only included data in English relating to the summer Olympic and Paralympic games, thereby excluding the Winter Olympics and Commonwealth games

The authors concluded:

It cannot be expected that such events will automatically increase activity simply by the event taking place. Instead, we found that a number of factors were likely to be needed, such as a ‘positive’ perception in advance of the games, the idea that participation in physical activity need not be limited to elite sportsmen, and that there will be sufficient infrastructure to access and partake in activities within the community and schools setting after the games.

We note that the 2010 Department for Culture Media and Sport document outlining the UK Governments plans for a legacy after the Olympic games included numerous proposals to improve mass participation in sport and increased activity. However, the government proposals from 2010 contrast with recent reports, following the 2012 games, of a decline in sports diversity and coaching as a result of funding cuts.

Obviously we can’t sit back and be complacent about the impact of the London Olympics. In order to capitalise on the positivity surrounding the event we need to keep the momentum generated going. We’ve been inspired and now it’s down to us to make the most of that feeling. We have the power!  Let’s use it.

Right, on that note I’m off to leap frog 100m of toadstools.  Not an Olympic event yet, but with golf making a comeback in Brazil in 2016 it seems anything is possible!

Links:

Mahtani KR, Proteroe J, Slight SP, Demarzo MMP, Blakeman T, Barton CA, Brijnath B, Roberts N. Can the London 2012 Olympics ‘inspire a generation’ to do more physical or sporting activities? An overview of systematic reviews BMJ Open 2013;3:1

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Sarah Holloway

My name is Sarah Holloway. I am an Associate Lecturer with the Open University, teaching on the Understanding Health course. Before working for the OU I lectured in physiology and nutrition at The London Institute. I have a background in medical research and gained my biochemistry Ph.D whilst working at the Imperial College School of Medicine.

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