A Primer on Olympic Physical Activity, Sport & Health Legacies

Evidence suggests that the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games could have boosted the nation’s physical activity levels, given the right strategic approach and investment.  Furthermore, this evidence has been available for three years, following the publication in January 2009 of a comprehensive review of the international evidence on the role and potential of the Games, commissioned from the Centre for Sport, Physical Education & Activity Research (SPEAR) at Canterbury Christ Church University by the Department of Health.

Despite this commissioned review, there is little indication that policy has been based on evidence, with legacy aspirations largely being pinned on the hope that there will be an inherent inspiration effect from the Games across the population as a whole.   But the one area in which the evidence is clear and unequivocal is in showing that there is no inherent effect – legacies must be leveraged.

However, there is evidence for the potential to leverage a Demonstration Effect (the use of elite sport, sports people and sports events to inspire others to participate), but such an effect must be supported by initiatives and investments to stimulate demand by using Olympic and Paralympic themes to engage people.  Furthermore, 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.  But 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.

For those that are not sporty, effort should be focused on harnessing a Festival Effect, which taps into an individual’s sense of community and desire to be part of something bigger than and beyond the sporting competition, 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 ‘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.

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.

In short, simply hosting the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games does not generate a legacy.  This is not Field of Dreams – there is no evidence to suggest that if you host it, a legacy will come.  Olympic physical activity, sport and health legacies need to be leveraged with specific targeted investment focusing on using the Games to stimulate demand.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of government investment in legacy initiatives such as Places People Play is focused on supply: of facilities, of fields, of leaders, and of opportunities.   But the most recent data from Active People, the most robust rolling survey of sporting demand ever conducted in England, shows that in the year before the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, demand for sport (as reflected in participation data) has actually started to fall.