Tuesday, 7 July 2009

London 2012: A long sunrise and short sunset? : NICOLA BAMFORD investigates into whether hosting the Greatest Show on Earth will stimulate sports participation in the UK. (Updated 09/08).

The events of the sixth of July, 2005 changed the face of British sport forever when the capital city, London was awarded the XXX (thirtieth) Olympic Games. Justifiably, the entire nation perceived this magnificent opportunity as the greatest sporting spectacle to visit the British Isles in our lifetimes, yet this remarkable 'prize'; finally won after two recent unsuccessful attempts in 1992 and 1996, brought with it an anticipation which has ignited a plethora of expectations, concerns and pressures.

The million dollar question facing British sport on the back of our Olympic win is whether the London Games can pass its greatest test; increasing the sporting participation rates of the Great British public. And, being the number one Olympic sport, athletics is the key activity at which to target participation rates. Doubts have begun to arise though, such as will hosting the Games inspire a generation of new sporting enthusiasts and revive and inspire a physically active nation? Or alternatively, will the Games not only bankrupt the country but also discourage society from sport altogether with its' elitist, pressurising philosophy?

Despite sport evidently emerging into the consciousness of the nation post-2012 Olympic decision, many have questioned whether attaining the event will transform the British sporting ethos. The awarding of the Games appears to have acted as an alarm bell to the Government and sports industry; the Great British desire to impress the world with our elite and our sports-mad, healthy nation is such, that an abundance of sporting initiatives and strategies have emerged nationwide in an attempt to revolutionize the sporting and physical activity behaviours and resistance of the Great British public – but are we just fooling ourselves?

A spokeswoman for the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) offered their view; “It’s down to the Government, Sport England and UK Athletics to increase participation rates. Sebastian Coe, our chairman, was clear when we bid for 2012 that there would be a strong emphasis on improving sport in the UK. The 2012 road-show is doing a roaring trade; we hope the knock-on effect of 2012 will inspire people to get off the couch and get active. Over a billion will watch the opening ceremony - we hope the Games will act as a catalyst for changing people’s physical activity behaviours.”

LOCOG have certainly got their work cut out. According to UK Sport, only 46% of the British public take part in sport more than twelve times a year, yet the London 2012 website claims that "there are few nations where sport is such an important part of the national culture as it is in the UK." The statistics speak for themselves, though, so are the 2012 team in denial of our meagre sporting culture or simply over-optimistic? With the Government's aim of 70% of the population undertaking thirty minutes of moderate activity five times per week by 2020 currently not looking achievable , it is apparent that the state of British sport and physical activity is not as encouraging as it is fabricated. However, with sport now being thrust into the public awareness, it is not unachievable for British participation rates to experience an increase.
LOCOG claims that because of the London Games, "grassroots participation would be boosted.

An already sports mad nation would get fitter and healthy"; so how can this pledge be guaranteed? Today, Britain has been referred to as more of a 'spectator' nation, due to the dwindling physical activity rates; hence can the Games really provide a step change in the nation's physical endeavours? Or will the event merely provide a form of entertainment and have no motivational effect whatsoever?

National event coach for distance and cross-country, Bob Ashwood explains; “There’s a fair lack of evidence as to whether major champs increase participation. 2012 will be used to showcase the talent we’ve got and hopefully the people watching will be inspired by their fellow countrymen and see the effect sport can have. The Government needs to realise that sport goes beyond success and that’s the beauty of 2012 – it will focus the minds of millions of people, as pathways are provided for them to get into sport and achieve.”

Hosting the Games may contribute to the Government's broader social and health agenda but what of it’s' impact of sports participation? Many believe the Games may have some role to play, but only as part of a systematic and strategic developmental approach.

Government support to increasing participation at grassroots level took a turn for the better earlier this year, when Prime Minister Gordon Brown decided to put competitive sport at the centre of a new campaign to boost sport in schools in the run-up to 2012. An encouraging £100m was invested to provide schoolchildren with five hours of sport per week.

2006 European 800m bronze-medallist, Becky Lyne states; “When I give motivational talks in schools, the kids are aware we’re hosting the Games in 2012. The Games will be a lot more visible in the lead-up and people will see what good fun sport can be.” On her individual perception of 2012, Lyne adds; “I’m motivated to train and prefer to focus on each day as it comes to get the most out of myself. It’s better to have short-term goals but 2012 is always in the background of my aims.”

My own racing experiences in recent months have done little to convince me that the ‘2012 effect’ is upon us. Last summer, I competed in both the 3000 and 5000m Midland track championships completely alone; achieving a personal best on both occasions. Of course, there are hundreds of fledging competitions around the country but these experiences led me to ponder what a sad state of affairs our sport is in; are other sports in the same dire situation? Surely athletics should be more keenly contested at such a late stage in the race leading to the Games...

UK Athletics Chief Executive, Neils de Vos gave his opinion; “There is no doubt in my mind that London 2012 is already proving a huge inspiration to young athletes...Our challenge as a Governing Body is to ensure that the momentum provided by the Olympics is maintained post-2012; that schools re-engage with athletics in a meaningful way and that clubs are resourced with facilities and coaches to welcome the increased numbers of youngsters looking to join their local clubs.” Let’s hope this prediction of increased membership becomes a reality; not forgetting of course, that we mustn’t neglect the adult population; and that my unenviable lone racing experiences will be a thing of the past.

Perhaps the 2012 ‘vision’ is seen through rose-tinted spectacles; oblivious to the barriers standing in the way of the task to elevate national participation. Although the Games have promised to 'leave a legacy for sport' by ensuring the nation is left with world-class sporting facilities to host national and international events to encourage participation, won’t many of these facilities be exclusive to our elite athletes?

It is hoped that embedding the Olympics into the heart of the nation will be achieved with an influx of sporting facilities popping up all over the UK – but being spoilt for choice in the facility stakes will not necessarily improve sporting involvement. When it boils down to it, you could call us a ‘couch-potato’ nation; reluctant to swap the remote control for a tennis racket. Most people know they’ve no chance of ever becoming an Olympian, maybe that’s why we’re an impeccably good ‘spectator nation’; content on being entertained by sport. The Government and LOCOG can’t expect to change the physical activity behaviours of our society to be easy; most people are satisfied with their fast food and happy to leave the gym membership card safely tucked away in their wallet. We have to focus on the individuals who have a desire to change, by giving them the helping hand and advice they need.

Some, such as Mick Woods; a senior performance coach at St Mary’s University are sceptical of the ‘2012 effect’; “2012 may inspire an increase in participation for a while but I think the effect of that will disappear fairly quickly. It’s easy in the run-up (to the Games) to be inspired and take part but it’s important that the 2012 legacy is maintained and continued – it must be capitalised on. The funding invested has to be sustainable afterwards to help keep those interested in sport involved.”

Athletics needs to be marketed better in the countdown, during and after the Games. In order for people to be enthused by the sport, they need to believe in the product they’re being sold. So far, LOCOG have not done a brilliant job, what with the highly unpopular 2012 logo, increasing fears surrounding the costs of the Games and reservations regarding how 2012 can positively affect participation rates manifest in the sponsors of the Games. If, like previous Games, global fast-food giants such as McDonalds and Coca-Cola provide lucrative sponsorship and endorsement, the Games will have an air of hypocrisy by encouraging the phenomenon of 'globesity'. However, Fast-track, the marketing arm of UK Athletics, continues to promote top domestic and international events superbly and the mass-media are doing a sterling job of promoting the sport following a successful summer of junior and senior team GB performances.
2008 World Junior 1500m Champion and 2012 hopeful, Steph Twell; “It’s the icing on the cake to have the Olympics in our back-garden. I hope to be there but also want longevity in my career; to be successful beyond 2012. It’s (London 2012) awakened people.”

The sheer scale of London 2012 alone could foster an increase in participation. 11,000 athletes from around the World will compete in 300 events over a sixteen-day period. The Paralympic Games shortly afterwards, will be home to 4000 athletes and coaches. With nine-million tickets sold and half-a-million spectators per day, there will be an immense need for volunteers; 47,000 to be more accurate; representing a perfect foundation to getting involved in sport. Away from the Games too, we will need an army of volunteers behind the scenes to keep Britain active. Volunteers after all, ensure that sport retains a unique and integral role in our communities.
The Olympic Park will lie within some of the UK's most disadvantaged boroughs and, according to LOCOG, will be home to world-class sporting facilities for elite and community use. If the promise of 'facilities for all' is kept, then it will most likely have a positive impact on sports participation for Londoners, as it opens many doors of sporting opportunities for recreational sports enthusiasts to beginners of physical activity. But just how are the people of Britain expected to be inspired when the buzz of excitement and majority regeneration of sporting facilities are happening hundreds of miles away in the capital city? One method of combating this problem lies with the establishment of new facilities all over the British Isles and the Government’s commitment to installing nation-wide sports schemes and initiatives in sports centres, schools, clubs and even workplaces.

As School Sports Champion, Dame Kelly Holmes; the double Olympic champion, has been integral in schemes such as the UK School Games and the School Sports Initiative, which aim to encourage youth participation and June 29th welcomed the national Olympic Day, where 1,000 pupils ran 3km, in one of the largest mass participation school events in the world. Initiatives aimed at increasing mass participation, such as the “Great Activity Campaign” are excellent for getting people involved but do projects like this merely create a nation of joggers, satisfied to simply bimble along to keep fit, rather than push themselves? As an athlete, my motto is ‘Don’t limit your challenges, challenge your limits’, but in hindsight, maybe we should just be grateful to get people out on the roads and into the leisure centre in the first place.

Hosting the Games should install a 'feel good factor' around the UK, due to feelings of national pride and being inspired by the physical endeavours of the world's greatest athletes. This has been witnessed in the UK before with, for instance, the annual 'Wimbledon effect', which ignites a short-lived boom in tennis participation rates. But London must ensure this fleeting public enthusiasm remains long after 2012 in order for the Games to act as a true driver for physical activity change.

Britain can neither assume that the 'shop window' theory of placing our best athletes on show, will transform the nation's perception of sport and physical activity, nor will the vast amount of media coverage. It is however, hoped that Britain will experience a 'trickle-down effect', in terms of the 'excellence' sports participation pyramid tier affecting the lower tiers of performance, participation and foundation. Those at the top of the pyramid such as Olympians will inspire and motivate those underneath, with the breadth of the base determining the pinnacle of the top.

Nevertheless, what if these sporting role models fail to motivate the public and, due to the complexity of their sport, actually de-motivate? The accomplishment of these sporting stars may actually demoralise the public and lower self-efficacy. In order to change one's behaviour, we require confidence, motivation and must perceive the possibility of achieving the desired behaviour as attainable.

Using stars such as Holmes - with the "On camp with Kelly" initiative - may be productive with sports enthusiasts, but perhaps the use of potential stars or even individuals who have only recently found sport, are more appropriate role models for the sedentary virgins of sport.

Due to a lack if survey evidence of the effects of an Olympic Games on national sporting participation rates, it is essential London learns from this mistake. Australia (post-Sydney 2000) experienced a small increase in seven Olympic sports, yet nine sports suffered a decline. Only 4% of Australians became more physically active post Sydney 2000, therefore London must ensure Britain experiences a far more substantial impact.

The impact of an Olympic curling gold in Athens 2000 for example, had, according to Sportscotland, the "greatest impact on those already in the sport. Consequently, care should be taken when asserting that success on the world stage has an impact on general levels of participation"

So how can Britain isolate the Olympic effect? Perhaps by measuring national participation rates before, during and after the Games would generate the desired data and prevent making the same mistakes their predecessors failed to avert.

It is ironic how the USA for instance, is the most successful Olympic nation with the largest talent pool, yet is engulfed with the highest obesity rates. Finland on the other hand, has the greatest participation rates, but is low down on the Olympic rankings. Can Great Britain find a balance between the two?

In order to capitalise on London 2012, sports clubs and leisure centres should show strategic thinking by installing marketing campaigns and promoting their sport or facilities in the run up to the Games and not rely on the anticipated 'trickle-down effect'. By additionally hosting the Paralympics, Britain must also raise the awareness of, and opportunities for, disability sport.

Potential ideas to improve national participation on the back of London 2012 could include free sessions in Olympic sports at sports centres, an annual Olympic day in schools, teaching Olympism in physical education and utilising former, current and potential Olympic stars as mentors to the elite and school-children.

Upon conclusion, the London Games are only one element of a much broader long-term development programme to increase national sporting participation rates. The responsibility of revolutionising the British culture into a sporting one should not be left to LOCOG; the wider sports community must help to deliver and exploit the opportunities London 2012 presents.

Crucially, we must be prepared to pick up the aftermath of our global party by ensuring the celebrations and effects continue long after the event. Maintaining the impetus of improving our sporting culture beyond the Games will assure the 2012 sunset is extended. London 2012 may only a minor role to play in stimulating sporting participation, but it will act as an excellent driver for change.

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