Thursday, 10 December 2009

Olympics blog


"London 2012: A long sunrise with a short sunset? – Nicola Bamford examines whether Britain’s Olympic spectacular will be a ‘Games for all’."

In 963 days Britain will become host to the 2012 Olympic Games, with its Paralympic equivalent arriving thirty-three days later. The greatest sporting show on Earth will undoubtedly provide the finest multi-sport entertainment and sporting infrastructure this country has ever witnessed, but questions loom as to whether – in the long term – this magnificent event will provide a ‘Games for all.’

When Britain and the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) were awarded the World’s most sought-after competition in July 2005, promises such as legacy and the 'trickle down' effect were pledged as emerging bi-products of being hosts. Contrary to LOCOG's prediction, however, these benefits may be of little assistance to improving the sporting and physical activity behaviours of the British public.

Many would presume being fortunate enough to have the Olympic Games on our home turf would automatically transform the sporting ethos of Great Britain. Justifiably, the majority of our nation sees this opportunity as the greatest sporting spectacle to visit the British Isles in our lifetimes; yet this remarkable prize; finally won after two unsuccessful attempts in 1992 and 1996, brought with it an anticipation which has ignited a plethora of expectations, concerns and pressures. Can the London Games pass its greatest test? - changing the health of our country.


Questions have begun to arise, 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 merely provide a huge financial strain and discourage society from sport with its' elitist, pressurising philosophy '?

Despite sport evidently emerging into the consciousness of the nation since we won the right to be hosts, has such a life-changing decision for most managed to act as an alarm bell to the sedentary public? The 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 society.

Statistics show that 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." Still, this quote is not a lie – as a nation, we do love our sport but only as spectators from the stands or in front of the television. Yes, there are thousands of gym-addicts, who fun-run, play in football leagues and compete at high levels; but there are many, many more that let their remote control do the work.

Spectator nation

Without wanting to sound too pessimistic, a quantum shift in social attitudes, so that physical activity starts to resonate as a clinical need, not just a lifestyle choice is desperately needed in our country. If anything, it would dramatically ease the financial burden on our public services (the NHS spends £3,000 every minute on combating illness which could be prevented by physical activity).

LOCOG claims that "grassroots participation would be boosted. An already sports mad nation would get fitter and healthy," so how can our ‘spectator nation’ improve its’ physical activity rates? Or will the event merely provide a form of entertainment and have no motivational effect whatsoever?

Assumptions about stimulating participation through sporting role models, trickle down effects, legacy and media coverage are at best single variable theories of behavioural changes. The Games may have some role to play, but only as part of a systematic and strategic developmental approach. It is time to wipe the rose-tinted spectacles.

London themes

The four themes of the London vision are: delivering the experience of a lifetime, leaving a legacy for sport, benefits the community through regeneration and aim to support the Olympics movement.

If LOCOG fail to install a lasting sporting legacy, then the Games will have a long sunrise and a short sunset; emphasising the need for a national strategy to embed the Olympics and sport in general into the heart of the nation.

Promises, promises
The most significant promises from LOCOG centre on regeneration and legacy. The Olympic Games lasts for just over two-weeks but it takes seven years of meticulous planning and preparation, thousands of paid and voluntary staff, countless organisations and billions of pounds to deliver. It is therefore crucial that the Games be organised as to provide a lasting legacy to the host city, the country and the rest of the world.

The community regeneration inspired by London 2012 should, in theory, provide a springboard for reducing health inequalities and for encouraging people across the country to take up sport and develop active, healthy lifestyles; yet how will the Games inspire the entire population when many live hundreds of miles away from our capital? Can the immense media coverage the Games are expected to attract motivate individuals who cannot access and thus benefit from the regenerated areas? To combat this however, the Government has committed to installing nation-wide sports schemes and initiatives in sports centres, schools, clubs and even workplaces.


The Games will use a combination of new sporting venues in the Olympic Park, existing world-class facilities and other inspirational and historical locations, such as Wimbledon and Wembley Stadium. London 2012 is committed to 'excellence without extravagance' and it is for this reason that new venues are being built only where clear legacy needs have been identified and sporting and business plans developed for post-Games use.

The hard benefits from hosting the Games such as the Olympic stadium and the Aquatic Centre are far outweighed by the soft benefits of providing 12,000 job opportunities to disadvantaged people, engaging local people and enabling them attain new skills, education and training as well as, most importantly, initiating the entire nation's step change into a physical activity culture. However, the critique here is the word local - does this indicate that people outside of London will be overlooked and therefore discouraged from taking up, and getting involved in, sport?

The Olympic Park will lie within some of the UK's most disadvantaged boroughs and 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 have a positive effect on the British sports industry, as it will open many doors of sporting opportunities to the majority of the British population; recreational sports enthusiasts and beginners to physical activity.

The 'feel good factor'

Hosting the Games should install a 'feel good factor' in the nation, 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 'Wimbledon effect', which ignited a short-lived increase in tennis participation rates. London must ensure this sudden public enthusiasm remains long after 2012 in order for the Games to act as a true driver for physical activity change.

Britain cannot 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' tier of the ‘sports participation pyramid’ affecting the lower tiers of performance, participation and foundation. Those at the top of the pyramid (Olympians) will inspire and motivate those underneath, with the breadth of the base determining the pinnacle of the top.

Whereas using stars such as double Olympic middle-distance gold-medallist Kelly Holmes - with the "On camp with Kelly" initiative - may be productive with sports enthusiasts, perhaps the use of potential stars or even individuals who have recently found enjoyment in a new sport, would be more appropriate role models to the currently sedentary.

Post-Games participation

There is little doubt the athletes competing in London 2012 will enthuse youngsters to follow in their footsteps, however, enthusiasm is only one of many ingredients required to produce future sporting stars – or at least, regular exercisers.

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; with only 4% of Australians becoming more physically active.

Culture change

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.

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

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

Your writer – Nicola Bamford is a long-distance runner and sports journalist, who specialises in covering athletics and the Olympics. She has plied her trade writing for athletics magazines and the websites of national and international athletics governing bodies.

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