Olympic legacy for sale

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The upcoming London 2012 Olympic Games has primarily been sold to the public with two arguments:

  1. That the games will provide economic benefits
  2. That the games will increase sports participation

The government is quite keen to publicise that the cost of the games is going to come in under budget – that is, the new £9.3bn budget, not the £2.4bn budget of the original bid (which failed to include VAT and security costs).

£9.3bn is a lot of money. Presumably there is a lot of evidence that holding ‘mega-events’ like the Olympic Games provides a large return on the investment in public funds? The evidence is inconclusive. Some Games appear to be truly beneficial to cities (Barcelona 1992), whereas others have demonstrated little economic impact (Beijing 2008) or have been expensive and provided a lot of unused facilities (Athens 2004). The academic literature also seems to be pretty inconclusive, with some short-term benefits being described. The best study I can find related to London 2012 suggests that there will be an overall economic benefit – equivalent to an additional £2bn in GDP spread over the period 2005-2016 and, more importantly in these economic conditions, an additional 8,200 FTE jobs. However, the author notes that these estimates are open to a great deal of variation based on sensitivity analyses, particularly relating to the “legacy effect” and, most importantly, I don’t think his estimates of the costs reach anywhere near the current £9.3bn budget – the research was pubished in 2005, when the budget was still relatively tiny.

But what about sports participation? Recently, Ken Green, a leading academic researcher in the field of physical education and sport, wrote a succinct and convincing article in the Royal Statistical Society magazine “Significance”. He referred to research which suggests that elite sport has little effect on convincing the general public to be more active. Elite athletes do not serve as effective role-models for young children. They are simply not similar or close enough to normal people to act as aspirational figures. Family members, friends and perhaps also PE teachers are likely to better serve as role models to young people in terms of encouraging physically active lifestyles.

Survey estimates tend to show that, when asked if they have taken part in moderately intense ‘active sport’ in the last 4 weeks (including recreational walking and cycling), around 55% of the population says they have, whereas only around 25% have taken part regularly (3 x 30 minute sessions in the last week). The most popular activities are recreational, fitness based ‘lifestyle activities’ such as gym exercise, recreational swimming, cycling, jogging, yoga, etc. – not competitive sports such as 400m hurdles, javelin, diving, gymnastics, etc. Lifestyle activities are easy to fit into a hectic schedule, require little organisation, and can be undertaken alone. Yet the government is obsessed with getting young people to play more competitive sport. It is an uncomfortable truth that most people do not frequently participate in traditional sports and probably never will. Simply getting more people to be regularly active has proved incredibly difficult, and would have much greater impact on the health of the nation. Could encouraging participation in lifestyle activities be more successful?

To conclude, the games may or may not provide economic benefits that accumulate after the massive costs have been offset. In terms of increasing participation in sport, and recreational physical activity for that matter, the evidence seems to suggest that the games is unlikely to have any long-term impact on participation by the public at large.