The legacy fallacy: the Olympics doesn’t increase sport participation

The Olympics won’t have an effect on sport participation after the fact unless time and money are properly invested. EPA/Christian Charisius

This is an edited version of a letter sent to UK Prime Minister David Cameron and a number of other officials with connections to the London Olympics.

Dear Prime Minister,

I have spent the past two weeks screaming with passion at the television. Why? Because you keep telling the nation that the Olympic Games will inspire sport participation, and yet you never tell us how this will happen!

I’ve spent the past four years researching this subject area for my thesis:

Sport mega-events and a legacy of increased sport participation: an Olympic promise or Olympic dream?

The Olympic “promise” relates to the statement made in 2007 by the last government that hosting the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games would inspire 2m people to become more active by 2012/13.

This idea, that elite sport performance acts as a catalyst to increased mass sport participation, is known as the “trickle-down” or “demonstration” effect. It’s a concept that has dominated sport policy in this country for decades but, as Sport England reported in 2004, sport participation rates in the UK have, over this period, remained static.

But how does this work in association with major sport events?

In 1994 researchers Anne Hindson, Bob Gidlow and Cath Peebles looked at the impact of the 1992 Winter and Summer Olympics on sport participation in New Zealand and concluded there were two antithetical models of the relationship between elite sport and grassroots participation:

  • elite athletes become role models and attract new participants to sport
  • demonstrations of sporting excellence act as a deterrent to sport participation because of the perceived competence gap between the observer and the athlete.

There are several factors that impact on the relationship between role-models and potential new participants. One is age.

Adults are more likely to be put off when seeing Jessica Ennis or Tom Daley perform as they perceive they can never reach such a standard - so why try?

In a paper published last year, Professor Mike Weed from Canterbury University showed that role models can have a positive impact on young people and sport participation. But are there adequate public sport facilities to support these sporting aspirations?

An Audit Commission report in 2006 suggested not and that it would take a minimum investment of £550m in public sport facilities to meet the then government’s sport and physical activity aspirations. I know that the coalition government has put £135m into the London 2012 legacy programme Places People Play, £80m of which is for facilities but, well, £550m - £135m … you do the maths.

When it comes to leaving an event legacy we know from the Faber Maunsell report on the Manchester 2002 Commonwealth Games that you need to put as much into the planning for legacy as into the planning for the event itself. But despite being the first Olympic Games host country to be implicit about delivering a sport participation legacy, we have really adopted a “legacy by osmosis” approach.

We planned for the Games from before 2005. It wasn’t until 2007 that the first warning bells were sounded about the lack of legacy plans, particularly for sport participation.

In response the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) published Our Promise for 2012 which included the sport participation promise to be driven and funded by current programmes. Olympics Minister, Tessa Jowell had to be seen to be putting an end to the rising costs of the Games which, by this time, had spiralled from £2.1 billion to £9.3 billion.

Sport England were put in charge of the sport participation legacy, an organisation with a mandate to increase community sport provision. But this organisation had already seen its lottery funding cut, not once but twice, to support the rising costs of the Olympic Games’ budget!

Tim Lamb, CEO of the then Central Council of Physical Recreation (now the Sport and Recreation Alliance), also pointed out that Sport England didn’t have the political stature to deliver the sport participation legacy and that it needed a cross-government departmental body to act as a lead body. A Sport Legacy Board was promoted to be chaired by Sir Steve Redgrave that only seemingly ever had two meetings – one without Sir Steve.

In terms of the government’s “plans” for a sport participation legacy, that well-known chant from the terraces might have seemed pertinent at this point: “you don’t know what you’re doing”!

And then to the delivery of sport in schools. The coalition government has cut back the School Sport Partnership programme. This program, according to the Youth Sport Trust, was delivering both more hours of school sport and teaching expertise into primary schools.

Last week, Jeremy Hunt told John Humphreys on the BBC Radio 4 program that the cuts had to happen because of the country’s current financial deficit issue, but in the next news bulletin listeners were told that funding to Syria would be increased. Please explain the logic.

The activities of the British Cycling Federation (BCF) provide one glimmer of hope for the Games’ participation legacy. In 2009, the BCF told me they would have a Tour de France winner in five years and this, with the further success of Team Sky on the world stage, would drive community participation and locally based Sky Ride programme.

It is working but of course the BCF couldn’t and can’t market its activities during the London 2012 Games because the association with Sky would violate the IOC sponsors’ rights.

So, to conclude Prime Minister, based on the evidence I have given you how are you going to get more people, young and old, involved in sport as a consequence of hosting the Olympic Games?

Where is the evidence for the link between elite success and participation in sport? And how are you going to bridge the gap between the sport development structures we need to support more people doing more sport, and what is currently out there on the ground?

Yours sincerely,

Kate Hughes
PhD scholar at Leeds Metropolitan University