London 2012 hasn’t failed to increase sports’ participation, it was never going to be able to fulfil that promise

Last night, with only a couple of days to go until the start of the Olympics, BBC2’s Newsnight took an in-depth look at the legacy of the 2012 London Games. While they rightly concluded that there have been some positive legacy outcomes in terms of volunteering and urban regeneration, the panel, which included Dame Kelly Holmes, Dame Tessa Jowell and Debbie Jevans, seemed to miss the point when it came to participation.

The sad but inescapable fact is that there has been a drop in participation in sport since London 2012. Bodies with a vested interest in arguing that participation has increased as a direct result of the Olympics make the comparison with the year the Olympics were won (2005), but the activity that took place in the pre-Olympic period was aimed more at children, who’s activity is not measured by Active People.

Sports participation graph

But all this obscures the key issue – there never was going to be any increase in participation as a result of the Olympics being held in the UK. No Olympic Games has ever increased participation and that is because seeing Olympic athletes performing to their best does not lead to adults taking up sport or becoming more active. Never has, never will.

There is no doubt the great sporting competitions, of which the Olympics is the pinnacle, do inspire children in the short and longer term. Many of us who love taking part in sport now can remember our childhood heroes. Mine were the great British middle-distance runners of the 80s, Steve Cram in particular. And we need to make sure there are the facilities for that inspiration to be channelled into children being able to enjoy sport at and outside school, something the Labour government did well but has been undermined since 2010.


But the real problem is immediate and with adults – less than a third take part in sport at least once a week. We have an inactivity crisis in this country that needs to be tackled with real solutions that address the fundamental reasons why people aren’t more active and don’t see sport (in the broadest sense) as something for them. People may love watching the Olympics on television but they aren’t inspired by Mo Farah or Jess Ennis to take part. They can’t help people overcome the barriers that prevent them taking part – be they cultural, historical or psychological.

People can admire our best Olympians but they can’t relate to them. People can be inspired to action by others immediately around them, overcoming the same barriers they have, doing things that they previously thought were not within their grasp. Nationwide campaigns such as This Girl Can can give people the impetus to change – friends and family can help take them on those first steps towards a more active life.

So the participation legacy was based on an entirely false premise – that Olympic athletes can change people’s behaviours. They can inspire the next generation but the belief that they can affect adult participation is based on a false understanding of what drives behaviour change. Only strong marketing, adequate facilities and a complete culture change can do that. In the short term we need to address the real barriers there are for those with latent desire to be more active, and long-term make sport a fun habit from an early age.

As Richard Williams from The Guardian said on Newsnight, the London Olympics “provided a very nice summer party, and that was it.”


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