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Were the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games a turning point for public sport participation?

Blog • • Dr Shushu Chen

Paralympics GB gold medallist swimmer Ellie Simmonds poses with her medals before attending a reception for Team GB and Paralympic GB athletes. Photo by Lefteris Pitarakis - WPA Pool/Getty Images.

Paralympics GB gold medallist swimmer Ellie Simmonds poses with her medals before attending a reception for Team GB and Paralympic GB athletes. Photo by Lefteris Pitarakis - WPA Pool/Getty Images.

The hosting of sporting mega-events usually comes with a large price tag. The London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games cost the UK approximately £9.3 billion, greatly exceeding the forecast in the bid document of £4 billion. Politicians tend to argue that these hefty costs are partly justified by the population-level legacy that sporting mega-events create, promoting sport and physical activity participation.

The slogan of the London 2012 Games – ‘inspire a generation’– echoes this idea, but Britain is not the only country to have bought into it: Greece (Athens 2004), Australia (Sydney 2000), China (Beijing 2008, Beijing 2022), Canada (Vancouver 2010), and Brazil (Rio 2016) have made similar claims regarding sport participation benefitting from the hosting of the Games. These claims grow ever bigger and bolder – from England’s bid to inspire “one million people to play more sport by 2012” to China’s goal to motivate “a population of 300 million to take up winter sports as a result of the 2022 Winter Olympics”. 

But can a 17-day Olympic and Paralympic Games event constitute a ‘magical’ turning point for host countries to overturn hitherto unsatisfying sport participation trends?

Does elite sport success result in more sport participation by the public?

A ‘trickle-down effect’ or so-called ‘demonstration effect’ is cited to support the idea that sporting mega-events improve sport participation in host countries. Successful performances by elite athletes are thought to inspire greater participation at the sport-for-all level. In a virtuous circle, elite sport success is believed to bring international prestige for the nation, a ‘feel good factor’ among citizens and, importantly, an increase in mass sport participation. It is assumed that the engineering of publicity surrounding sporting mega-events, athletic role models, and the infrastructure and expertise mobilised in globally broadcasting events motivate sport participation at the grassroots level.

However, two systematic reviews of the relevant literature provided no solid evidence to confirm such ‘trickle-down effects’. In other words, as popularly touted as the theory may be, it is yet to be confirmed that the hosting of sporting mega-events can lead to a sustainable increase in sport and physical activity participation among members of the general public.

Scrapping of sport participation targets in legacy plans for the London 2012 Olympics

Greg Rutherford of Great Britain competes in the London 2012 Olympic Game. Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images.

Greg Rutherford of Great Britain competes in the London 2012 Olympic Game. Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images.

Let’s look more closely at the case of London 2012: The commitment to creating a lasting ‘legacy’ across the UK was set out by the London Bidding Committee and, in particular, by Lord Coe in his presentation featuring the buzz phrase ‘inspire a generation’ to the IOC Session in Singapore in July 2005. What followed was a specific sport participation plan for encouraging two million more people to become physically active (defined as three sets of 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week). One million more people were expected to participate in organised sport and another one million more in general physical activity. According to the Sport England Active People Survey, 6.295 million people played sport three times for 30 minutes per week in 2005–2006 after London won the bid to host the 30th Olympics. By 2010–2011, one year before the Games, this number had increased by a mere 0.632 million to 6.927 million people playing sport (See Figure 1). The feasibility of the targets and progress towards achieving them were therefore questioned. This led to the complete scrapping of the targets in the subsequently released legacy plans for the London 2012 Olympics after the general election in 2010.

However, looking at another sport participation measurement, 30 minutes of moderate intensity sport participation per week, data were relatively more promising. When comparing the headline figure in 2005–2006 with that in 2011–2012, 1.8 million more people were seen to have engaged with sport (a statistically significant increase in this measurement), although the subsequent data showed a tailing off of participation from October 2012 to March 2015 (see Figure 2).

Figure 1: ‘3 × 30’Sport participation measure - data drawn from Sport England’s Active People 5 Survey results.

Figure 1: ‘3 × 30’Sport participation measure - data drawn from Sport England’s Active People 5 Survey results. Source: Sport England, 2011, Active People Survey 5 (3 × 30 Factsheet).

Figure 2: ‘1 × 30’ Sport participation measure - data drawn from Sport England’s Active People 10 Survey results.

Figure 2: ‘1 × 30’ Sport participation measure - data drawn from Sport England’s Active People 10 Survey results. Source: Sport England, 2016, Active People Survey 10 (1 × 30 Sport participation indicator).

Measuring the long-term inspirational impact of the Olympic Games

At a glance, this suggests that hosting the Olympics in 2012 was hardly a ‘turning point’ for the country. Nevertheless, several observations are worth noting here.: firstly, while the national survey data more or less flatlined during the staging period, data at the sport programme / initiative level reflected ‘major increases’ in participation within those programmes, indicating a clear discrepancy between programme-level data and national participation survey data.

Secondly, when we try to make sense of data, regardless of whether from a top-down national survey or a bottom-up programme evaluation, we should remember that the quality of evaluations in the field has been criticised. For example, changes in individual sport participation patterns could not be traced from the Active People Survey, which was cross-sectional rather than longitudinal. In addition, the failure of programme-level evaluations to address additionality or to identify directly attributable effects of the Games has been highlighted in the field. It is therefore fair to say that measurements of the extent to which hosting the Olympics might influence sport and physical activity participation have been insufficiently robust.

However, to deny that hosting the Olympics resulted in any positive sport participation legacy might be jumping to conclusions. The long-term impact of the Olympics remains unknown. Our British Academy–funded study aims to overcome the evaluation challenges mentioned, as well as to address the respective knowledge gap. Specifically, to identify the long-term inspirational impact of the Olympics on sport participation and factors that facilitate and inhibit sporting-mega-event-inspired behavioural changes, we use a mixed-method approach to examine the cases of the London 2012 Olympics and the Beijing 2008 Olympics.

Our preliminary analysis of the Beijing data suggests that there is a statistically significant increase in the self-reported level of sport and physical activity participation from prior to Beijing 2008 to present. While such evidence is encouraging to see, without further analysing the real underlying factors that caused this change, it is too soon to conclude that the Olympics had a long-term positive impact on China. Our data collection and analysis of London 2012 will undoubtably make a valuable contribution to understanding this topic.


Dr Shushu Chen is a Lecturer in Sport Policy and Management at the University of Birmingham. Her project ‘Assessing the long-term inspirational impact of sporting-mega-events on sport and physical activity participation: Post-events’ evidence from the UK and China’ was awarded a BA / Leverhulme Small Research Grant in 2018. If you are interested in updates about this study, follow @Shushu_Chen.

Blog • • Dr Shushu Chen