Olympics usher in good will -- but not good health
In the American imagination, Europeans are always whizzing down the street on bicycles or hoofing it across the cobblestones of the town square. But for many Brits, "exercise" is the walk from the telly to the fridge to grab another pint.
Nearly one-third of Brits engage in no physical activity, according to 2009 data collected by the European Commission, marking Britons far more torpid than their neighbors in places such as Denmark and Ireland. Even in the USA, only one-quarter of people admitted in a 2008 survey that they were completely sedentary. (However, data show the obesity rate in the USA is greater than in England).
Now the world's biggest festival of exertion is coming to Britain. The Olympics begin in London July 27, bringing with it the hope that Britons will be inspired to lumber off their sofas and hit running paths and playing fields.
Since London won the Games in 2005, politicians and Olympic officials have promised that the competition would galvanize more Britons into playing sports, though little evidence exists that merely hosting the Games has done anything of the sort.
"The Olympics will revitalize local sport in Britain for decades to come," Prime Minister David Cameron declared this spring, hailing the Games as "transformational."
But Britons are reacting to the Olympic hoopla by settling deeper into their recliners, openly scoffing at the notion that the mere arrival of the Games will magically awaken the inactive and ignite a British sports revolution. This failure to connect the Olympics with a more active populace might dampen the hopes of future host countries to usher in healthy habits along with the expected economic windfall.
"Just because there's going to be a whole load of athletes here doesn't mean I want to go do it myself," says Sally Charles, who lives near London's Olympic Park and whose schedule caring for a younger, disabled daughter leaves time only for occasional bike rides.
"I've not sat there and thought, 'Oh my goodness, the Olympics is here! I'm going to go for a 6-mile run,'" adds Charles' elder daughter Danielle Johns, a student and nanny.
The idea that ordinary people will try to emulate the Olympians on the TV is "wishful thinking," says Fred Coalter, visiting professor at Leeds Metropolitan University in West Yorkshire. "I certainly don't see (the Games) generating the level of participation that they aspire to."
And what was that aspiration? The government sought to prod a million more residents of England to practice a sport and another million more to start exercising by 2013. This goal, set four years ago, seems laughable today. Indeed, many experts fear the Games are likely to have a modest effect at best on the number of people who take up soccer or archery or anything else.
London's success -- or failure -- will be closely followed in other locales relying on the Games to promote exercise. Rio de Janeiro, host of the 2016 Games, has promised to encourage sports participation by ordinary Brazilians. Last month, first lady Michelle Obama appeared in Dallas with Olympic swimming star Natalie Coughlin and dozens of athletes as part of her "Let's Move" campaign to tackle childhood obesity.
Every bit of help is needed in the USA, where 36% of adults are obese -- compared with 26% in England -- and only 20% get the recommended amount of exercise.
The 'firework effect'
When London was competing in 2005 to host the Games, the promises could hardly have been loftier. British officials said repeatedly they would work to inspire more people to take up sports. The rhetoric helped London wrest the Games from front-runner Paris.
It was a risky strategy. No Olympics is known to have triggered a lasting increase in sports participation in the host country, according to sports scholars. During the 2000 Games in Sydney, the sports-related activities that had the biggest rise in Australia were passive pastimes -- such as television watching. After the 2004 Athens Games, sports participation in Greece rose briefly, then dropped in a phenomenon known as the "firework effect," says University of Kent's Sakis Pappous, who studied the impact of the Athens competition.
After the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, there were anecdotal reports of Americans flooding ice rinks, thanks in part to that year's record U.S. medal haul for a Winter Olympics. But there are no reliable data on the fitness legacy of the 2002 Games or the 1996 Atlanta Games.
Nor is there any solid evidence that the Games can improve exercise habits outside the host country. Athletes who reap lots of Olympic medals might inspire their fans back at home to pursue sports more avidly -- but that effect is small and affects only those who already do sports, not the sedentary.
Despite the discouraging history from previous Games, four years ago the government set a concrete target: get a million more people playing sports for at least 30 minutes three times a week by early 2013. Officials declared they would get another million to take up sport or other vigorous activities, such as walking and gardening.
"It was a brave and ambitious thing to do," says Jennie Price, head of Sport England, the quasi-governmental body charged with meeting the first goal. "And it broadly reflected the sort of growth people felt would be doable in the period between then and the Games."
Britain was about to learn firsthand why it's so challenging to entice more people into playing -- not just watching -- sports.
In the three years since baseline statistics were collected, sports participation in England, rather than increasing by 1 million, has risen by 112,000, to 6.9 million -- and that's only attributable to population growth. The proportion of the English who exercise once a month or more has not budged either, remaining stuck at 54% since 2005.
Experts say there's a clear culprit for the sports downturn: the economic malaise that began in 2008.
"The more money you have, the more likely you are to participate in sport," Price says. "When you go through hard times, it is natural for sport participation to decline or level off."
As it grew clear that the targets couldn't be met on time, the government -- which changed into the hands of a different political party in mid-2010 -- quietly dumped them. Now there is no national target. Instead, the government will set dozens of targets for individual sports. Critics say that makes it impossible to judge the success of the government's efforts.
Even a small but steady increase in participation will be a challenge to achieve, sports experts say. That's partly because of the sheer difficulty at any time of coaxing people into taking up a sport and sticking with it long term.
"People leave sport at the age of 30 to 35," Coalter says. "There's almost a constant struggle to stand still, because nobody participates for a lifetime."
Awareness, but not activity
The other problem is that the Olympics, contrary to logic, are not necessarily a great way to entice people to participate. The Games inspire athletic people to switch from one sport to another and they also can tempt ex-athletes to take up sports again, says Mike Weed of Canterbury Christ Church University. But the hard-core sedentary can actually be put off by watching the world's greatest athletes, such as retired British track star Kelly Holmes.
"People see somebody like Kelly Holmes winning double Olympic gold medals, and they think, 'If that's what sport is there's no point in even trying,'" Weed says.
That doesn't mean the Olympics are worthless for persuading people to take up a sport. The Games make a fine marketing tool for the value of sports, and many people will indeed think about following the lead of their medal-winning heroes.
But the gap "between contemplation and action is enormous," Coalter says. "All the evidence shows social marketing does increase awareness and does increase attention. What it doesn't do is change behavior."
Behavior change, experts say, requires different programs -- and the programs the British government is pursuing might not measure up. Take the $215 million the government is spending on sprucing up sports facilities. The funding will provide a nicer experience for those who are already "sporty," as Brits say, but it won't draw new participants, experts claim.
"It's sort of Field of Dreams -- build it and they will come," Weed says. "Well, they won't."
Britons themselves are cynical about their ability to leave behind their couch-potato ways. An April survey by pollsters YouGov found that 55% of Britons think the Olympics will not encourage more people to take up sports. Even some who are closely involved in sports are pessimistic.
John Collins, a coach at Northants Basketball Club in Northampton, says the Games will raise kids' interest in basketball, which is not widely popular in Britain.
"Yes, basketball will have an influx of youngsters," he says, but without more government support for an expensive sport, "it will eventually subside back to where it is now, which would be a massive shame."
Price of Sport England acknowledges the challenges of getting her reluctant fellow citizens to put down their digital devices and pick up a cricket bat or volleyball. But she argues the Games, with a variety of sports from badminton to BMX cycling, will offer something to tantalize everyone, "whatever shape or size you are."
"We can't go out and buy participants. It's not that kind of process," she says, "(but) I have no doubt that there will be some sporting legacy. After the Games, the grass-roots are going to be where it's at."
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