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Blame the Data and Remove the Goalposts – How to Mask National Olympic Legacy Policy Failings!

In Singapore in 2005, Lord Coe, the Chair of the London Organising Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, secured the 2012 Games for London with a bid presentation including a promise to inspire a new generation to choose sport.  Yet, as the popular press is fond of reminding us, no previous Games has raised national participation in sport and physical activity. Furthermore, a systematic review in the BMJ in 2010 concluded that “the available evidence is not sufficient to confirm or refute expectations about the health or socio-economic benefits for the host population of previous major multi-sport events”.
 
No Evidence for INHERENT legacies
 
However, this is not the full picture.  Whilst it is true that no previous Games has resulted in sustained increases in sport and physical activity participation in national populations, it is also true that no previous Games has attempted to raise population levels of sport and physical activity participation.  Participation data has merely been examined ex-poste to explore whether Olympic and Paralympic Games have affected participation levels.  Consequently, the BMJ review should be interpreted to mean that there is no evidence for an inherent sport and physical activity participation legacy effect, in which benefits occur automatically.
 
Reasonable Legacy Ambitions?
 
So what does this mean for London 2012?  Was it reasonable to suggest back in 2005 that a national sport and physical activity participation legacy could be delivered?  In short, yes!  The lack of evidence for national participation legacies following previous Games that had not attempted to deliver such legacies is not an indication that a national sport and physical activity participation legacy could not be leveraged from London 2012.  In fact, a worldwide systematic review of evidence, conducted by the Centre for Sport, Physical Education & Activity Research (SPEAR) at Canterbury Christ Church University for the Department of Health, provides evidence that mechanisms associated with Olympic and Paralympic Games have had a positive effect on sport participation where specific initiatives have been put in place to leverage such participation.  However, such initiatives have not been on a large enough scale to affect national levels of sport and physical activity participation, hence the lack of evidence for an inherent effect in the BMJ review.
 
National Policy Failures
 
So, armed with this evidence about how sport and physical legacies might be developed, surely good progress must be being made towards delivering a national sport and physical activity legacy from the London 2012 Games?  Well, unfortunately not!  Evidence from Sport England’s Active People Survey shows sport participation in England has increased by an average of only 38,000 a year over the last three years.  The problem is that although evidence suggests London 2012 could have boosted the nation’s sport and physical activity participation given the right strategic approach, national legacy policies have not incorporated this evidence into a coherent national legacy strategy.  Instead, the legacy aspirations of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, like those of Lord Coe, have been pinned on the hope that there will be an inherent inspiration effect from the Games, with England’s Mass Participation Legacy Plan, Places People Play, focusing almost solely on supply: of facilities, of fields, of leaders, and of opportunities.  However, this is not Field of Dreams – there is no evidence to suggest that if you build a sport supply infrastructure, people will come! People will not come because there is no strategy in place to simulate demand.  Consequently, the lack of progress towards a national sport and physical activity participation legacy from London 2012 is a policy failing, in which national legacy strategy has not been informed by the available evidence.
 
Blaming the Data
 
Unsurprisingly, a policy failing is not one of the explanations respectively offered by Lord Coe and Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary.  Lord Coe blames the data, believing that the Active People Survey fails to capture sport participation legacy outcomes, and suggesting that it should not be trusted because Sport England, which commissions the survey, has “singularly failed”.  As alternative evidence, Lord Coe suggests “if you speak to [the British Cycling performance director] Dave Brailsford he will tell you he’s got half a million more cyclists than pre-Beijing”.  However, Active People provides official National Statistics, and since 2005 has been conducted by two highly respected market research companies, IpsosMORI and TNS-BMRB. Each year its sample size exceeds 175,000, which provides accuracy to within 0.2%.  The same cannot be said of the anecdotal view of a national performance director, however genuinely-held it may be.
 
Removing the Goalposts
 
In contrast to Lord Coe, Jeremy Hunt does not suggest National Statistics are flawed.  Rather he claims an inappropriate legacy target was set by the previous government, which promised to get one million more adults participating in sport by 2012/13.  The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has now dropped this target, because Mr Hunt believes a “more meaningful national measure” is required.  However, with less than 2012 hours to go to the Games, a more meaningful national measure has yet to be announced.  Consequently, and somewhat conveniently, by effectively removing the goalposts the DCMS has now ensured that there is no nationally endorsed target against which government policy can be judged to have failed to deliver a national sport and physical activity participation legacy.
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About ProfMikeWeed

Professor of Applied Policy Sciences | Head of Human and Life Sciences | Strategic Director, Centre for Sport, Physical Education & Activity Research (SPEAR) | Editor, Journal of Sport & Tourism

Discussion

2 thoughts on “Blame the Data and Remove the Goalposts – How to Mask National Olympic Legacy Policy Failings!

  1. Thanks for the comment John.  The post is about POLICY failings rather than legacy outcome failings, per se.  Although, by the previous government’s own targets (a million more people playing more sport by end 2012/13), there is an outcome failing.  Undoubtedly, as I say in the post, current policy has not made any attempt to engage with the (admittedly limited) available evidence, but we will never know if current legacy policy can be judged a success because there are now no government endorsed success indicators.
    On Active People, the sample is semi-stratified, so the size of the under 25s sub-sample allows robust conclusions to be drawn for this age group.  The survey is also a rolling year round survey, so even students, who are at home for 22 weeks of the year, are captured.  Admittedly, fewer under 25s than other age groups are reachable through a land line, but unless there is reason to believe that there is a structural difference in the sport participation behaviours of those who are not reachable through a land line compared with those who are, then this is irrelevant given the sample size.

    Posted by ProfMikeWeed | May 17, 2012, 6:46 pm
  2. Hi Mike – I have a great deal of respect for SPEAR’s research, but am suprised that you’ve joined those talking about a legacy failure even before the Games begin. In all the definitions I’ve seen, a legacy is something which comes after the event, so it’s a brave person who would predict the outcome now. As for the Active People survey methods, how many people do you know under 25 who subscribe to a landline?

    Posted by John Driscoll | May 16, 2012, 9:00 am

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