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Physical Activity & Sport, Public Health, The Olympics & Paralympics

The Difference between What’s Possible and What’s Probable: Why the Centre for Social Justice is Wrong on Olympic Legacy!

The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) today launches a report “More than a Game: Harnessing the Power of Sport to Transform the Lives of Disadvantaged Young People”, in which it draws a number of conclusions relating to the sporting legacy of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.  While the general conclusion that it is probable that the “promise to deliver a sporting legacy across the country is unlikely to be met” is something that I have argued for some time, the CSJ’s four claims about the possibilities of Olympic sporting legacies are each flawed, dated, or just plain wrong.
CLAIM 1) “Previous Olympics such as the Sydney Games in Australia and the Manchester Commonwealth Games, both failed to produce any significant increase”: Setting aside the use of research on a single Olympic Games (Sydney) to make claims about “previous Olympics” in general, there are two problems with this claim.  Firstly, neither Sydney nor Manchester nor any previous major multi-sport event has sought to develop a sport participation legacy.  As such, it is hardly appropriate to draw conclusions about what is possible from events when the events considered have not employed strategies to lever a participation legacy. Secondly, a worldwide systematic review of the evidence for Olympic and Paralympic sport legacies by the Centre for Sport, Physical Education & Activity Research (SPEAR) for the Department of Health showed that there have been changes (increases and decreases) in sport participation following previous Olympic Games and other major sport events.  In particular, the report finds evidence for ‘activity switching’ (people giving up one sport to try another).  This suggests that, for carefully targeted groups, a Demonstration Effect, in which people are inspired by elite sport, sports people and sports events to participate themselves, can increase participation: it can encourage those who have participated in the past to participate again, and it can encourage those who participate a little to participate a little more.  This effect has been seen in previous Games, but has not previously been effectively leveraged.
CLAIM 2) “Nearly half the most popular sports within UK schools, such as cricket, rounders and netball, do not even feature in the Games and will not get any boost from the 2012 event”:  Unfortunately, the CSJ presents no evidence that there is a link between the first and second parts of this sentence.  Clearly, the report misunderstands the nature of a Demonstration Effect, which it claims requires that “a mechanism must be developed for translating three weeks’ worth of publicity for one set of sports into sustainable participation in another, largely different set”.  However, a Demonstration Effect, properly leveraged, is based not on the stimulus from three weeks of the Games, but on the opportunity for new and unusual sports to benefit from four years of media coverage, promotion and development in the run up to the Games.  Certainly, SPEAR’s research across England, Scotland and Wales on National School Sport Week in 2010 showed that the opportunity to try new and unusual Olympic and Paralympic sports appealed to children regardless of whether they liked sport in the first place.  In short, the promotion of these sports within an Olympic and Paralympic themed week was effective in attracting children not normally likely to play sport.  In addition, SPEAR’s evidence-based guide, “Active Celebration: Using the London 2012 Games to Get the Nation Moving”, shows that the key to using London 2012 to encourage lapsed participants back into sport is to create nostalgia for the broader elements of sport (e.g. teamwork, competition, camaraderie), and that this is not linked to specific sports.
CLAIM 3) “The evidence shows that there is no link between national sporting success and increased levels of sporting activity”:  Unfortunately, this is the claim that is just plain wrong.  SPEAR conducted an analysis of the Active People (n=363,000) and the Satisfaction of the Quality of the Sport Experience (n=45,000) surveys for Sport England in 2009, which showed that a quarter of people who had been active at least once in the last year were “highly responsive” to a Demonstration Effect based on the national team’s success (ie, people rated a positive effect on their participation as 8, 9, or 10 out of 10).  Furthermore, among those who participated less than twice a week and were not club members, a third were highly responsive to this effect.  In addition, the SPEAR report identified specific segments within Sport England’s Market Segments among which the percentage highly responsive to this effect was as high as 40%.  The CSJ claims appear to have been undermined by using broad “across the board” participation figures, rather than a more granular approach to participation data.
CLAIM 4) “Specific plans to boost participation unveiled in November 2010 and backed by £135 million National Lottery funding have major weaknesses”:  This is a fair conclusion, but one that is rather dated.  Six months ago SPEAR’s analysis of Places People Play, the government’s Mass Participation Legacy Plan, showed that it will leave a lasting legacy, but it will not result in a new wave of mass participation in sport.  Over half a year ago, SPEAR’s analysis concluded that because the plan addresses supply at the expense of demand, “most likely, the Places People Play will be populated by the already sporty making hay while the Olympic and Paralympic sun shines”.
So why has the CSJ reached the right overall conclusion (that it is probable that the sport legacy promise is unlikely to be met) given that their claims about the possibilities for Olympic and Paralympic sporting legacies are flawed, dated or just plain wrong?  In short, while the CSJ claims about the possibilities for Olympic legacies are wrong, their overall conclusion is about the probability that an Olympic sporting legacy will be achieved.  The possibilities, which have been detailed in the critique of the CSJ claims above, represent what sporting legacies could have been achieved if appropriate evidence-based policies and strategies had been developed and implemented immediately following the Beijing 2008 Games.  However, the probabilities for London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic sporting legacies represent what is likely to be achieved given the policies (or lack of policies) that have been implemented since Beijing 2008.  In short, the failure to achieve a sporting legacy from the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games will be a failure of policy not  possibilities.  That’s the difference between what was possible and what’s now probable for the London 2012 sporting legacy!

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


2 thoughts on “The Difference between What’s Possible and What’s Probable: Why the Centre for Social Justice is Wrong on Olympic Legacy!

  1. I fully support your comments on supply versus demand, but I think that mere sense is not going to be enough to make a huge difference on this issue.

    Providing supply is what most people involved in sports and physical activity development are trained in. It’s what they’ve spent their lives doing. And just pointing out that this isn’t enough won’t be able to change that culture in a short time.

    My work is all focused around helping people to promote and market activity to the public, and we’ve seen that without doing any extra delivery we’ve been able to increase participation in hard-to-reach groups very cost effectively. But marketing is still scary to many people in sport and activity, so they don’t do it.

    Posted by John Ainsworth | July 12, 2011, 7:40 am
  2. I think your points are valid Mike and support your stance. Whilst there are a number of issues with the report, many you have cited, I still fail to see where using the tried and tested ‘Compare like with like’ has been used in any of these legacy claims.

    Lets take Australia as the example – much of the year swathed in sunshine, an outdoor culture exists, even during winter months the temps are moderate when compared to that of the UK, most cities and towns near the sea and the opportunities / lifestyle this offers / encourages. If we take sports participation in Australia there was a big push prior to the games to improve performance and excellence (reason for doing so well) nad they did benefit for a short time from a legacy. However, this was not a participation legacy (participation at the grass roots level).

    So, my only addition to such debate comes from the standpoint that we must not only compare the evidence but also consider the similarities of the people, places, cultures and outcomes expected. The Australian example (as with all others no doubt) provide many, many gaps if we look at things this way.

    Carl B
    @csbenno (twitter)

    Posted by Carl Bennett | May 24, 2011, 1:28 pm

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