Has no Olympic Games ever increased sports participation?

7 August 2012

"No Olympics host country has ever seen an increase in sports participation after the Games."

Independent, 7 August 2012

Seven years ago, amidst the bidding process for the 2012 Olympics, Lord Coe proclaimed: "London's vision is to reach young people all around the world. To connect them with the inspirational power of the Games. So they are inspired to choose sport."

Indeed, the Games of the past 10 days have been held under a motto of "inspire a generation". However, readers of this morning's Independent were treated to a more sober analysis, in which it was claimed that no host country has ever actually seen an increase in sports participation following its own Olympics.

So does the Indy win a gold medal for accuracy?


The Independent is not alone in downplaying the 'legacy effect' that hosting the Games has on sports participation. Research Fellow at the University of Brighton and author Mark Perryman asserted the same when he released his recent book 'Why the Olympics Aren't Good For Us, And How They Can Be', although he limited the claim to covering "recent Olympics".

Further back in time, the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee published a report in 2007 which examined the likely legacy that might be left by the 2012 Olympics. It bluntly asserted:

"No host country has yet been able to demonstrate a direct benefit from the Olympic Games in the form of a lasting increase in participation."

The Committee based this comment on a 2004 study by think tanks IPPR and Demos 'After the Gold Rush' which provided a further analysis on the potential legacy that could be left by the 2012 London Games (at the time, without knowing yet if London's bid would be successful).

Supporting evidence

The report compiled survey evidence from a number of sources which had analysed past Olympics and their measured effect on sports participation. One such example was Australia's hosting of the games in 2000 in the city of Sydney.

An academic study: 'Tracking change: leisure participation and policy in Australia, 1985-2002' published in 2003 analysed several years of Australia's national leisure participation survey. They found that, in 2001, seven Olympic sports had seen small increases in participation, however nine had seen decline.

The headline finding of the study, however, was that participation couldn't be accurately measured with the avaialble data due to "continual changes in survey design" and the failure of the Australian Governmnet to adopt a coherent approach to measuring sports participation.

IPPR and Demos report similar findings for the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, where research organisation MORI found membership of sports clubs fell after the Games there.

Meanwhile, the British Medical Journal asked the question earlier this year: "Will London's Olympic public health legacy turn to dust?". Using work undertaken by Centre for Sports Studies at the University of Kent, they too found little evidence to support a surge in sports participation.

Their report: A lasting Legacy for London?, published by the London Assembly, also analysed legacies of the past Olympics. For Athens 2004 in particular, they found - again via survey evidence - that a year before the games, six per cent more people took part in sport than did the previous year. However by 2009 the number excercising regularly fell by 13 per cent - beneath even the pre-2004 levels. The BMJ quote the author of the study:

"What is evident from the statistics is that the Games in Greece had at best only a temporary impact on participation in sport and physical activity."

"The data for the Greek population suggests that, if a broader strategy towards an active lifestyle is not implemented, then sporting excitement on its own will not sustain participation."

However while these give some specific examples of recent Games that have had a questionable impact upon sports uptake, it doesn't necessarily mean that no Games has ever achieved, as the Independent claims.

Contrary evidence

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) regularly sings the praise of its Games, and provides a detailed factsheet along with its 2012 report into Olympic legacies. Theirs is an optimistic picutre about the potential of the games:

"In addition to new and upgraded venues and facilities, the interest generated by hosting the Olympic Games presents the host city with a unique opportunity to increase the popularity and uptake of sport across the entire country."

We have to look to their factsheet to see a breakdown of evidence. Not all of the Games mention sporting legacies, providing we ignore mere references to improved infrastructure (which, in the case of Athens, may not even be used after the games - the 'White Elephant' effect). Sydney and Athens are among those without a mentioned sporting legacy, so there remains no counterargument to the research mentioned in supporting evidence.

Some games, however, do cite sporting legacies. One such case is Barcelona's Olympics of 1992. Their evidence comes from a report by the Centre d'Estudis Olimpics which cites surveys conducted by Barcelona Town Council in 1985 and 1995. 

These found that the proportion of the population which did some kind of physical or sporting activity at least once a week grew from 36 per cent in 1983 to 47 per cent in 1989 to 51 per cent in 1995. The percentage of women participating increased from 35 per cent in 1989 to 45 per cent in 1995.

Unfortunately we don't have access to the details of this survey, however it has not passed without critique. The Centre for Sports Studies at Kent isn't convinced the Olympic Games are the only factor in play, citing possibilities such as changing survey methods, changing fashions and the general availability of leisure spaces.

The difficulty here is that without a control group who were isolated from the Olympics, it's difficult to judge proportion of the change (if any) is due to the Games, and how much is down to other factors.

The IOC aren't without other examples however. Moving to Winter Olympics, they cite cases such as Vancouver 2010 and Turin 2006 after which national programmes were set up to allow young people to try Olympic sports. However little further detail is provided, and these cases are vulnerable to the same methodological constraints as faced by Barcelona 1992.


There is clearly a considerable debate over whether the Olympic Games evidently increase sports participation after the events are long gone. However both sides struggle to provide a killer blow for their case.

The harder argument is to prove that no Olympics have had a positive effect on participation. Most of the evidence that exists for recent Olympic Games does indeed fail to prove any such benefit exists, although such research is itself encumbered by a lack of reliable data. 

The evidence against the statement seems to rally mainly on the Barcelona Olympics, although the observed positive effect on participation isn't necessarily entirely down to the 'Olympics effect'. Morevover, we can't vouch for the soundness of the data it is based on.

Overall, there is certainly a point to the Independent's - and others' - argument, in that there is very little evidence to prove an Olympics effect on participation exists. Unfortunately, there is equally little evidence to prove that it doesn't.

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