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London Olympics: Good will, but not good health


LONDON – 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.

By: USA Today


Now the world's biggest festival of exertion is coming to Britain. The Olympics begin in London on July 27, bringing with it the hope that Britons will be inspired to lumber off their sofas and hit the country's 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 '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.


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 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.


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