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In perspective - Is the Olympic legacy missing the point?

London won its bid to host the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games after making a simple but bold promise.

The Games would inspire young people around the world to choose sport.  

The then Olympic minister, Labour MP Tessa Jowell, was clear The government, she said, had ‘a driving ambition’ to create a public health legacy.

‘The target is not just about increasing participation in sport for the sake of it.’ Another aim was to tackle one of the most serious health epidemics facing the UK: obesity.   

But then something changed - and it wasn’t just a change of government.

Speaking last month at a House of Lords’ inquiry into how to build on the Olympic legacy by improving the nation’s health, Hugh Robertson, minister for sport and the Olympics, clarified the policy shift made under his (Labour) predecessor, James Purnell.

The key aim was ‘not to get the whole nation healthier but to get more people playing sport’, focusing specifically on sports participation rather than general exercise, Mr Robertson said.

When asked to outline the link between improving the elite sporting ‘gene pool’ and the rest of us, he said famous sportspeople are the best way to inspire the public.

This is, at best, naïve.

We live in a celebrity culture and Olympic and Paralymic athletes are undoubtedly inspirational role models.  

But can they honestly inspire a nation to get active?  

Professor Mike Weed, who heads the Centre for Sport, Physical Education and Activity Research, Canterbury Christ Church University, Kent, believes the so-called ‘demonstration effect’ ‘only works with those people who are already engaged with sports or positively disposed to it’.

Worse still, he says, people may ‘see someone like Kelly Homes winning double Olympic gold and think this is so far removed from what they feel they could do, it’s not worth...trying’.

Last month we learned that heart disease deaths are now 50 per cent higher in lower socioeconomic groups.

This makes the Department of Health’s shift away from a public health Olympic legacy even more disappointing.

Professor Weed believes that the key to engaging the less active is through connecting with an individual’s sense of community, using hooks such as family, lifestyle or ecological values.

These are valuable messages for clinicians.

Health behaviours, and the factors underpinning them, are complex. But one of the strongest assets we have as physiotherapists is an ability to tailor our approach around our clients’ lifestyles and beliefs.

The truth is that for most people (me included), Philipps Idowu’s triple jumps will fill us with admiration, rather than motivation.

The challenge for us is to understand what drives our clients and transform this into a lasting health legacy.   

Clare Claridge is a CSP professional adviser with a special interest in public health issues
Will London’s Olympic public health legacy turn to dust? BMJ 2012;344:e4207 Professor Weed’s blog is at:


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