From host city to active city
How much of an impact do the Olympics have on increased sports participation?
When it comes to the debate around hosting the Olympic Games, not all talk centres on the economics of holding the event. Potential host cities also engage in discussions surrounding the social impact of the Games, including the theory that watching athletes compete at the highest level motivates people to do the same.
But more than recruiting the next generation of Olympians and increasing the number of people playing organized sports, the pledge to turn Olympic-quality installations into recreational facilities once the Games are over is an example of a legacy geared toward creating more active and healthy communities.
London was one of the first cities to publicly pledge a boost in sports participation if the Olympic flame was raised on its soil. Sebastian Coe, politician, former British Olympian and leader of the pro Olympic movement for the 2012 London Games, stated that “big British moments in sport have to have a conversion rate.” He went on to suggest that “the real challenge for our governing bodies and for sport more broadly is: How many people can you get into the sport off the back of that great moment?”
Discourse around the 2010 Vancouver Games was similar. Promised legacies included more people participating in new sport programs, improved funding for provincial sport organizations, additional support for high-performance athletes striving to reach the national team level, better-quality youth summer camps in arts, sports and recreation, and improved sport and recreation programs for Aboriginal youth organizations.
Yet despite repeated assurances by politicians and Olympic bid supporters, post-Olympic analysis of the effects of hosting on local sports participation is surprisingly scarce, with only a handful of studies examining the various metrics related to hosting the Games.
The stats are tough to measure and compare between Games, due to a lack of consistency in reporting structures, but the consensus is that most cities see a small boost in physical activity and sports participation during the years leading up to the Games and for a short period thereafter, though there’s a question as to whether more people are exercising or whether an already active population was inspired to become more active.
In Canada, at least, it would be hard to argue that sports such as women’s hockey and curling haven’t benefited from Olympic exposure. But it’s just as easy to point out that ringette has seen numbers decrease, as girls across the country switched allegiances after watching the Canadian women’s hockey team win four consecutive gold medals.
One of the lessons learned from Olympic-hosting efforts is that if increased participation is a goal of holding high-profile sporting events, it takes a concerted plan — not just talk — to leverage the energy, commitment and success showcased by elite athletes.
Vancouver put forth a number of measures intended to promote grassroots participation, including the building of new sports facilities designed to be used long after the Games ended. The city benefited from new and refurbished skating, hockey and curling rinks, as well as new playgrounds built to accommodate children with disabilities. And the city of Richmond, B.C., got a new fitness and recreation centre, a holdover from the speedskating oval used during the 2010 Games.
Another important legacy of the Vancouver Games is the impact on sports for disabled athletes. Seventy-three schools and 27,500 students listened to inspirational talks by Paralympic athletes and tried out Paralympic equipment. And when polled, 32 to 40 per cent of Canadians felt the 2010 Games had increased their awareness and appreciation of amateur winter sports, their knowledge of sports for people with disabilities and their overall acceptance of people with disabilities.
Then, of course, there is the effect of the Olympics on the athletes of the host country. Canadian athletes won a national high of 26 medals at the Vancouver Games. Our Paralympic athletes also posted record-breaking results, earning 19 medals.
So as valuable as it is to witness Canadian moments like Alexandre Bilodeau sharing his gold medal with his brother, and Jon Montgomery celebrating gold by walking through Whistler drinking beer from a pitcher, cities wishing to hold Olympic Games need to promote and deliver on the promise to make their citizens more active.
Alexandre Bilodeau celebrates his gold medal win at the men’s mogul at Cypress Mountain in Vancouver, B.C., on February 14, 2010, at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games.