Olympics pledge target becomes a London issue

LONDON – When London was awarded the 2012 Olympics, organizers promised an ambitious legacy: to get 2 million more people in England involved in sports and physical activity.

But with the Games in less than 18 months, that commitment now resembles a wheezing jogger, bent over and winded from a New Year’s resolution whose ambition could not be matched by exertion.

London’s original pledge evolved into a plan to get 1 million more people around England playing sports three or more times a week for at least 30 minutes at a time, known as the 3×30 plan.

Even that target is proving elusive.

Figures issued in December by Sport England, the governing body for community sports, indicated that participation at the 3×30 level had increased by 123,000 since 2007-08, when the 1 million baseline was established.

But that number increased by only 8,000 in the last year.

At the current rate, the goal of 1 million new participants would not be reached in 2012-13 as hoped, but more than a decade later in 2023-24.

The latest plan, unveiled in November by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, omitted the 1 million target figure.

It spoke instead of encouraging more people to take up sports through Places People Play, a program sponsored by the National Lottery.

“We haven’t yet dropped the target, but we’re looking at it fairly carefully,” Hugh Robertson, Britain’s minister for sport and the Olympics, said in a telephone interview.

What is needed is a more sensible way to define and measure sports and physical activity, Robertson and other sports experts said.

Does walking to the bus stop count? If someone plays a pickup soccer match for 90 minutes, does that count as one sporting session or three?

Anecdotal evidence suggests that more people participate in sports than surveys reveal, Robertson said.

But, he added, measuring participation involves a “slightly clunky mechanism.”

All Olympic bids are required to show how the Games will provide lasting benefits. Each city is allowed to devise a legacy plan.

There are no specific penalties for failing to reach a target, but the fallout can undermine the reputation of a particular Winter or Summer Games and bring political opprobrium.

Some critics have accused Robertson of watering down London’s post-Olympic ambitions. He replied, “That’s emphatically what we’re not trying to do.”

Darryl Seibel, a spokesman for the British Olympic Association, said sports and government officials were determined to leave a meaningful legacy from the London Games and to transform plans “from rhetoric to reality.”

London is hardly the first host city to struggle with its Olympic legacy.

In truth, international events like the Olympics and soccer’s World Cup leave a greater discernible impact on infrastructure than on sports.

Roads, airports and rail systems are improved while a number of stadiums become white elephants and lingering sporting benefits remain indistinct.

Six years after Albertville, France, hosted the 1992 Winter Olympics, the figure-skating arena and speed-skating oval there were fenced off and abandoned.

The magnificent Olympic stadium showcased during the 2008 Beijing Games, known as the Bird’s Nest, was seldom being used a year and a half later.

In London, there has been heated debate about whether its $854 million Olympic Stadium should be demolished after 17 days’ use and replaced with a soccer stadium or down-sized and left as an arena that could host both soccer and track and field.

The second option prevailed recently in a vote by the company in charge of the Games’ legacy.

Research on the Olympic Games stimulating mass participation in sports has not produced encouraging results.

In 2007, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the British House of Commons concluded that “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.”

A study of the 2000 Sydney Games showed that while seven Olympic sports experienced a slight increase afterward in Australia, nine showed a decline.

After the 2002 Commonwealth Games, held in Manchester, England, “there appears to have been no recorded impact on sports participation levels” in the country’s northwest, Fred Coalter, a professor of sports studies at the University of Stirling in Scotland, wrote before London won the 2012 Olympic bid.

The Olympics will leave a legacy of new and renovated stadiums, but they probably “will not result in a new wave of mass participation in sport,” according to the Centre for Sport, Physical Education and Activity Research at Canterbury Christ Church University in England.

The latest legacy plan, Places People Play, is a 130 million pound ($210 million) effort to build, maintain and repair local sports facilities; train 40,000 volunteers to organize grass-roots sports; provide competitions for primary and secondary school students; and encourage 100,000 adults to raise money for charity and test themselves in multiple Olympic and Paralympic sports.

At the plan’s unveiling in November, Sebastian Coe, a former Olympic runner who is the London Olympics’ chief organizer, said it would “harness the inspirational power of the Olympic and Paralympic Games to promote sport across the country.”

The plan addresses supply but says little about how to increase the demand for participation in sports, Weed said.

Robertson, the sports minister, said he thought a multifaceted grass-roots initiative could succeed.

“I wouldn’t for a moment underestimate the difficulty of what we’re trying to do,” Robertson said.

“But that’s not a good reason not to do it. It was the promise we made, so we’re going to try.”