Is hosting the Games enough to make a nation more sporty?

Paris has just unveiled this Monday, October 21, the logo for the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games featuring the face of a woman and which would symbolize games that are "more open, more participatory, more inclusive" according to the Paris 2024 Organizing Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games (Cojop).

Simon Gérard, Coventry UniversityAndrew Jones, Coventry UniversityIan Stuart Brittain, Coventry University and Sylvain Ferez, University of Montpellier

Paris 2024 Games logo.
Paris 2024

Behind this ambition also lies the hope of increasing participation in sport, particularly among younger and under-represented groups. This argument is often used to justify the organization of major sporting events. When London hosted the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2012, the government's aim was to "inspire a generation".

But is it that simple? Does hosting the Games automatically lead to increased sporting participation in the host nation? In recent years, several studies have shown that the objective set by the British government has not been achieved.

Sports participation has increased neither significantly nor sustainably in the country since 2012.

How can this be explained? To find out, we looked at the effect of the fiscal austerity policy implemented by the British government in the late 2000s. To what extent did the latter influence the legacy of the London 2012 Games in terms of sports participation, particularly with regard to its impact on English amateur sports clubs?

The influence of austerity measures on the English sports movement

The impact of austerity measures on sports participation in the UK has recently been the subject of several academic and journalistic studies. Researchers have shown that the growing structural inequalities generated by these measures have had a negative effect on sports participation, affecting those in poverty most severely; the phenomenon being compounded by factors of gender, disability, age or ethnicity.

For example, young people from low-income families (less than £16,000 a year, or 18,600 euros) are half as likely to be club members, competitors or coaches. Their chances of volunteering are 25% lower.

Another study revealed that programs dedicated to boosting participation in sport were undermined, while those aimed at broadening this participation in various under-represented groups (such as women, young people, people with disabilities) were on the verge of disappearing.

A final study notes a transfer of sports provision from the public and voluntary sector to the private and commercial sector.

Drawing on this work, our study seeks to understand the mechanisms by which austerity policies have weighed on amateur sports clubs, thus affecting the achievement of the objectives of raising sports participation expected from the organization of the London 2012 Games. To this end, a series of interviews was conducted with leaders of amateur sports clubs in central England. We also studied the evolution of the main sports policies and strategies pursued by successive governments in the UK.

A changing socio-economic environment

In 2003, when the British government decided to support London's bid to host the 2012 Games, the UK was enjoying a long period of economic stability. What's more, the ruling Labour government was investing heavily in the public sector, notably in various programs to promote sporting participation. The financial crisis of 2007-2008 changed all that. It led to a significant increase in the public deficit, which reached £156 billion (181,365 euros) in 2009.

The following year, the election of a Conservative-Social Democrat coalition marked a turning point not only ideologically, but also politically, with a series of austerity measures and cuts in public investment.

Local government budgets are being massively cut, implying a reduction in the sports provision offered or supported by public services. The Local Government Association estimates that local governments spent 1 billion (£) or 1.1 M euros, on sport in 2014, compared with 1.4 billion (1.6 M euros) in 2009-2010. Another study reports that the number of sports facilities (swimming pools, athletics tracks, tennis courts, etc.) fell from 80,942 in 2012 to 78,270 in 2016, a phenomenon associated with job losses and a drop in opening hours or sports offerings on offer. These budget restrictions have had repercussions for amateur sports clubs, as one of the managers interviewed points out:

"I know from my own experience that things are pretty difficult for the local authorities at the moment, and that complicates things for us too because we depend on them for access to the [communal] swimming pool."

Several flagship programs were also cancelled by the Conservative government, such as the "free swimming" program designed to encourage under-16s and over-60s to swim.

Hugh Robertson, then Minister for Sport and Olympism, suddenly describes the program as "a luxury we can no longer afford". This change in political direction also affects sports clubs, as one swimming club leader mentions:

"It was great when the Labour government guaranteed free swimming, but when that was abolished, there's no doubt it had a big impact on us."

Paradoxes at the heart of the London 2012 Games legacy

More broadly, our results point to profound contradictions between austerity policies and the goals of promoting sports participation promoted by the London 2012 Games.

At the same time as the budget for the Games was re-evaluated at £9 billion (10.4 million euros), the government's refusal to call the Games "Austerity Games" meant that the resources given to local sports clubs and schemes to promote sporting activities were significantly reduced.

"Austerity Olympics", INSEAD, 2012.

This contradiction is at the heart of the London 2012 legacy, and was pointed out by all the sports leaders interviewed. The president of a swimming club points out:

"I've been involved in all this [local association sport] for over 20 years and the situation is worse than it's ever been."

Another executive is quick to add:

"We lose our swimming pool and they talk about Olympic heritage! Is this the Olympic legacy? We're worse off than we were in 2012! So I don't think there was a legacy..."

At least two conclusions can be drawn. Although the British government has announced the end of austerity measures, their consequences will not disappear overnight.

British sports clubs need a stable economic and political environment that is conducive to their activities, and that encourages not only increased participation in sport, but also its extension to previously sedentary sections of the population.

Finally, hosting major sporting events cannot contribute to the growth of sports participation without clear, sustainable policies to support the local sports movement. The Paris 2024 Organizing Committee has been warned!The Conversation

Simon Gérard, Lecturer in Sport Management, Coventry UniversityAndrew Jones, Research Assistant, Coventry University; Ian Stuart Brittain, Research Fellow, Centre for Business in Society, Coventry University and Sylvain Ferez, Senior Lecturer, Sociology, University of Montpellier

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.