By JERÉ LONGMAN
Published: February 15, 2011
arded the 2012 Olympics, organizers promised an ambitious legacy: to get two million more people in England involved in sports and physical activity.
Join the discussion with news, analysis and features from the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.
Andrew Testa for The New York Times
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 one million more people around England playing sports three or more times a week for at least 30 minutes at a time, known as the 3x30 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 3x30 level had increased by 123,000 since 2007-8, when the one million baseline was established. But that number increased by only 8,000 in the last year. At the current rate, the goal of one million new participants would not be reached in 2012-13 as hoped but more than a decade later in 2023-24.
Meanwhile, in a country that is among the fattest in Europe, the number of couch potatoes apparently continues to grow. Surveys by Sport England indicate that the number of adults doing zero moderate sports activity rose by nearly 300,000 from 2005, when London was awarded the Olympics, to the fall of 2010.
Inadequate planning, a change in government, severe funding cutbacks to sports organizations and an apparent overestimation of the impact the Olympics can have on mass participation have all forced a rethinking of England’s Olympic legacy.
The latest plan, unveiled in November by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, omitted the one 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, Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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 downsized and left as an arena that could host both soccer and track and field. The second option prevailed Friday 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 Center for Sport, Physical Education and Activity Research at Canterbury Christ Church University in England.
Physically active people may be enticed to become more active or to try a new sport, said Mike Weed, a professor of sport in society at Canterbury University. Those who were formerly active may be encouraged by the Olympics to renew their participation, he said. This is known as the demonstration effect.
But what this phenomenon does not do, Dr. Weed said in a telephone interview and in a recent paper, “is have any effect whatsoever on those who have never participated in sport.”
The average person may feel a disconnect from elite athletes, he said, while the most sedentary might be put off by perceived pressure to lose weight and become more active. This seemed to be borne out in recent interviews conducted with weekend warriors in Manchester.
“The Olympics are up here and we’re down here,” said Asha Solanki, 30, who works in marketing and participates in martial arts. “It seems unachievable. How many people do you know who do the 400-meter hurdles?”
The latest legacy plan, Places People Play, is a £130 million ($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, Sebastian Coe, an Olympic gold medalist 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.”
But Tessa Jowell, the opposition minister for sport and the Olympics, said, “However they dress it up, the Olympic legacy promise that we made to this country’s young people is yet another promise that has been broken by the coalition government.”
The plan addresses supply but says little about how to increase the demand for participation in sports, Dr. Weed, the professor said. Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.”