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London Olympics legacy vision will ultimately prove to be short-sighted | David Conn

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93199?ns=guardian&pageName=Olympics+legacy+vision+was+short-sighted+beyond+its+charm+offensive+%7C+Da%3AArticle%3A1254175&ch=Sport&c4=Olympic+games+2012+%28News%29%2CSport&c6=David+Conn&c8=1254175&c9=Article&c10=Blogpost&c11=Sport&c13=&c25=Inside+sport+blog%2CSport+blog&c30=content&h2=GU%2FSport%2Fblog%2FInside+sport+blogContrary to claims from the 2012 bid team, the Games in London are unlikely to inspire a new generation to be more active


It was the claim which won London the 2012 Olympics, that the Games, in British hands, would "inspire a generation to greater sporting activity" - but it was also the claim which should never have been made.




Sebastian Coe, head of London's bid, and Tony Blair, the prime minister, charmed the International Olympic Committee audience with that promise in Singapore four years ago, but both men really ought to have known better. The Government's own sports strategy document, Game Plan, concluded in 2002 that staging the Olympics was unlikely to address our modern health problems, caused by sedentary lifestyles and poor diet.


"Hosting events is not an effective, value for money method of achieving a sustained increase in participation," the government's document said, concluding there was "limited evidence" of the benefits of "mega sporting events."


Yet still the claims were made.


Research from previous Olympics has shown that while people generally do love watching great athletes run round tracks or swim impossibly fast, they are not then inspired to take up sport themselves. The reasons why some people are physically active and others are not are rooted in their social, cultural and economic circumstances, not because they do not have enough opportunities to watch elite athletes on television or in a stadium.


In Britain, we have a big problem: official figures show that a dismal one in five people, 21%, do half an hour's moderate exercise - including walking - three times a week. We invest much less in sport per head than other developed countries including Finland, where a public health programme begun in 1972 gradually transformed the population into the world's most active, where 55% of people exercise three times a week or more.


Coe, lucky for him, is not responsible for making good on the legacy claim. As the chairman of Locog, he will be judged on whether the Games themselves are a success in 2012. Responsibility for the very difficult target of seeing a million more people doing sport by then, has fallen to Sport England.


Good intentions do abound to improve sports provision and facilities, and to use the power of the Olympics to inspire young people. Advocates for the Olympics argue that, importantly, winning the Games has raised sport's profile generally and focused minds in the government and local authorities on the need to improve participation. Strides are being made in schools, where the Labour government has committed £2.3bn to revitalising sport from 2003-11, in a sustained effort to recover from years of desperate underfunding by the previous Conservative government. Now, 90% of pupils do the set two hours PE a week, a wholesale improvement following the wretched decline under the Conservatives.


Outside schools, Sport England has allocated £480m of lottery and treasury funding over the next four years to 46 sports, which have developed "whole sport plans" to boost numbers. The free swimming for over 65s initiative has been backed by £140m government cash.


Yet all of that still amounts to a fraction of the £9.3bn budget just for hosting the Olympics. Although some of the facilities will be available for ordinary people to use afterwards, such as the aquatic centre, the Games have actually sucked money away from public sport - £547m was diverted from Sport England's budget.


The heart of the matter is that particularly after young people leave school, their physical health, and whether they are likely to continue to take part in sport, depends greatly on wealth and education.


The poor are stubbornly less active than the relatively well off, for a range of reasons which are obvious to identify – low income, limited horizons, poor neighbourhoods, bad diet, rundown local sports facilities – but tough to address without real political will. That is the key reason why we compare so badly to Finland and the other Scandinavian countries: ours is a more unequal society. Our figure of 21% doing regular exercise has barely moved since 1990. Sport England registered an increase between 2006 and 2008, but the most recent figures are static or, in some sports, down.


That wider social inequality, which underpins the divide between those who have always participated in sport, like Coe, and those who generally do not, is the truly difficult challenge for politicians to address. It is much easier to charm an IOC audience with a legacy vision, when bidding to host the Games.


Efforts are undoubtedly being made, yet the Olympics in London are unlikely to inspire a new generation to be more active, unless accompanied by huge investment and determination. For three weeks in the summer of 2012, though, watching top athletes achieve great things will make a lot of people feel better about life, at least for a while.


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