Sydney Olympics didn’t make Australians more active: study

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Hosting the Olympic Games usually entails a whirlwind of new construction, an influx of international tourism and worldwide attention for the host country. But it might not encourage locals to be more active themselves, according to a study of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia.

“Increasingly, and particularly since the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, host nations have been more keen to ensure that a positive legacy from hosting the event is achieved for their population,” said Dr. Gerry McCartney, head of the Public Health Observatory Division of NHS Health Scotland in Glasgow. “This often includes a desire to increase either the health, physical activity or sports participation in the population.”

The 2012 London Olympics and the forthcoming 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, which McCartney is monitoring, made a physical activity legacy an explicit aim, he told Reuters Health in an email.

McCartney was not part of the Sydney study.

Researchers led by Adrian Bauman at the University of Sydney used data from physical activity surveys given to more than 3,500 Australian adults in November of 1999, before the Games, and a similar number of Australians in November of 2000, six weeks after the Games ended.

After the Games, the amount of time people reported walking increased slightly, from 114 minutes per week to 124 minutes. But neither total leisure time physical activity nor number of activity outings per week changed substantially, according to results published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

The researchers considered 150 minutes of activity per week to be “sufficient for health” and in both years, about 57 percent of adults surveyed met that standard.

Only four percent of people who took the 2000 survey said they had upped their activity levels in response to the Olympics.

Survey participants did plan to be more active after the Games, however. In 1999, 34 percent said they intended to be more active in the next month, which rose to 37 percent in 2000.

“There is little robust evidence to demonstrate so-called sporting legacies resulting from hosting sports mega events such as the Olympic Games,” said Ian Boardley, who studies sports psychology at the University of Birmingham in the UK.

That’s likely to be the same for single-sport mega events like this year’s World Cup, Boardley, who wasn’t involved in the Sydney research, said.

“In and of themselves the Games cannot do anything about physical activity,” Vassil Girginov of Brunel University in London told Reuters Health in an email. “It is the Games’ interpretation by various host cities and organizers that does it.”

Girginov studies the sports development legacy of the 2012 London Olympic Games. He was not part of the new study.

It’s been notoriously difficult to prove a causal link between the Games and any change in physical activity, he said.

“Perhaps there should be a call to all of us on the research and policy making front to go back to the basics of the Olympics and remind ourselves that the Games have always been intended as a ‘policy-makers attention-grabbing device’ designed to make them realize the power of sport and to start doing better things in the name of the Games,” Girginov said.

Unlike London, Sydney did not explicitly set out to use the Games to raise physical activity and sport participation, so in some sense the findings are unfair, said Mike Weed, director of the Center for Sport Physical Education and Activity Research at Canterbury Christ Church University in the UK.

“That said, London does not appear to have been very much more successful, but although London did set out to raise sport participation, and to a lesser extent physical activity levels, there were policy failings in the way it did so, which might explain the lack of an effect,” Weed, who wasn’t part of the research team, told Reuters Health in an email.

Expectations for a general boost in physical activity are too high, he said. An elite sporting event probably won’t get people who have never been active to suddenly start exercising.

“We have found evidence that a Games can get those who play a little sport to play a little more, or get those who have played sport in the past to think about starting to play again,” Weed said. “But these are small effects that are not often picked up in national surveys, particularly where the focus is on achieving or not achieving 150 minutes.”

Those types of gains are small but still important, he said, because they move people along a continuum of sporting engagement.

SOURCE: British Journal of Sports Medicine, online May 15, 2014.