The Olympic games have been a feast of numbers but one important set has gone missing. They are even more missed now the party is over and all the talk is about legacy, especially the effect of British sporting success on our everyday exercise and activity.
High levels of obesity prompt commentators and policy makers to reach for ways of stimulating an ageing population to get up and go, and what could be more inspiring than Olympic medals? The King’s Fund, the health policy thinktank, is one among many speculating about a post-Olympics boost, benefiting the area the games were supposed to regenerate in the east of London.
But where are the statistics linking attainment on the athletics or cycling tracks and activity levels among the population at large? Intuitively, young people might look up at the stars and tell themselves they too could mount the podium. But what 60-year old couch potato is going to hoist themselves on to a saddle and announce they are going to emulate Bradley Wiggins and get up the Col du Tourmalet ?
The relationship between elite sporting achievement and popular sporting participation does not have to be direct and could even be inverse – in the German Democratic Republic, for example, top sports people were in special programmes, while the public got on with life as best they could, smoking and drinking and ingesting polluted air.
There’s no ready evidence that high-profile events lead to waves of emulation and, besides, what is there to emulate. To get to Olympic standard is work – as the athletes pointed out – of decades and the most intense dedication. Is the contention that you see a gold medal performance then rush out to try to be at best adequate in your chosen sport – because being adequate is the most the majority of triers could ever hope for.
Exercise is good. Activity reduces the likelihood of the onset of life-threatening conditions. These are excellent nostrums of public health. But don’t let’s confuse them with our largely passive admiration of sporting achievement or assume that because Team GB did well that fact will cause any changes in behaviour.