London 2012 breaks promise to get Britons active

Britons may be watching lots of Olympic athletes this summer but

they sure aren’t moving more themselves.

When London was awarded the 2012 Summer Olympics seven years

ago, officials promised they would get 2 million more people

physically active in time for the opening ceremonies.

But when the torch is lit July 27, the government will not only

have failed, it will have backed away from its pledge entirely.

Last year, the U.K. quietly dropped its aim to get 1 million more

Britons into sports; the pledge to get another 1 million people

more active through things like biking or walking to work has also

been scrapped.

Some experts lamented the missed opportunity.

”Olympic sports are seen as elite and not part of everyday

life,” said Adrian Bauman of the University of Sydney in

Australia. ”Having the Olympics doesn’t translate into more

physical activity unless there is a strong infrastructure to get

people involved.”

Britain’s strategy was based largely on providing free school

sports programs for children. While numbers grew in the first few

years, they have since flat lined, according to national surveys.

As the government cut spending amid Europe’s debt crisis, it also

slashed sports programs for adults, including free swimming for

Londoners.

With a population of about 60 million, Britain is western

Europe’s fattest country. Soccer is wildly popular, but Britons are

more likely to cheer on their favorite teams from the local pub

rather than emulating them on the pitch.

Olympics secretary Jeremy Hunt said the government was looking

for other ways to measure people’s activity levels and insisted it

was still working with local sports clubs to boost participation. A

government spokesman called the original target ”arbitrary.”

”The Olympics do inspire people, but there is no evidence there

are increased physical activity levels afterwards,” said Bill

Kohl, director of the physical activity epidemiology program at the

University of Texas School of Public Health. ”Most people realize

they will never be (track star) Usain Bolt.”

On Wednesday, Kohl authored a paper that labeled low levels of

physical activity worldwide a ”pandemic.” It was published in the

Lancet medical journal.

Another study concluded being a couch potato was as potentially

lethal as smoking or being obese. Researchers estimated that a lack

of physical activity causes about 1 in 10 deaths worldwide and is

responsible for about 7 percent of type 2 diabetes cases and 10

percent of breast cancer and colon cancer cases.

”For the individual, it is certainly more dangerous to smoke

than to be physically inactive,” Kohl said. ”But on a population

level, the impact of physical inactivity is equal to smoking.”

Critics have slammed London 2012 chairman Sebastian Coe for his

failure to deliver on organizers’ physical activity pledge.

”We are way off target,” said Mike Weed, director of the

Centre for Sport, Physical Education and Activity Research at

Canterbury Christ Church University. Based on current numbers, he

said the promise to get 2 million more people active wouldn’t

happen until about 2035.

No host country of the Olympics has ever been able to convert

enthusiasm for the games into a sporty population.

Weed said elite Olympians weren’t the best role models for

average Britons and cited a much less athletic example: chunky

London mayor Boris Johnson, who has introduced a popular bike

rental system in the British capital.

”If you see somebody in Lycra at the Olympics on a 10,000-pound

($15,600) bike, that says this is not for you,” Weed said. ”But

if you see Boris Johnson in a suit riding along on an obviously

unsporty bike, the message is that if he can do it, anyone

can.”

Online:

www.lancet.com