The end of the affair? Why inspiration from London 2012 might be short-lived
As the London 2012 Olympic Games drew to a spectacular end last week, attention quickly turned to the future and potential legacy and “inspiration“ it will deliver. This word has populated the media landscape and a search for #inspiration on Twitter will give some indication of its prevalence. Unsurprisingly, the capacity for sport to inspire has fronted the discourse before and during the 2012 Games. Over the coming months and years, the success of the Games will be judged against its claim to “inspire a generation”. And concerns were raised on Wednesday following a BBC survey suggesting that any inspiration-boost will be short-lived.
Whether or not the Olympics will have any lasting legacy in terms of increased rates in physical activity and sport remains to be seen. There is scant research to suggest that the hosting of the Games in other countries has led to any lasting increase in physical activity and sport; yet the 2012 slogan encapsulates the belief that in can. The Department of Culture Media and Sport suggested that “the Games offer a fantastic opportunity to improve the lives of young people”.
In part, this might be achieved through initiatives such as International Inspiration, London 2012’s international sports legacy programme. But, the connotations of ‘a generation inspired’ which seemed to have captured the public’s imagination suggest some utopian vision of sport in which young people are suddenly motivated to participate following the iconic images of the medal success of British athletes. Why then, following the BBC survey, might the public feel more proud to be British, but also feel that this effect might be short-lived?
Firstly, our relationship as spectators of the Games is at the heart of this discussion. Ultimately over the last couple of weeks we have spent our time watching images of elite and physically magnificent athletes. And watching sport does not easily translate into motivation for sustained participation in sport and physical activity at all levels.
Undoubtedly, over the coming weeks many of us will feel inspired to try new activities, head to the gym or even return to sport as we ride on the London 2012 wave. Some will even dream of following in the footsteps of those who have carved their space in the sporting history books. Once a nation wins the bid to host the games, the build up becomes a feature of its political and social terrain. However, for many the real Olympic and Paralympic experience is a short but intense month of spectacle glued with a sense of civic pride and togetherness.
Then, it ended. Images of an empty Olympic park and online features about how to fill the Olympic void have caught the media eye over the last couple of days. In this sense, our engagement with the games might be compared with that of an intoxicating and intense affair.
Many experienced some kind of euphoria as they celebrated ‘national success’ or were lucky enough to be a spectator at one of the Olympic venues. Some were convinced of the Games’ value through a sense of intimacy brought about by its intense presence on our screens, tweets from athletes and the Team GB paraphernalia. But as coverage comes to an abrupt end, so too might that experience of not simply ‘watching’ the games, but being in it, being in and part of the world of elite sport. Elite athletes will continue to exist in that sporting elite. But the rest of us will go back to ordinary lives.
There will be thousands who watched these athletes excel and, besides admiration, experienced emotions of regret, envy, or nostalgia – of not quite achieving their dreams, or feeling let down by their injured bodies. Personally, I watched the games through a tolerable compromise, not only as a social scientist who researches sport, but as a former junior athlete who never quite achieved all that sport had initially promised.
But beyond variations in personal response, for the government’s dreams of an “inspired generation” to be realized requires a complex blend of opportunity, resources, motivation and support. This week it was revealed through a Freedom of Information request that Education Secretary Michael Gove had approved the sale of over 20 school playing fields.
At the same time, even if provision and opportunity were to increase as a legacy of the Games, we ought to be mindful of the dangers of a vision of Physical Education and school sport driven by the London 2012 gold-haul success. Elite sport in Great Britain has huge momentum behind it. But visions of elite competitive sport often translate to forms of school sport which may be counter-productive in terms of increasing participation. Research tells us time and again that an emphasis on competition and fitness testing puts young people off being active.
Large numbers of young people avoid sport and physical activity because they don’t feel confident about their bodies. Whilst many might feel inspired by the exceptional performances of the Olympians, they may at the same time have a feeling that their bodies will never match up to the wonderfully-toned and Adonis-like physiques on show. Such disaffection is hardly surprising given that even the bodies of female Olympians have over the past couple of weeks, been cruelly scrutinized by the media for being too ‘fat’.
Finally we might focus on another potential derailing of the Olympic inspiration narrative. After Team GB’s success a social media campaign quickly ensued asking for a nation of more role models like these athletes instead of reality TV stars. Yet are Olympians in fact becoming more like the fame-fattened celebrities of old? With their faces on postage stamps, post boxes painted gold in honour of their success, Olympic gold medalists are exalted to new heights in the public’s affections. Iconic and adored, commodified in cutting edge commercials, the question of what it is exactly that inspires young people becomes less clear. Is it a new love for sport or a repetition of the familiar drive to be famous and successful?
There can be no question that living in a host nation and having the opportunity to attend events and feel part of the games as a volunteer or spectator has given the British public a unique opportunity to experience inspiration in a new way. But is this love affair over, or will it lead to some lasting change? If it can, then London 2012 might just achieve something few other Games has succeeded in doing.Tagged in: London 2012, Olympic legacy
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