I am in sports glory these days. With the U20 soccer and Tour de France on (truly hoping for a scandal-free tour this year), I am one happy spectator.
I was in the stands on Sunday when Canada took on Congo at Commonwealth Stadium here in Edmonton. I watched the Mexico-New Zealand match that preceded it and had a great taste of live soccer action. So, when the rain came pouring down, it wasn’t too hard to bail out and bike home to watch the rest of the match on TV.
If only the Olympics were on right now too, and I could happily park my butt on the couch for the rest of the summer.
But aren’t these events supposed to inspire me to get off the couch?
That is often the justification for why public funds should be poured into these events. I’ve wondered about this question for a while now. If high-level sports, be they amateur or professional, inspire people to take up sport, then wouldn’t the U.S.A. be the fittest country in the world? (In case you’re wondering, they’re not.)
A few years ago I tried to find out if any research had been done on this topic and came up dry, but anecdotal evidence abounds. Watch any Olympic games, and you’re bound to see at least one interviewee talk about how as a kid they watched some sporting event and went out and tried it and that’s why they are at the Olympics today.
The following from the Tour de France website, which explains why the mayor of London wanted to host this year’s first stage, sums up both arguments, quite nicely …
“We believe the Tour de France will inspire more Londoners to use their bicycles to get around. Indeed, for triple Olympic cyclist Bradley Wiggins, watching the 1994 UK stage of the Tour motivated him to take up professional cycling, and the rest is history!”
I hate to throw cold water on all the mayor’s plans, but finally, at a conference I recently attended in Norway, I saw a presentation on this topic. The authors also had difficulties finding any existing research, so they did their own. They looked at various levels of sporting events, from the Sydney Olympics through to local 10-kilometer runs and came up with no discernible impact of these events on population levels of physical activity.
Of course, this is only one study and much more research is warranted, but that doesn’t stop those trying to promote these events from using public health as a justification. The authors were privy to the documents behind the London 2012 bid. These were ripe with rhetoric about how the Olympics will increase population levels of physical activity.
If you’re an athlete, sports fan or a business person, you might have very real, very good reasons for wanting a large sporting event to come to your city. But, don’t believe the people who say that it’s a way of increasing health across society. Their claims are premature.
Now I have to go find the remote because I think the round of 16 has started.