We need a deeper appreciation of what sport is and what it can and can’t do.
Paul Bickley is the Political Programme Director at Theos
England’s football team may have crashed on penalties, but no matter – that was only the start of a summer sport-fest, with London 2012 providing the substantial main course.
This summer’s Games are emblematic of the way in which sport in general is now asked to perform a substantial political and economic role.
The medal table is the one metric for Britain’s success this year and more important, perhaps, than any sporting success is the Olympic effect on national morale, sporting participation and even the UK’s faltering economy.
To paraphrase Lord Turner on the banking industry, sport has become ‘socially useful’.
That’s a shame, because the likelihood of the Olympics achieving many of the tasks we have set it is small. As with sport more generally, London 2012 has been made to over-promise and is sure to under-deliver.
Take for instance, the Labour government’s undeniably ambitious plan to use London 2012 to increase adult participation by 1 million (3 x 30 minutes per week). That ask was quietly dropped by the Coalition – understandably so, since on best estimates and 1 month before the opening ceremony we’d increased participation by less than 500,000.
Sport England, the agency tasked with delivering this massive behavioural change, is now reporting more positive figures on the less demanding measure of 1 x 30 minutes per week participation.
Our own polling figures suggest that a staggering 80% disagreed with the statement ‘I am inspired to play more sport at the moment because of the London 2012 Olympics’.
So much for ‘inspiring a generation’; the key offer made by Seb Coe to the IoC in Singapore. During a bid process for a sport mega-event like the Olympics, the most attractive possible case is made by the bid team.
They take their biggest stars and make some big promises. Allegedly, Gordon Brown only signed off on some of the necessary financial undertakings for host cities on the understanding that London’s likelihood of winning the bid was vanishingly small.
Few now remember that initial estimates for the cost to the public purse came in at the ridiculously small figure of around £2.5 billion. Even the conservative DCMS bottom line comes in a £9 billion, give or take.
Economically, you could argue that the projected public spend on the Olympics is a sport-flavoured stimulus. Lots have figures on consumer spending and tourism have been bandied around, not least by Olympic sponsors. And there are obvious effects of public spending on a major infrastructure programme (construction jobs for example).
These demonstrate positive economic impacts, though their significance in the grand scheme of things is hard to judge. But once you consider the impacts on London’s ordinary economy and the costs which will never be factored into any official budget, plus the fact that the infrastructure spending is focused on a small part of London, the economic case becomes more dubious. Whatever the input/output figures, London 2012 like nearly all Olympic Games, will most likely be ‘extractive’.
In terms of its regenerative impact, East London will have an attractively developed space which – in the words of Games legacy chief Baroness Ford – could change the psychology of East London. But what matters is not 2012, but 2013 and 2014 – ensuring ongoing investment and attention after the Olympic energy has dissipated.
Eight years after the Athens 2004 Games, twenty-one of the twenty-two Olympic venues remain abandoned. The Sydney Olympics tripled its budget and the former chief planner for the Sydney Games has said that the host city should have focused more broadly on a legacy programme for the Olympics site and that “Sydney is now paying the price”. Will London be different?
Ultimately, the issue here is not just a cost benefit analysis of sport mega-events. Rather, it is the pervasive assumption that sport should have to do some kind of useful work to justify itself. This is the protestant work ethic writ large across our culture.
It must make us better people, it should bring about peace in conflict, it should make societies fitter and healthier. But across a range of themes, under-delivery follows over-promise. We need a deeper appreciation of what sport is and what it can (and can’t) do. Its affective power makes it appealing for politicians, and easier for the general public to believe inflated claims. Its effective power, its power to achieve things, is much more limited than we like to think.
American scholar James V Schall, once suggested that sport is meaningful but unnecessary – an answer to the question “What do we do when all else, all the necessary things, are done?”
Sport has become a victim of a category error that counts activities which should be in the domain of leisure as belonging to the domain of ‘work’. In doing so, all we succeed in is making sport less fun than it should be.
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