Do Mega Sports Events Have a Legacy?

Do Mega Sports Events Have a Legacy?

Image: Jay Wood

Liz Such, University of Edinburgh


Remember the summer of 2012? London was the centre of the global media gaze. Images of Mo Farah, Jess Ennis and Usain Bolt were everywhere. Britain was the proud host of the Olympic and Paralympic Games and was revelling in it. The biggest show on earth was in town.

Watching the athletes and the enthusiastic crowd over the past few weeks in Glasgow has been, as one famous sportsman put it: ‘Déjà vu all over again’. The Commonwealth Games has been a showcase for Glasgow and Scotland; all the more potent for a nation on the brink of a vote for independence.

Both events clearly reach beyond the competitions themselves and this is a fact to which organisers are not blind. Glasgow is seeking a legacy – sporting, social and economic – for the population. London taglined its ambitions with the motto: ‘Inspire a Generation’. Legacy is the word for global sports events.

But what does legacy mean to the people it is supposed to impact upon? In both London and Glasgow, the group most clearly directly targeted for the legacy message was young people: they were the ‘project’, the most receptive to the message to get active, play sport, be inspired. It is also the most marketable message, the most intuitively ‘good’ and sensible. Young people are the future and the most in danger of slipping into a sedentary lifestyle, becoming victims of the ‘obesity epidemic’.

Shortly after the 2012 Games, I sought to interrogate the ‘Inspire a Generation’ slogan by conducting an exploratory study with young people in the North West of England and East Scotland. I wanted to examine how young people from fairly ‘non-sporty’ backgrounds experienced the Games. I also wanted to build on other scholarly research that noted how legacy promises from other mega sport events fell very short of their ambitions. This particularly applied to goals of a sporting legacy where the effect of hosting mega sports events was supposed to ‘trickle down’ to the rest of the population making us more active and sporty. This was an explicit expectation of London 2012.

The 23 young people interviewed revealed an interesting mix of responses to the Games. Unsurprisingly, all had watched it and a few had even been to live events. Most understood that the ‘inspire’ message was aimed at them or other young people: “I think it means like inspire younger people to join in sports and even if they’re not athletic, then give it a go and, yeah, take part in activities” (Oscar, aged 12, 5.12.12). One noted that young people were the focus because it was a way to avoid them becoming “fat and lazy” as an older person. These comments link well to academic observations of the ‘projectization’ of young people’s lives in policy as competent, physically active, future selves.

The young people in the study also highlighted some outstanding athletic performances, some of which they found inspiring: Jordan (aged 13, 12.12.12): “[I found it] a little bit inspiring like I wanna start swimming”. For others, the whole thing just felt a little out of reach – too ‘other’ – and hence, discouraging: Laura (aged 14, 12.12.12) “I was like, ‘wow, I can’t do that’ basically what I thought about the whole thing it’s like ‘oh God, I’m rubbish at everything’”. This effect has been noted in other research and could be most of a problem among those young people who might already have a fragile relationship with sport and physical activity.

The study also explored in detail the contexts within which young people experienced the Games. Again, unsurprisingly, the Games were mostly watched communally with family and sometimes friends. Watching the Games was a relational experience, it was ‘doing family’: “No matter whatever programme was on, it would be the Olympics that we watched … it like brought us together just to watch sport” (George, aged 13, 12.12.12). It was in this context that young people interpreted the Games. The interest and enthusiasm of others was paramount. This proved to be a theme that ran strongly through the study: sport that was either watched on TV or participated in was dependent on significant others. It wasn’t the Mo Farah’s or the Jess Ennis’s that ultimately meant the most to young people but the engagement of their mums, dads, grans, granddads and friends: “My dad influenced me to play football. … My granddad, he just wants me to stick at it (Paul, aged 18, 7.12.12). Tom (aged 12, 12.12.12): “The Olympics has inspired me but my main inspiration is my grandma”.

Throughout the study it was clear that while the Olympics had an immediate and emotional impact on many, the more consistent and important everyday influences were located in their relational or intimate lives. This has been shown in other research and is perhaps a policy or legacy opportunity that is not exploited to its greatest. This may be owing to the ‘messiness’ of family in the UK both structurally and internally but it nevertheless represents a potential ‘missing link’ between mega event legacy promises and behavioural outcomes. It seems the ‘inspire’ slogan was successful as a social marketing message in the sense that it was received and understood by the young people in this study. Its longevity, however, can only be judged by sustained change in physical activity patterns of young people and this is located in the negotiations of everyday life in which young people and family members engage. The effects of sport mega events do not, as other research has shown, ‘trickle down’ to the general population and get us out of our armchairs but ‘diffuse’ or ‘trickle though and around’ our relational everyday lives. It is my suggestion that it is through family and peer networks that sport legacy policy could lever longer-term outcomes from what is huge economic investment.


Liz Such is a lecturer in Leisure and Sport Policy at the University of Edinburgh and an executive member of the Leisure Studies Association and the Social Policy Association. She works in the field of leisure, sport and physical activity in everyday life and has worked as a fellow for the Scottish Parliament as a Beltane Parliamentary Engagement Fellow. She is the author of Such, E. (2013) ‘Olympic inspiration? Young people, sport and family life’, East Asian Sports Thoughts: The International Journal for the Sociology Sport, vol. 3, pp.159—185. Thanks go to the Carnegie Trust and Moray House School of Education, University of Edinburgh for the funding for this project.