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Learning from London 2012 to create lasting impact ten years on

Initially published in the Mail on Sunday, our chief executive Tim Hollingsworth writes about how the work to create a legacy from London 2012 has shaped what we're now doing to create a lasting impact from the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games.

27th July 2022

by Tim Hollingsworth
Chief executive, Sport England

It’s been a decade since the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Ten whole years since the nation were thrilled by the amazing performances of Jonnie Peacock, Ellie Simmonds, Nicola Adams and Sir Chris Hoy, among so many others, winning gold medals in front of capacity crowds.

Both Games were fired through with a sense of optimism and expectation that was incredible for anyone lucky enough to be there, and I’m not sure there’s been a time of celebration and connection through sport quite like it since.

But the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games start tomorrow, giving us another national moment to get behind as the eyes of the world again turn to us.

It’s a time for reflection, too. On what we have learnt from the legacy of 2012 – and how we apply those lessons now.

In 2012, I was the CEO of the British Paralympic Association. It was remarkable to witness the public interest in disability sport be transformed and with it their perception of what is possible.

Tim Hollingsworth welcomes the London 2012 ParalympicsGB cycling team to the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic velodrome.

The London 2012 platform created opportunities never seen before for our athletes, as well as driving more investment.

And the Olympics and Paralympics together boosted sporting infrastructure, driving more opportunities for people to be active.

Sport England ran a programme that saw over 2,200 facilities improved and 370 playing fields protected.

Areas of deprivation were regenerated and there were moments of unifying national joy as we celebrated our great British talent.

But one of the key questions from 2012 is: did it make us a more active nation? 

Since we began work in 2005 (when we won the right to host) to deliver a legacy for the Games, the number of active people has substantially increased.

The Active People Survey shows that between 2005 and 2016, the number of people playing sport at least once a week increased by 1.9 million.

Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games start tomorrow, giving us another national moment to get behind as the eyes of the world again turn to us.

In 2015, Sport England introduced a new survey – Active Lives – designed to measure the number of people meeting the new Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines for physical activity.

Between 2015 and 2019 Active Lives showed that, until the beginning of the pandemic, the number of active people continued to rise – with those doing at least 150 minutes of sport and physical activity a week increasing by 1.1m.

The trouble is, this upward movement was anything but universal across our communities and the inequalities that existed in 2012 have remained stubbornly there over the past decade.

The positive is that we now know why that is – and more importantly, how to address it.

Part of which involves the evidence from 2012 telling us that hosting major events alone is not enough to drive a legacy of long-term national behaviour change.

Legacy from big events comes instead from working hard to create the right opportunities and conditions for that to happen.

It requires time, patience, and a deep understanding of the barriers an individual or community might face.

Increasing activity levels

Pre-pandemic, the number of people doing 150 minutes of activity a week had risen by 1.1m since 2015.

Simply put, it requires more than building wonderful facilities or watching incredible athletes and assuming people will start being active on the back of that.

Above all else, it requires we as sport bodies breaking down the barriers we know to exist, particularly when those very barriers are especially high for groups such as disabled people, those from diverse communities, and those from areas of deprivation.

Our research shows us that affluence and activity levels are closely linked; the wealthier you are, the more active you’re likely to be.

That’s why our 10-year strategy Uniting the Movement primarily focuses on tackling stubborn inequalities in activity levels by targeting our resources and support to those that need more help to be active, and meeting people where they’re at. 

And our approach to the Commonwealth Games is the same. We have invested £35 million of National Lottery and government funding into B2022, with a priority being creating inclusive and affordable local opportunities for people to get active.  

And we’re doing this by working with grassroots organisations who know what the barriers are to getting active for their communities – and how they can be overcome.

Birmingham 2022 offers the opportunity for us to reframe what the true legacy of a major sporting event could and should be.

First and foremost, this means tackling the known inequalities to make it easier for everyone in society to participate at the grassroots.

It was Tanni-Grey Thompson who said ‘everyone has the right to be rubbish at sport’, and while I love watching our very best athletes deliver on the biggest stages, I’d love nothing more than to see the everyday participant thrive.

That truly would be legacy in action.

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