The assumption that major sporting events and national team victories inspire exercise participation and physical activity among the wider population has been challenged by a newly released review of literature published in Human Kinetics’ Journal of Physical Activity and Health.
The study, the Effect of Elite Sport on Physical Activity Practice in the General Population: A Systematic Review, conducted by a team led by sports science doctor Alexis Lion, Director of the Luxembourg Federation of Health Sport Associations, concludes that there is no evidence that elite sport has any effect on the physical activity and sports practices of the general population.
With Paris set to host the Rugby World Cup later this year and the Olympics and Paralympics in 2024 and Australia in its ‘green and gold decade’ that includes the 2026 Commonwealth Games and 2032 Olympics and Paralympics, the conclusions of the literature review present a major challenge to politicians, sporting federations and administrators, host cities and nations, decision-makers and industry stakeholders when assertions are made that hosting a major sporting event will make an entire nation more active - a phenomena known as the ‘trickle down’ effect.
Lion and his colleagues, drawn from universities and institutes in France and Luxembourg, have identified studies evaluating the impact of high-level sport on practices in the general population via three mechanisms: mega sporting events such as the Olympic Games or international competitions, the successes of elite athletes or teams (medals, world championship victories, etc.), and the role model effect of high-profile athletes.
While hosting major sporting events such as World Cups and the Olympic Games provides an opportunity for countries to showcase their commitment to sports and physical activity, the conclusion reached by the review was that there is no evidence supporting the notion that elite sport actual increases physical activity or sport participation in the general population, advising that “decision makers and policymakers should be aware of this and invest in strategies such as those recommended by the World Health Organization”.
The researchers adopted a strict methodology, identifying over 12,000 articles on the topic but only selecting studies (36 in total) published in peer-reviewed journals in English, with qualitative works were excluded.
As the review identified “most studies investigated the effect of hosting elite sport events followed by elite sport success and elite sport role modelling (and) did not observe a positive effect of hosting elite sport events, elite sport success, or elite sport role modelling on physical activity/sport practice in the general population.”
The review also observed “another widespread strategy involves supporting and promoting elite sport with the aim of inducing an increase in physical activity /sport practice in the general population, which may lead to a healthier population.
“That is why this proposed mechanism, also called the trickle-down effect, is often used by decision makers and policymakers to legitimise spending public money to support elite sport events and/or to finance elite sport programs.”
It noted that “this trickle-down effect includes three mechanisms, which can be present separately or jointly: the effect of hosting elite sport events (which includes the infrastructure, demonstration, and festival effects), the effect of elite sport success, and the elite sport role modelling effect.
“These three effects refer to a process by which people are inspired by elite sport events, success, or athletes to practice physical activity/sport themselves.”
The authors also criticised the methodology of many of the studies saying they lacked true independence and academic rigour.
For France, the hosting of its upcoming sporting events has seen the Paris 2024 Organising Committee state “getting the French people moving more is more than an objective, it is an issue that mobilizes us in the construction of our project”, while, in late 2021, President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, indicated his desire to give "a huge boost" to the sporting practices of the population.
As part of this initiative, the French Government has allocated €200 million (US$214 million) over three years to build or renovate 5000 local sports facilities.
For Australia, the challenge with the hosting of multiple international events over the next 10 years is to strategically plan and implement initiatives to maximise the positive impact on mass participation and long-term physical activity levels.
Effect of Elite Sport on Physical Activity Practice in the General Population: A Systematic Review was published earlier this year in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health 20(24):1-17 DOI:10.1123/jpah.2022-0123
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Image: Athletic track on Paris' River Seine. Credit: Paris 2024 Organising Committee.
About the author
Co-owner / Publisher, Australasian Leisure Management
Nigel Benton is the co-owner and publisher of Australasian Leisure Management, Australia and New Zealand’s only magazine for professionals in all areas of the leisure industry. Having established the magazine in 1997, shortly after his relocation to Australia, he has managed its readership rising to over 11,500 and its acceptance as the industry journal for professionals in aquatics, attractions, entertainment, events, fitness, parks, recreation, sport, tourism and venues.
As of 2020, he has launched the new Asian Leisure Business website.
Among a range of published works and features, his comments on a Blog (blogspot) from 2007 to 2011, when this website went live in its current form, may be interesting to reflect back on.
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