London 2012 was the climax of Britain’s transformation from Olympic laughing stock to the envy of the world, with the country having gone from winning just one gold medal at the 1996 Games to 29 just four editions later. The creation of UK Sport and its ‘no compromise’ money-for-medals funding formula swept away a culture of plucky amateurism and replaced it with a ruthlessly professional approach.
Given its spectacular success, few questions were asked about the unintended consequences of such a policy. But all that changed shortly before the 2016 Games when Jess Varnish blew the whistle on a culture of fear within British Cycling, sparking a major scandal and forcing UK Sport to commission an independent review into the governing body’s World Class Programme.
The findings were damning and began a tidal wave of alleged abuse and welfare scandals as it emerged that concerns had been raised over more than a third of publicly-funded sports.
Worse was to come in 2020 when British Gymnastics became the latest governing body to be engulfed by controversy, with young girls found to have been among the victims of barbaric practices from coaches in pursuit of glory. Much of what emerged was historic in nature and time will tell whether promises to put measures in place to prevent a repeat stand up to scrutiny.
Post-2012 also saw a revolt against the ‘no compromise’ model from sports to have seen their funding axed completely following the Games, leading to a softening of that policy in the build-up to Tokyo 2020.
Choosing the slogan ‘Inspire a Generation’ was always going to invite intense scrutiny on the impact of London 2012 on participation in sport, particularly among the young.
When that slogan was revealed 100 days before the Olympics, organizers had every reason to be confident it would deliver. After London was awarded the Games in 2005, Sport England’s Active People Survey had shown a surge in participation by adults in sport in England in the build-up.
Indeed, by the time the survey was succeeded by the Active Lives Survey in 2016 – making like-for-like comparisons since almost impossible – the number of people playing sport at least once a week emerged by 1.9 million. But this figure belies the fact that participation flatlined in the years after the Games and, notwithstanding the coronavirus crisis, had never shown any real sign of increasing significantly a decade on.
Just this month, a new report by the National Audit Office found London 2012 did not boost participation in grassroots sport as had been “hoped for at the time”. Sports did fail to prepare for a brief spike in interest in the immediate aftermath of the Games, with enthusiastic newcomers turned away from clubs unable to cope with the influx.
However, the main reason the participation legacy fell flat is a simple one: the belief that huge numbers of people are inspired to play sport simply by watching it is a myth. That has now been painfully exposed.