This study provides evidence to corroborate previous reports that simply hosting an Olympic Games does not enhance population PA levels in those who reside in the host nation or in the vicinity of the Games by extending this finding to young people ,,. In this study, we note that objectively measured PA levels (steps/day) of Canadian children and youth, did not differ before, during or after the 2010 Winter Olympic Games at the national level or in BC, other than variation attributed to seasonal patterns. Furthermore, there was no difference in participation rates in organized PA or sport across all study periods.
There have been numerous reports that have anticipated increases in population-level sport and physical activity participation following the Olympic Games ,. However, systematic reviews have not found any substantive evidence of an Olympic `trickle down’ effect to motivate the population to become more active ,. Some evidence of sports facilities usage was reported after the Manchester Commonwealth Games , but no change in overall physical activity was assessed; similarly, positive comments, in the absence of any population surveillance data, were made following the Athens and Beijing Olympics ,.
A recent study examined youth sports participation in the years leading up to the London Olympics, and identified a variable pattern, showing no clear increase or decrease between 2006 and 2009 in England . This British paper described the `myths of legacy’ for Olympic Games as often promoted by `politicians keen to grandstand’ (to hide the UK crisis in youth sports and physical education) . Given this, it is unlikely that a legacy effect for youth as a result of the London Olympics would occur without considerable concerted and sustained investment. Others have examined adult sport participation  and reported an increase in `any sport participation’ in England between 2005-2012; although this may reflect an increase in the sport sector, it may not be sufficient to enhance health, if the increase in sport is not regular or widespread enough to increase the proportion of populations meeting minimal physical activity guidelines.
National data from the Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS) on self-reported participation in leisure-time PA among teenagers corroborate our findings . While we acknowledge the limitations of self-report PA data in this age group, the CCHS showed no change in overall PA among boys over the time frame of our study. In girls, the CCHS reported a slight (but non-significant) increase from 64% in 2007/2008 to 67% in 2011/12 in the proportion of girls who reported engaging in moderate-intensity PA. When confined to BC, the CCHS data demonstrated a non significant increase followed by non significant decrease in PA for both teenage boys and girls over a similar time frame. Data confined to the Vancouver Health Region showed no significant changes over time among adolescents (CCHS 105-0502). Thus, CCHS data corroborated the finding that the 2010 Olympic Games had no substantial measureable impact on overall PA nationally, in BC or locally in the Vancouver area.
There were a number of Canadian programs targeting children and youth prior to the 2010 Olympics, including Provincial PA strategies, with a major emphasis on increasing children’s PA . A national Children’s Fitness Tax Credit had been legislated in 2007 to help defray the cost of children’s enrolment in organized PA and sport. Also, in 2007, ParticipACTION aired a campaign to raise awareness among parents about children’s low PA levels . ParticipACTION partnered with Coca-Cola Canada to launch the SOGO Active provided programs and incentives to promote PA among Canadian youth ,. After the OG, a legacy phase continued to promote youth leadership and to offer seed grants to increase access to PA opportunities.
Five years of policy initiatives in BC preceded the Vancouver OG. In 2004, The BC Healthy Living Alliance’a coalition of 4300 health and recreation professionals-developed “The Winning Legacy” to address chronic disease risk factors . The plan was adopted by the BC Government as Healthy BC 2010 and later renamed ActNow BC. The Alliance also developed a physical activity strategy in 2007 (BCHLA 2007) and a framework for designating “Active Communities” .
The media coverage of the Games itself was unprecedented; television coverage was double that of the 2006 Olympics and triple that of the 2002 Games, and reached 99% of Canadians, and allowing high community exposure . The Olympics resulted in additional built infrastructure to support recreational physical activity and sport in the Vancouver region and provided Provincial level funding for Action Schools! BC program in elementary schools .
Thus, the lack of effects on activity among children was surprising, given the BC history of physical activity policy and program development leading up to the Vancouver Winter Olympics. The lack of impact may have been due to a ceiling effect with high rates of physical activity, limiting the possibility of further improvements; but national data including less active Provinces also showed no Olympic effect. This evaluation only focused on PA and sport participation rates, and there was no triangulation through qualitative and other research methods to assess intermediate outcomes. For example Action Schools! BC, an initiative of ActNow BC, increased objectively measured physical activity (among boys) and fitness levels in intervention schools relative to comparison schools prior to the OG . Therefore, the confounding effects of antecedent and concurrent programs such as Act Now BC and ParticipACTION may have attenuated any observed Olympic effects.
Interestingly, these optimal `conditions’ included longer term policy consistency in BC than usually occurs in the years leading up to Olympic Games. The lack of a measureable OG effect after the 2010 Games may indicate that a longer time period is required for the development and implementation of policy and programs to influence overall population levels of PA. Elsewhere, no sustained physical activity programs occurred prior to Sydney, Beijing or Athens Olympics , and policy inconsistency and variations to evaluation methods characterised the peri-Olympic period in the London 2010 OG . It seems the enthusiasm for legacy findings on physical activity remains unproved , and the expected impact on sports participation (for example following the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games) , may be unduly optimistic. Further, the `euphoria’ from the `festival effect’ surrounding the Olympic Games may induce community feelings of wellbeing, but will not translate into population participation without much stronger community supports . It is time to reject the idea that hosting Olympic Games can spark population level increases in PA. The OG may serve as a platform to promote the idea of increasing PA, but much more concerted public health intervention is required to achieve increased PA at the population level. Future planning and research efforts to assess the impact of OG and other large scale mass events should be guided by a logic model, such as that proposed by Bauman and Murphy , to guide strategy development, assess changes in various components of the strategy and measure the overall impact on population PA levels.
This study had several methodological strengths as population-level program evaluation. These included using the unique CANPLAY surveillance system that employs objectively measured PA (steps/day) . Pedometer data measures total PA and best represents ambulatory physical activity. Pedometers are limited in accurately measuring water-based (e.g., swimming) and sliding activities (e.g., ice hockey, Alpine skiing). These measurement issues, and survey response rates are likely to have been non-differential over time. Furthermore, the lack of changes in pedometer-determined PA was corroborated by external self-report data that permitted the inclusion of non ambulatory PA. The study was not an a priori evaluation, and was uncontrolled, but did assess representative population samples across multiple time points, starting well before the Vancouver games. The data reported here were of sufficient sample size, and used both objective pedometer data and parental-report data, and the findings were corroborated by self-reported PA participation from the CCHS, an unrelated Canadian health surveillance system.