LONDON – Britons may be watching lots of Olympic athletes this summer, but they sure aren’t moving more themselves.
When London was awarded the 2012 Summer Olympics seven years ago, officials promised they would get 2 million more people physically active in time for the opening ceremonies.
But when the torch is lit Friday, the government will not only have failed, it will have backed away from its pledge entirely. Last year, the U.K. quietly dropped its aim to get 1 million more Britons into sports; the pledge to get another 1 million people more active through things such as biking or walking to work has also been scrapped.
Britain’s strategy was based largely on providing free school sports programs for children. While numbers grew in the first few years, they have since flat lined, according to national surveys.
As the government cut spending amid Europe’s debt crisis, it also slashed sports programs for adults, including free swimming for Londoners.
With a population of about 60 million, Britain is western Europe’s fattest country. Soccer is wildly popular, but Britons are more likely to cheer on their favorite teams from the local pub rather than emulating them on the pitch.
Olympics secretary Jeremy Hunt said the government was looking for other ways to measure people’s activity levels and insisted it was still working with local sports clubs to boost participation. A government spokesman called the original target “arbitrary.”
“The Olympics do inspire people, but there is no evidence there are increased physical activity levels afterwards,” said Bill Kohl, director of the physical activity epidemiology program at the University of Texas School of Public Health. “Most people realize they will never be (track star) Usain Bolt.”
On Wednesday, Kohl authored a paper that labeled low levels of physical activity worldwide a “pandemic.” It was published in the Lancet medical journal as part of a series on physical activity.
Another study concluded being a couch potato was as potentially lethal as smoking or being obese. Researchers estimated that a lack of physical activity causes about 1 in 10 deaths worldwide and is responsible for about 7 percent of Type 2 diabetes cases and 10 percent of breast cancer and colon cancer cases.
“For the individual, it is certainly more dangerous to smoke than to be physically inactive,” Kohl said. “But on a population level, the impact of physical inactivity is equal to smoking.”
Critics have slammed London 2012 chairman Sebastian Coe for his failure to deliver on organizers’ physical activity pledge.
“We are way off target,” said Mike Weed, director of the Centre for Sport, Physical Education and Activity Research at Canterbury Christ Church University. Based on current numbers, he said the promise to get 2 million more people active wouldn’t happen until about 2035.
No host country of the Olympics has ever been able to convert enthusiasm for the games into a sporty population.
Weed said elite Olympians weren’t the best role models for average Britons and cited a much less athletic example: chunky London mayor Boris Johnson, who has introduced a popular bike rental system in the British capital.
“If you see somebody in Lycra at the Olympics on a 10,000-pound ($15,600) bike, that says this is not for you,” Weed said. “But if you see Boris Johnson in a suit riding along on an obviously unsporty bike, the message is that if he can do it, anyone can.”