Winter Games legacy?

COMMENT: Andre Picard

Last updated on Wednesday, Mar. 10, 2010 9:15PM EST

With the Vancouver/Whistler Olympics complete and the under-appreciated Paralympics about to kick off, the time has come to consider the legacy of the Winter Games.

The word “legacy” is much bandied about these days. Unfortunately, when mulling the lasting impact of the Olympics, the discussion usually focuses on money/economics: Will the transformation of the Olympic Village into condos prove financially lucrative (or at least break even)? Will the wall-to-wall TV coverage from the visually stunning venues in Vancouver and Whistler bolster tourism? Will the investment in sporting infrastructure result in more elite athletes and better results (read: more medals) in Sochi, Russia, in 2014?

But rarely, if ever, do we ponder the broader public legacy of the Olympics – its impact on public health.

Vancouver/Whistler organizers made much of the fact that the Games would be the greenest yet, which has public health implications.

But beyond the mitigation of the impact of the huge revenue-generating exercise, a question needs to be asked: Do the Olympics and Paralympics actually inspire members of the public to be more active?

Kristina Groves is an example of what can happen. Wowed by the 1988 Olympics, and benefiting from the skating oval in her hometown of Calgary, she became one of the world’s best speed skaters.

But for the money spent staging the Winter Olympics – the official budget is $1.8-billion but the investment from all levels of government is somewhere in the $6-billion range – we should expect more than the emergence of a few elite athletes.

Ms. Groves, to her credit, recognizes this and is a big booster of everyday physical activity for mere mortals. Before the Games, she said: “Hopefully, 2010 will be a way to jostle the consciousness of Canadians to say: ‘Look, we need to be active people.’ ”

That was the philosophy of Pierre Frédy (better known as Baron Pierre de Coubertin), the founder of the modern Olympics. He was convinced that the French population’s lack of physical fitness was one of the main reasons the nation’s troops were defeated in the Franco-Prussian War, and he was looking for a way to inspire the public.

He knew that competitive and recreational athletics were not mutually exclusive. In fact, they can be mutually supportive. Where is that attitude today?

The International Olympic Committee seems more interested in the sponsorship dollars of Coca-Cola and McDonald’s than in ensuring that the Olympic motto Citius, Altius, Fortius (Latin for Faster, Higher, Stronger) actually resonates with the public.

The promotion of physical activity – not exercise, but activity incorporated into daily living – is needed more than ever. Data released earlier this year by Statistics Canada show that the fitness of Canadian children and adults declined markedly between 1981 and 2009.

Had the true spirit of the Games been embraced, the turnaround could have begun. But it has not.

The IOC now demands an “Olympic Games Impact Study,” which will measure 126 indicators of economic, social and environmental impact over a 12-year period pre- and post-Games. But in that report card, there is little emphasis on improving fitness in the general public.

The reality is that if you want results you need to invest, and do so strategically. That is true of elite athletes, weekend warriors and couch potatoes.

The much-maligned but ultimately successful Own The Podium program demonstrated there is a payoff for focused effort. Canadian Olympians scored a record 14 gold, seven silver and five bronze medals.

As inspiring and patriotism-inducing those medals may be, there isn’t going to be a stampede to skeleton, doubles luge or ski cross.

But where, during the Olympics, was the message that winter sports can be accessible and fun? Where is the parallel program aimed at getting measurable results in improved fitness among the general public? (We could have called that one: Off Your Duff.)

Sure, there were some notable efforts, particularly in British Columbia, such as ActNowBC, a school-based program aimed at children.

The Games themselves also had some fascinating initiatives, such as Fit for the Games, a 12-week fitness program for the 25,000 volunteers. (A little-known fact is that a lot more volunteers than athletes are injured and require medical care at Olympic Games, in large part because the volunteers are out of shape.)

Fit for the Games demonstrated that large-scale physical activity programs can be effective and cost-efficient. But it shouldn’t be a one-off, local initiative.

The most notable statistic of the Vancouver/Whistler Games is that Canadians sat in front of their televisions in record numbers, and there is little indication they have been inspired to get off the couch.

The investment in health promotion was paltry, accounting for a fraction of 1 per cent of the Games’ budget.

Our Olympic athletes benefited from support that allowed them to excel, including state-of-the-art facilities, top-notch nutritionists and coaches, and financing to train.

Why should the public not have comparable support, such as activity-friendly cities (with bike paths, parks, ski trails and skating rinks), access to reasonably priced healthy foods, a health system that invests in prevention, and work-life balance?

Why should the sustained promotion of health for citizens not be deemed as important as the quadrennial celebration of elite athletics that is the Winter Olympics?