London 2012: lessons and legacies

The 2012 Olympics were hailed as an event that would a secure a health legacy for the nation by encouraging more people to take up sport. Mark Griffiths considers where school sport fits into this plan, and whether such a legacy can really be achieved without it.

School sport

London 2012 was the first Olympic Games to explicitly promise to deliver a sustainable ‘health legacy’ by getting two million more people (though later dropped) more active by 2012. As spectators, we revelled in the athleticism, capacity, and determination of the athletes, and, in turn, rejoiced in a nation positioning itself on the global sporting landscape.

Yet, instead of enjoying these sporting moments for what they were - moments - there was considerable political rhetoric around the power of mega sporting events to inspire young people to participate in more sport, and through increased physical activity, accrue health benefits.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Successive UK governments have promoted sport as a mechanism for addressing social problems linked to issues of health, inequality, poverty and disaffected youth1, 2. Worryingly, however, the evidence base that underpins these claims is missing. At a political level, much is claimed for sport. At an academic level, claims are more modest.

Authentic pedagogy

It could be argued that London 2012 had a unique opportunity to fulfil its legacy aspirations through Physical Education and School Sport (PESS), which could ‘reach’ all children and young people – if used effectively. But achieving a sustainable health legacy via PESS requires alignment between school activities (curriculum, pedagogy and assessment) and longer-term health promotion activities in the wider community.

In the UK, PESS provides an important platform to engage young people in health promotion, and advocates have long held that the subject brings physical, social, emotional and cognitive benefits for young people.

Although appealing, evidence of the relationship between physical education, sport and health is, however, limited. From a pedagogical perspective, little is known, for instance, about the role of school sport in facilitating lifelong sports participation. In terms of the curriculum, questions still persist: is PESS purely about activity? Burning fat? Getting sweaty? Or is health promotion through PESS about learning? In the case of the latter, recent work has begun to acknowledge how young people learn about health, not only in school, but from multiple sources (community sport, family, peers).   

Authentic assessment

Assessment in physical education (PE) traditionally covers a number of areas: motor skills, fitness components, rules, strategies and history. In terms of relevance, it could be argued this approach results in a learning experience that lacks context. Put another way, if relevance is about connectedness, how are traditional PE assessment methods connected to experiences outside the school environment, in the wider community? Where research suggests that health behaviour is a result of the interaction between environment, organisation and individual features, perhaps a more promising strategy would be to move away from the what, and instead consider the how and why in pursuit of a more authentic curriculum that could prove more valuable outside the classroom.

To ensure a quality educational experience for young people, we need to align school learning experiences with the real world. In the context of London 2012 and the longed-for health legacy, greater empirical attention is needed to understand the chain of transmission from inspiration to behaviour change, and the role of schools in facilitating such change.

Mark Griffiths is a lecturer in Sport Pedagogy at the University of Birmingham

  1. Department for Culture Media and Sport/Strategy Unit (2002). Game Plan: A strategy for delivering government’s sport and physical activity objectives. London: Cabinet Office.
  2. Department for Culture Media and Sport (2012). Creating a sporting habit for life: a new youth sport strategy. London. Retrieved 26 February 2013.
  3. Department of Health (2011). Start active, stay active: a report on physical activity from the four home countries' Chief Medical Officers. London. Retrieved 26 February 2013.

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