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From Sydney 2000 to Brisbane 2032 – how funding for elite sport will not tackle the obesity epidemic

Hans Westerbeek and Rochelle Eime

The IOC will advocate that Olympics can heal the world. As long as we emulate our heroes and get active, we can protect ourselves from becoming obese – the silent pandemic. Or can we? 

Watching the Olympics to start moving more?

There is some evidence that watching the Olympic Games leads to increasing frequency of participation in some sports. However, as reported in The Lancet, there is no evidence of improved population-wide physical activity. The authors note that the Olympic Games are an unrealised opportunity to improve global health. Australians did not improve their physical activity levels following the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. So, what are the lessons to be learned by Brisbane 2032? 

The Covid pandemic has exposed the ugly side of sport ‘show’ business from a number of perspectives. The failed attempts of setting up a European Super League showed the complete disregard by the owners and managers of Europe’s top football clubs for the challenges that most of the world’s population continue to face. For a long time, the Indian Premier League (cricket) continued to operate, showing quite outrageous images of players in full body covered isolation suits to protect from contamination, irrespective of India setting world record infection rates and being ravaged by the virus. The Tokyo Olympic Games are proving to be business as unusual, but the IOC cannot afford to do without them because the sport show business must go on… 

Professional sport is disconnected from community participation

Rather than this coming as a surprise, there are reasons that explain why professional sport is increasingly disconnected from its community roots. Sport policy in most developed and some developing nations indeed, has continued to focus on competitive club-based sport and elite (event) performance and in line with this, talent development pathways dominate the structures of community sport organisations. However, market segmentation research highlights that participation in club-based sport is not of interest to many children and adults. Furthermore, other research also demonstrates that females, older adults, those who are married, or those who have a disability are also less likely to play sport. Participation in (organised) sport in a way, is merely a window into the realm of a physically active lifestyle. As such, rather than developing policies that incentivise sport governing bodies to focus on participation numbers annually, a shift to retention of participants including a more lifespan (cradle to grave) and lifestyle approach to being or becoming physically active is required. 

Competitive sport is not for everybody, and some sports are harder to master at a basic (more enjoyable) skill level than others. However, watching sport at the elite level and participating in sport from a young age presents significant opportunities to highlight and communicate the benefits of a physically active lifestyle. That is where in the good times the Olympics, the IPL and football competitions can play their role. 

The PASP (physical activity sport participation) framework

In a way, the sport ‘show’ business managers should start to appreciate the changing social and policy context in which sport is produced, delivered, and consumed. Not elite sport, but community sport is foundational in a new integrated framework developed at Victoria University and Federation University that incorporates participation in sport with participation in leisure-time physical activity more broadly. The model is population-based, a “whole of sport ecosystem” lifespan model advocating that policy needs to focus on maximizing individuals’ opportunities to develop a good level of physical literacy during childhood, as a foundation for lifelong activity. As frequent and competent human movement is critical throughout the lifespan, a range of policy levers can be used to further facilitate such opportunities, for example, by the development of play or work environments that encourage people to be physically active, or by increasing quality physical education classes in primary and secondary school curricula. 

For sport organisations, and the organisers of mega-events such as the Olympic Games, the opportunities are obvious. A larger pool of potential participants will become available when levels of skill mastery and movement confidence increase. Sport governing bodies and sport clubs have to become smarter and more strategic in their marketing and service offering focus, in that there is clear evidence of transition points during the early life-stages about the type of sport offerings (potential) participants want, and how this affects the extent and duration of their participation. These stages are early childhood, primary age, secondary age, adult, and elderly. Each of these stages requires policy makers and strategies to focus on what is most likely to bring or keep people into sport. These foci move from modified sport offerings, to recruitment, to retention, to engagement. Underpinning the whole model is a lifelong commitment to developing and maintaining a high level of physical literacy, which, in turn, would positively impact the likelihood of people becoming and remaining physically active, and that, in turn, provides fertile ground for sport organisations to recruit physically more active people into sport.

Ultimately, elite sport organisations will reap the benefits of recruiting talented athletes. This is an ecosystem approach towards developing sport participation in the wider context of facilitating physically active lifestyles. But sport ‘show’ business owners and managers – be aware…! Your competitions exist by the virtue of a vibrant and healthy community sport system, and beyond that, a population base that is physically literate and as a consequence, physically active. Watching the Olympic Games is not going to solve the obesity pandemic. Hosting the Games – Brisbane – is not going to lead to increased physical activity levels. Participation in Parkrun, cycling to work, going to the gym or playing sport at your local club will. If a couple of billion dollars dedicated to hosting the Olympic Games would be allocated to a national sport and physical activity public health strategy, the wellbeing and economic returns would reap the ultimate gold for all Australians.