Hosting big sports events might not benefit the local population

London 2012Hosting an international sporting event like the Olympic Games or the Commonwealth Games is an expensive business. The London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, for example, will cost a total of £9.35bn, equivalent to £150 for every man, woman, and child in the United Kingdom.

Such costs are generally justified in terms of collateral benefits for the population of the host city, both during the event and for years after – the so called “legacy” of the event.

However, Researchers in Glasgow – host of the 2014 Commonwealth Games – have searched through the sparse published and unpublished research on the topic and found little overall evidence that major multi-sport events provide health or socioeconomic benefits for the population of the host city.

They looked for studies on the long term effects of major sports events held between between 1978 and 2008 and came across very few papers – only 54 poor quality studies.

Five studies looked at the benefits on the host population in terms of health; more specifically, rates of suicide, paediatric health service demand, presentations for asthma in children (two studies), and problems related to illicit drug use. Overall, the data did not show a clear cut negative or positive health impact of major multi-sport events.

Of the studies that looked at whether sports participation in the population was affected, one found a decrease in the Manchester after the 2002 Commonwealth Games, whereas another reported upward trend in sports participation from the early 1980s to 1994 in association with the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain.

More studies – 18 in total – looked at whether big sports events improved economic factors, which in turn might have a positive effect on the health of the population; for example, by giving people the cash flow to pay their dentist’s fees or make healthy eating choices. But again the overall effect was unclear. Most studies did associate big sports events with an increase in economic growth and employment, but the studies often used lots of estimated data and didn’t collect the data very long after the event, so are hardly water tight. The more robust studies weren’t any more conclusive when looked at collectively – inflation increased in Barcelona and Atlanta in the run up to hosting the Olympic Games, but not in Sydney.

“The available evidence does not refute expectations of a legacy, positive or negative, but it does establish that very little is known about the impacts of previous large multi-sport events and, therefore, the possible impacts of future events,” conclude the authors. “This contrasts with official documentation used recently to promote such events,” they add curtly.

However, we Brits may not be throwing money down the drain by financing the next Olympic Games. As the authors of this study acknowledge, the research on the legacy benefits of major multi-sports events is patchy to say the least, hence why they were unable to draw any clear positive or negative conclusion. The London 2012 Olympics will be the first for which long term health and socioeconomic impacts will be explicitly measured, so should hopefully clear up whether or not hosting these big events really does benefit the local population.

Editorialist Mike Weed isn’t so sure that this effort will give us the evidence we need though, as he feels the measures being used for the 2012 event are not detailed enough. “The risk for the UK population is not that we will not get the benefits we want for our £150 a head investment in London 2012, but that there will be no robust evidence of what we have paid for,” he says.

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McCartney G et al. (2010). The health and socioeconomic impacts of major multi-sport events: systematic review (1978-2008). BMJ 340. DOI: 10.1136/bmj.c2369

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