As the London2012 Olympic Games drew to a spectacular end this week, attention quickly turned to the future and potential legacy and ‘inspiration’ it will deliver. This word has populated the media landscape and a quick search for #inspiration on twitter will give some indication of its prevalence. Unsurprisingly, the capacity for sport to ‘inspire’ has fronted the discourse before and during the 2012 Games. Over the coming months and years, the success of the Games will be held to its claim to ‘inspire a generation’. Yet only days later, following a BBC survey, concerns were raised that the effect of the games would be short-lived.

Whether or not the Games will have any lasting legacy in terms of increased rates in physical activity and sport remains to be seen. There is scant research evident to suggest that the hosting of the Games in other countries has led to any lasting impact on the increase in physical activity and sport; yet the 2012 slogan encapsulates the belief that it can.  The department of culture media and sport suggested that ‘the Games offer a fantastic opportunity to improve the lives of young people’.  In part, this might be achieved through initiatives such as International Inspiration, London 2012’s international sports legacy programme. But, the connotations of ‘a generation inspired’ which seemed to have captured the public’s imagination are of some utopian vision of sport in which young people are suddenly motivated to participate in sport following the iconic images of the medal success of British athletes.  Why then, following the BBC survey, might the public feel more proud to be British, but also feel that the positive effects of the Games might be short-lived?

Firstly, our relationship as spectators, viewers and consumers of the Games is at the heart of this discussion. Every Olympic and Paralympic Games breeds its own unique stories of the most touching illustrations of humanity. But ultimately, over the last couple of weeks our screens have been dominated by images of the iconic and elite. The gap between the elite, cyborgified images of athletes at the very top of their sport seem a distant reality from the varied and often more nuanced motivations for sustained participation in sport and physical activity at all levels. Undoubtedly, over the coming weeks many of us will feel ‘inspired’ to try new activities, work out or even return to sport as we ride on the London2012 wave. Some will even dream of following in the footsteps of those who have carved their space in the sporting history books. Once a nation wins the bid to host the games, the build up becomes a feature of its political and social terrain. However, for many the real Olympic and Paralympic experience is a short but intense month of spectacle glued with a sense of civic pride and togetherness. For many, during this time, following live actions becomes a feature of their everyday life. This intensity perhaps gives us a sense of temporarily entering a different reality; of being part of the Olympic experience. New social media platforms gave us the opportunity to move from being passive viewers to active producers of the discourse around the games; we could even tweet our favourite athletes.  Speaking at a news conference this week, Lord Coe praised the spectators for their ‘spirit of generosity’. Perhaps more than any other, the London2012 games brought spectators ever closer into the athlete’s world as if they were part of it.

Then, it ended. Images of an empty Olympic park and suggestions about how to fill the Olympic void have caught the media eye over the last couple of days.  In this sense, our engagement with the games might be closely aligned with that of an intoxicating and intense affair.  Many experienced some kind of euphoria as they celebrated ‘national success’ or were lucky enough to be a spectator at one of the Olympic venues.  Some were convinced of the Games value and meaning through a sense of intimacy brought about through its intense presence on our screens, tweets from athletes and the team GB paraphernalia.  This pervasiveness and intimacy seems a necessary but of course not sufficient ingredient in the recipe for success; otherwise what difference might it make that someone we don’t even know achieves their dream of winning a medal at a mega event?  But as coverage comes to an abrupt end, so too might that experience of not simply ‘watching’ the games, but being in it, being in and part of an elite sport world in an incredibly consuming way. As spectators we witness scenes of the empty Olympic park, whilst those elite athletes will continue to exist in that sporting elite. But for many, that engagement with that elite world has to end there.

Secondly, our relationship with these images are mediated by our own experiences. I have watched the games not only as a social scientist who researches sport, but as a former junior athlete who never quite achieved all that sport had initially promised. In this sense,  I also have to view these performances through a tolerable compromise; negotiating a neoliberal echo of failing to achieve whilst also experiencing spectator pleasure of wholesale familiarity of an old world with new and exciting performances. The Mayor of London Boris Johnson, suggested that GB Olympic success was a triumph of conservative values  “Kids in this country are seeing that there is a direct correlation between effort and achievement, and the more you put in, the more you get out. That is a wonderful, conservative lesson about life.” Countless others forge a similar pathway of enduring pain, making sacrifices and dreaming of glory but few are rewarded with the honour of being an Olympian let alone achieving medal glory. There will be thousands who watched these athletes excel and experience a mixed emotions of joy but also regret, envy, or nostalgia as they watch the games – of not quite achieving their dreams, or feeling let down by their failing injured bodies or the promise of sport.  Not that anyone could voice that in the midst of such national euphoria.

Furthermore, for any inspiration to be realized requires a complex blend of opportunity, resources, motivation and support.  Last week, a day after culture secretary Jeremy Hunt declared that school sports provision was ‘patchy’, it was revealed through a Freedom of Information request that Education secretary Michael Gove had approved the sale of over 20 school playing fields. At the same time, even if provision and opportunity were to increase as a legacy of the Games, we ought to be mindful of the dangers of a vision of Physical Education and School Sport driven by London2012 gold-haul success. Elite sport in Great Britain has clearly achieved momentum and a legacy for other elite athletes or those already competing seems possible.  However, visions of elite competitive sport often translate to forms of education and school sport which may ironically be counter productive. Viewed as a panacea, sport and education are often targeted as the vehicle through which to tackle all sorts of ‘social ills’ such as disaffection or obesity, and celebrated as the environment through which to breed our next champion. Yet framing sport and physical activity this way can often lead to configurations of PE and school sport which have an emphasis on fitness testing and competitive sport; the very things which research time and again tells us puts young people off being active. Undertaking physical activity for other reasons such as the pleasure of movement, or experiencing a connection with ones body or environment, can be quickly lost in this campaign.  Many young people do not engage with physical activity or sport because they don’t feel confident about their bodies.  Whilst many might feel inspired by exceptional performances, at the same time, many have a feeling that their bodies never match up to the idealized, toned and adonis physiques of Olympians. Such disaffection is hardly surprising given that even the bodies of female Olympians have over the past couple of weeks, been cruelly scrutinized by the media for being too ‘fat’.

Finally we might ask what is it that is appealing to us about these particular Games. What is it exactly that is inspiring us? A social media campaign has quickly ensued asking for a nation of more role models like these athletes instead of reality tv stars. Yet, curiously, several athletes have likened their experience of home nation support to that which might be experienced by a  footballer.  Is something shifting in the status of the Olympian? With their faces on postage stamps, post boxes painted gold in honour of their success, Olympic gold medalists are perhaps exalted to new heights in the public’s affections. Iconic and adorned, saturated in technology and commodified in cutting edge commercials, we might question what it is exactly that young people might feel inspired by and towards? A new love for sport or an instrumental drive to be an icon and sporting legend.  Certainly, living in host nation, having an opportunity to attend events and feel part of the games as a volunteer or spectator has given the British public a unique opportunity to experience inspiration in a new way.  But is this love affair over, or will it lead to some lasting change? If it can, then London2012 might just achieve something few other Games has succeeded in doing.

Next stop… The Paralympic Games…

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