Dr Phil Hammond, broadcaster and GP returner in Bristol

Can the Olympics create a public health legacy?

What will the health legacy of the Olympic Games be? The dream would be to shift the UK’s bell-shaped curve for physical fitness to the right, and for millions of us to get off our backsides and try to emulate the achievements of ‘Golden Saturday’. Of course, that could also lead to a glut of ORSI (Olympic-Related Sports Injuries), as children attempt to jump like Greg Rutherford in a busy side street. The facilities in Stratford and other locations are truly impressive, but unless we improve our protection of school-playing fields and public open spaces—many of which have been sold off over the last 30 years—there simply won’t be the facilities to fulfil the ambition.

The Government’s current policy is the strictest ever—the sale of a playing field is now supposed to be an absolute last resort with local authorities having to demonstrate that they have exhausted all other sources of funding for the required school-sports facilities. The sale proceeds must be used to improve outdoor facilities wherever possible, so that local authorities should provide ‘first-class’ outdoor facilities before introducing new indoor facilities; and new sports facilities must be ‘sustainable’ for at least 10 years. Strong words, but for many areas it has come too late.

The scale of the problem is encapsulated in a new report, Child’s play, which provides a pictorial view of evidence on the growth and development of children in the six Olympic boroughs.1 It brings together 17 sets of profiles published by the Public Health Observatories in England and London Health Programmes during 2011/12 to investigate what is happening from the antenatal period through to adolescence in some of London’s most deprived boroughs.1 It shows that the health and life chances of children in these boroughs deteriorates significantly between early and teen years. More encouragingly, it shows the clear benefit of antenatal investment to give mothers and babies the best possible start in life.1

The report also finds significant variation in health outcomes across the boroughs. Tower Hamlets stands out for its low rates of smoking in pregnancy, high rates of breastfeeding initiation and MMR immunisation (nearly 100%).1 But other boroughs lag behind, suggesting that the competitiveness of the Olympics needs to be followed by collaboration in public health, where we share best practice and commissioning expertise, rather than just protect our own patch.

A wider legacy of the games could also be an emotional one. On Golden Saturday, strangers were hugging each other across the UK. Andy Murray hugged a tearful boy he’d never met before and thousands of competitors have not been shy of showing their love for each other and putting their emotions on public display. Can we capture this new found emotional intelligence and widen our circle of compassion beyond our families and into our communities? We shall see.

The extraordinary politeness, helpfulness, and cheerfulness of the 70,000 volunteers has particularly struck me. Whatever event you were lucky enough to get tickets for, you were greeted by smiling, happy people who were desperate to point you in the right direction and wish you a great day with lots of medals for your team. This was completely at odds with the British reticence, scepticism, and default miserableness. Where did that come from?

McDonalds, since you ask. You may despair that a global fast food company should be a major sponsor, but they sure know how to train volunteers, or ‘Games Makers’, putting them through their ‘event leadership programme’ at their ‘state-of-the-art London facilities’.2 We can scoff, but the private sector could teach the NHS a trick or two about customer care.

  1. Wright C, Lodge H, Jackson B. Child’s play? The antenatal to adolescent health legacy in the Olympic boroughs. London: London Health Observatory, 2012. Available at: www.lho.org.uk/viewResource.aspx?id=17927
  2. McDonalds website. Games maker programme. www.mcdonalds.co.uk/ukhome/People/Games-makers.htmlG

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