Are the Olympics an Effective Intervention to Increase Population Physical Activity?

by Brett Holloway

The Olympic Games are a monumental, global event which accommodates over 13,000 athletes from over 200 countries. Displaying the absolute peak of physical performance, athletic prowess and mental toughness, the games present one of the ultimate forms of athletic entertainment and attract millions of viewers worldwide. However, in addition to all the glitz and glam associated with these amazing feats of human ability, the Olympics also provide a great amount of exposure to multiple forms of physical activity (PA)4. From a public health perspective, one may question whether such exposure might help improve PA rates from a national or international standpoint. In light of the most recent summer games in Rio and our alarming global inactivity rates8, is it possible that such an event could help the world get off the couch?

From a personal perspective, I’ve always found the Olympics to be a great motivational tool. Seeing some of the world’s best athletes, competing in some of my favorite sports, always has me itching to lace up my sneakers and hit the track. However, given my background and enthusiasm for exercise and sport, my personal anecdote may not be of the general opinion. In fact, it may be just the opposite if we consider the results of some of our previous Olympic games.

At the time of the London Olympics, the current Olympic Minister had anticipated that by 2012 the population of London would see over two million more people physically active, a million more playing sports, and 60% of youth playing at least 5 hours of sport a week1. Unfortunately, these goals were not achieved. Following the games, data from Sport England reflected a slight increase in those performing physical activity, however at a capacity much below recommended levels6. More over, the long term data is already showing that this initial increase is quickly fading6. Similarly, data focusing on youth PA rates was presented based on the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. While these numbers reflected a slight increase in PA rates within some regional jurisdictions, it was not enough to constitute any significant, wide scale changes across BC or Canada2. In opposition, it should be mentioned that some researchers and public health advocates are quick to reference the 2000 Sydney Olympics as having a potential positive influence on PA rates5. However, the majority of research presented only discussed the improved feelings and thoughts of those who were planning to become more physically active, with no evidence of a true behavior change actually occurring7.

Despite these findings, some have called into question the evaluation framework used to assess the impact of these multi-sport events on population PA4. While this certainly leaves room for anticipating more valid results, especially with the conclusion of the 2016 Olympics, we cannot ignore our persistently low physical inactivity rates8. That being said, we also cannot ignore the alternative public health benefits which the Olympics have been known to present. For instance, items such as improved transport infrastructure, housing and highway safety have been highlighted as contributing to improved social determinants of health resulting from the Olympic games5. So while it seems as though the Olympics may not be the greatest intervention to get society to lace up their sneakers or head out to the gym, more down stream effects may still be contributing, in some part, to improving local health conditions.

Despite the benevolent intentions of Olympic committees to promote health and improve PA rates, they may have missed the mark. But this begs the question, should we be relying on such events to truly make an impact on PA levels? In their latest installment of the Physical Activity Series, The Lancet has published an intriguing set of articles depicting the progress and challenges of curbing this global pandemic3. Throughout the series the onus seems to be placed more upon policy makers and government as vehicles to improve the capacity, surveillance, research and funding opportunities for PA interventions. In order to meet the WHO global target of a 10% physical inactivity reduction by 20258, more stringent efforts need to be put forth by these parties, and less on the expectations of other avenues, such as major sporting events.


  • Potwarka, L. R., & Leatherdale, S. T. (2016). The Vancouver 2010 Olympics and leisure-time physical activity rates among youth in Canada: any evidence of a trickle-down effect?. Leisure Studies, 35(2), 241-257.
  • The Lancet. (2016). Physical Activity 2016 Series: Progress and Challenges. Retrieved from on September 3, 2016.
  • MacAuley, D. (2015). The health legacy of hosting major sporting events. Canadian Medical Association Journal, cmaj-151149.
  • Murphy, N. M., & Bauman, A. (2007). Mass sporting and physical activity events: are they bread and circuses or public health interventions to increase population levels of physical activity?. Journal of Physical Activity and Health, 4, 193-202.
  • Sport England. (2016). The national picture. Retreieved from: on September 2, 2016.
  • Van den Heuvel, A., & Conolly, L. (2001). The impact of the Olympics on participation in Australia: Trickle down effect, discouragement effect or no effect. National Centre for Culture and Recreation Statistics, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Adelaide, SA.
  • World Health Organization. (2013). Global action plan for the prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases 2013-2020.


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