When the U.K. was awarded the 2012 Summer Olympics seven years ago, British Olympic organizers vowed to use the win to inspire two million Britons to get more physically active before the London Games opened. Well, the Olympic torch will be lit on July 27, and the U.K. has failed to get its target number of couch potatoes off the couch. What went wrong? Here, a brief guide:
How overweight are Brits?
The U.K. is the fattest nation in Western Europe, and its citizens have been packing on the pounds recently. Twenty-six percent of British adults are obese, up from 15 percent in 1993. According to a study published Wednesday in medical journal The Lancet, British citizens have one of the most sedentary lifestyles in the world. Roughly 63 percent of the population is defined as inactive, compared to 40.5 percent in the U.S. and 32.5 percent in France. The U.S., where 36 percent of adults are obese, is still fatter, but the British are catching up, fast.
How had the British government planned to fix that?
It developed formal plans to get 1 million citizens more interested in sports, mostly by creating free sports programs in schools for kids. The government pledged to energize another 1 million people by encouraging them to bike, walk to work, or otherwise get off their butts. Despite some success in the first years after the Games were awarded, the government later largely abandoned its pledge. At the current rate, one expert estimated, the U.K. won't reach the target of 2 million more physically active people until 2035.
Why did the U.K. give up?
Money. The British government has been self-imposing deep spending cuts to keep its head above water as Europe's debt crisis expanded. Sports programs for adults, such as free swimming in London, were scrapped or drastically reduced. Olympics secretary Jeremy Hunt said the government is still trying to help local athletic clubs recruit more participants, and a government official added that the original targets were "arbitrary," anyway.
Was this a squandered opportunity?
Maybe. But the original goals might indeed have been a bit unrealistic, Bill Kohl of the Texas School of Public Health, who wrote the study published in The Lancet, tells The Associated Press. "The Olympics do inspire people, but there is no evidence there are increased physical activity levels afterwards," he says. No host country has really managed to convert Olympic enthusiasm into a fitness craze, in part because pudgy ordinary folks can't seem to relate to world-class athletes. "If you see somebody in Lycra at the Olympics on a 10,000-pound ($15,600) bike," Canterbury Christ Church University sports expert Mike Weed says, "that says this is not for you."