How the positive impact of sporting events can be felt long after they’ve ended

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Susannah Rodgers, Technical Adviser on Disability Inclusion, Climate and Environment Directorate, Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom


  • Large scale sporting events have the potential to bring people together and boost their mental and physical health long after they’ve ended.
  • Spirit of 2012 continues the volunteering and social impact created by the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
  • By embedding legacy planning into sporting event bid planning, events can live on long after the final whistle.

Wednesday 29th August 2012 is a date forever etched in my memory. I sat in the Athletes’ Village, huddled around a TV with my teammates watching the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games. At the time, I barely registered the enormity of competing at the second largest sporting event in the world, watched by millions online and in person.

A lot was at stake beyond the field of play, there were grand ambitions to challenge perceptions of disability and some possibly misplaced ideas at the time around ‘inspiration.’ I was focused on my swimming, however, controlling my fraught nerves and doing my best to deliver results for my team, friends, family and the nation excitedly watching.

How do you deliver something positive beyond an event?

We all enjoy the buzz created by concerts, festivals and events with live sport and music, but what happens afterwards? How can you bottle the creativity, positivity and shared experience to deliver something positive beyond the events themselves? How do you reach people who may not feel part of an event that took place ten years ago? Given a myriad of global issues, can events be used to bring people together, not just for one moment of happiness, but for longer?

As an Olympic or Paralympic athlete like myself, you don’t consider the longer-term potential of the Games beyond large events hosted by different countries every few years. But, a decade later, I have been closely involved in efforts to create wider and lasting benefits from hosting the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, alongside continuing to compete as an athlete. Two years after I left the London stadium, I joined the board of directors of an organisation designed to continue the volunteering and social impact created by hosting London 2012.

Spirit of 2012’s legacy

Spirit of 2012 was established as an independent Trust by the UK’s National Lottery Community Fund in 2013. It was given a £47 million endowment to continue and recreate the spirit of pride, community and empowerment of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Over the past decade, Spirit of 2012 has invested in over 200 projects across the UK, spanning volunteering, events, sports, arts and culture. It has gathered learning, evidence and scaled projects that work in improving wellbeing, social cohesion and disability inclusion.

It has also explored how national events can be relevant to towns and rural communities, miles away from where they are being hosted and how smaller, locally-run events can have a profound impact on community connection. To date, projects funded by Spirit of 2012 have reached 5.5 million people in the UK. Here are some of our headline numbers:

By investing in grant-funded projects across the UK, Spirit of 2012 has widened the impact beyond the host city itself. The lessons learnt from how to do events ‘well’ have since been translated to other UK cities through other large events, including Hull and Coventry, who were each awarded UK Cities of Culture in 2017 and 2021 respectively.

And, the Commonwealth Games, hosted by Glasgow in 2014, had a longer-term impact built into the planning through Fourteen. Fourteen started in Glasgow and reached into fourteen places across the UK to link with community organisation volunteers, ensuring they used arts, physical activity and events to bring people together to improve their communities. Similarly, the Commonwealth Games just took place at the start of August in Birmingham, with many longer-term impact events planned into the design, such as Critical Mass, an inclusive dance project for young people.

Sporting legacies

Evidence suggests that behaviour change does not automatically follow from hosting a large sporting event, but there are examples of successful longer-term work, originally rooted in events. Spirit of 2012 funded Get Out Get Active, for example, a £7.5 million grant to Activity Alliance in the UK. This successfully created an inclusive approach to physical activity that reaches people with low levels of activity, helping them to make a change in their lives – something that the inspiration programmes attached to many major sporting events often struggle to deliver.

Volunteering also has huge potential to bring communities together and, as vaccination centre volunteers have proven during the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak over the past two years, they are an essential crisis response backbone during emergency situations. The London 2012 Gamesmakers who volunteered at the Games were a highlight and the engine room of those Games.

And, it’s not just people on the receiving end who benefit from volunteering. Evidence shows that it can improve the well-being of the volunteers and their communities. One example is the Hull Volunteers project, established during Hull UK City of Culture in 2017, volunteers for this project quickly rallied to support their community during the Covid-19 lockdowns several years after Hull’s City of Culture year and this has developed into a thriving and ongoing local volunteer community.

The magic of large events is that they have the potential to create wide and lasting change in their host countries, but often this is lost. Following a global pandemic and faced with conflict, we have a situation of reduced funding, rising costs of living, food and fuel scarcity and the impacts of climate change. It is hard for any city to justify bidding to host such large, costly and ‘nice to have’ mega-events. But with a mandatory requirement to demonstrate the potential for longer-term positive social impact, improved inclusion and accessibility, greener credentials and new, accessible sporting venues that are repurposed for communities, there is a much stronger rationale.

Spirit is a spend-out charity with a defined end, but it has developed a wealth of learning over the past decade that can in some way inform the shape of future events, large and small, to ensure better planning and to optimise contributions towards public health and social wellbeing goals. This cannot be a tick box exercise. It must be a well-thought-through, cross-governmental and cross-sectoral effort – identifying what a city and country can gain from an event and how this can be embedded into bid planning. If a so-called ‘legacy’ or ‘impact’ strategy is not a mandatory part of a bid, then it is a wasted opportunity.

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