Experts Call for Assessment of How London Olympics, Paralympics Can Affect Public Health

With just 1 year to go before the start of the 2012
Olympic and Paralympic Games in London, the focus should be on obtaining
evidence on how the Games will affect public health, claim a group of public
health experts in a commentary published online in The Lancet.

A robust assessment of the long-term health and
socioeconomic impacts of individual interventions and the event as a whole has
the potential to justify the enormous investment and to establish the possible
health gains of staging future events, according to Kaye Wellings and
colleagues from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in London.

“An emphasis on legacy, not just in terms of
sporting infrastructure but also the effects of urban regeneration and the
stimulus of physical activity and sports participation on the well-being of the
population, is a unique and distinguishing feature of the 2012 Olympics,”
the authors wrote.

At a cost of more than £9 billion, the equivalent
of £150 for every man, woman and child in the United Kingdom, the Games
promise the population a wide range of lasting benefits, the experts claim. In
particular, urban regeneration of one of the most impoverished parts of the
United Kingdom has the potential to address the structural determinants of
health by creating affordable housing, doubling the area of green space and
increasing employment opportunities.

According to the researchers, past host countries have
failed to assess the health and social effects of regeneration programs, and
this lack of assessment has led to missed opportunities and damaging health
outcomes. “Absence of previous assessment is partly attributable to the
complex effects of nonhealth interventions on health, particularly
interventions that are implemented across a large geographical area with major
physical change,” the authors wrote.

For the 2012 Games, the UK Department of Culture, Media
and Sport has commissioned a meta-evaluation to address six legacy promises
relating to sport and physical activity, regeneration, culture, sustainability,
the economy, and disability. Each of these areas has implications for health or
relates to socioeconomic determinants of health.

But according to the authors, these initiatives will not
be easy to measure. Adding to this difficulty, the effect of structural
improvements on the health of local populations will be costly and could take a
generation to be realized.

“Undertaking the meta-evaluation will require
agility, methodological flexibility and a substantial research effort …
[and] it will require the understanding that the real legacy of the Olympics
might have greater effects on the social and structural determinants of health
than on health itself,” the authors concluded. “[But] the dividend
will be that not only the host nation obtains evidence on the benefits and
costs of such an enormous investment, but also future candidate cities will
have improved evidence on the possible gains for health of staging the Games,
how best to maximize these gains and what pitfalls to avoid.”

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