In this bitesize episode, I am joined by Dr Laura Misener to critically consider the potential of the Paralympic Games to increase disabled people's grassroots sport participation.
This episode is from a longer episode called, 'The Paralympic Games: Legacies and Empowerment', which is available to listen in full via the following link: https://disabilitysportinfo.buzzsprout.com/1901085/9691398
Speaker: CB: Dr Christopher Brown (Presenter – University of Hertfordshire, UK)
Speaker: LM: Dr Laura Misener (Participant – Western University, Canada)
Speaker: CB Time: 0:30
In this episode, we'll consider what difference the Paralympic Games can have on disabled people. I consider what we mean by legacy and consider how the Paralympic Games might, or might not, be able to influence sport participation. I spoke to Professor Laura Misener, an expert in the field of Paralympic legacies.
Laura, welcome to the show and thanks for joining me today to discuss Paralympic legacies. In the build up to a mega sport event, and after amazing sporting exploits, there’s often the belief that the event or sporting achievements from the athletes, will serve to inspire some people to take up sport. This is often framed as being a legacy from the event. Claims of legacies from mega sporting events are common. But what do we mean by legacy in a Paralympic context?
Speaker: LM Time: 1:14
Sure. I’m happy chat about Paralympic legacies. Legacy is an interesting concept because it's a bit nebulous in many respects. People use it for anything and everything that comes after the event or has been created or impacted by hosting a mega event. So it is a bit of a catch-all term. But the reality is what we really mean by legacy is anything that is directly created as a result of hosting the event. So often we think about that in terms of large infrastructure, such as stadia or venues that we have to build in order to host a large Games, such as the Olympic and Paralympic Games. And in relation then to Paralympic legacies, the piece that's really important to consider, is the ways in which that supports more individuals with disabilities becoming more involved in participation in sport in all realms of life. So creating infrastructure, such as those venues that become fully accessible, where they may not have been accessible previously, creating public transportation that actually connects individuals to those particular infrastructures, in order to create an accessible network so that you can actually participate. And then, of course, there are, you know, things beyond the physical structures and the concept of social legacies. So the idea that it will change our understanding or our feelings about participating in sport, for example. And around the Paralympic legacy piece, there's quite a bit that's associated with the idea that it will change our perceptions and understanding of disability and our awareness about issues of disability. And so, the Games are often touted as an example of the way that we can think differently, see and view disability differently. And maybe understand visibility differently and more positively in our everyday life. Those are sort of the common assumptions that are considered to be legacy. The challenge, of course, is really understanding and measuring any of those to see if they actually do create any of this legacy.
Speaker: CB Time: 3:31
Really interesting insights and lots of topics that have been covered in your answer there. This brings us to the idea of measuring legacy. Legacy seems to be an all-encompassing concept, so how do we go about measuring legacies from the Paralympic Games? Are there any insights from the literature in how we can do this?
Speaker: LM Time: 3:49
Well, a lot of scholars have tried to measure different legacies. And there's been arguments made that you can't really measure legacy in the direct aftermath of a Games: that's not actually the legacy. The legacy is something that comes in the long term. So, you know, the five to 10 years, even longer than that, range after the Games. That's really the true measure of legacy at least that's what scholars have argued for a long time. The problem, of course, becomes is, many of us aren't around for that amount of time. It takes a lot to actually do those kinds of studies that are extremely longitudinal. So studying Paralympic legacy from that longitudinal perspective is challenging and there are almost no studies that do that, that actually look at that longitudinal long-term legacy. A few studies have examined some more direct impacts post-Games. So, for example, looking at has it changed individual's attitudes towards disability in the direct aftermath of the Games? So I was involved in a study with some colleagues who looked at the Commonwealth Games as an example of how does this potentially impact individuals’ attitudes. And what we really found is, in fact, the Games didn't really have much of an impact on people's perception and understanding of disability, partly because those who typically come to watch the event or are involved in the event, already have pretty positive attitudes, already have a really generally good understanding and insights about disability. So it's not necessarily impacting the broader society in a way we want it to. And so that becomes the big challenge of measuring legacy is because we need to ensure that there is intentionality. So something actually needs to be set out in advance of the Games, planned to do something to create these impact and to create these long-term impacts in order for us to measure. Otherwise, what we find is scholars measuring things that weren't really supposed to happen anyway and are just hoping that maybe something did happen or maybe the organisers say, ‘oh, this might be a great outcome, maybe lots of people will get involved in participating in sport’. That's a great one that event organisers like to say, everybody's gonna get up and start getting active once they watch the Games. And the reality is, that just doesn't happen. There's maybe a small inspiration, particularly in the Paralympic space, where typically we don't see individuals with disability on TV or broadcasts in that way. So it may have a small inspiration effect, but it doesn't have a big long-term participation impact in the way that event organisers or politicians might suggest that it does. And so those are the big pieces is actually measuring legacy is very, very challenging.
Speaker: CB Time: 6:41
I'm really interested in this notion that a mega event, such as Olympic Games or the Paralympic Games, may not be able to provide sustainable regular sports participation. We often hear claims from governments and host organisers that, ‘yes, this mega event will be able to inspire people to be active to participate in more sport’. But if we've got evidence to the contrary, why does this idea, this belief that a mega event will provide regular participation persist? For our listeners, are you able to explain why mega events maybe aren't the best way of increasing regular participation amongst the population.
Speaker: LM Time: 7:26
Right. I mean, that's a million dollar question in some respects. Why doesn't it create participation and why do we not see the effects that event organisers claim it to be? I think if an event in of itself, I mean, to put it in really simplistic terms in a nutshell, if an event was the magic pill that could fix the inactivity problem, that we’d be set, right? We host a big event and everybody would get up and start active, but I mean, we understand very well theories of behaviour change, that behaviour change takes a long time and more than one singular process or event in order to change people's behaviour. So if people aren't already active, just seeing others active is not likely to inspire them to be active. In fact, we have seen studies that have shown the opposite because, in fact, it gets individuals realising, ‘well, I actually probably could never achieve that. So why do I start? Why would I even start?’ So it actually goes counter intuitive to our understandings of what we know about behaviour change. And interestingly, we have even seen some research where we might see what might look like an impact on participation from the Games and particularly Paralympic Games. But what those studies have found is that it's getting people who were already active, to try new things, so they might be switched to another sport. Maybe they see something in the Games they didn't know existed, and that's a really big piece about Paralympic Games is that you know, there might be, they might see somebody might see something they didn't know was available to them. And so that active person might then switch to another sport and so that's where sometimes organisers and those in the sport sector might say it does have an impact. It may have an impact in shifting people to different sports, maybe encouraging some people to go towards a high performance perspective. But overall, it's not changing the behaviour of average everyday citizens to say, ‘I want to get up and start moving and participating. To change behaviour takes a lot more than that. It's not just simply showing somebody what's out there and available. We need to be able to lead people in order to get people more active. So there needs to be an activation on top of that event, if we actually expect to see any changes in behaviour.
Speaker: CB Time: 9:51
I think we can make a distinction between those who already are participating in sport who may increase their frequency or engage in activity switching, and those who are new to sport participation. So when we hear claims about more people participating in sport, we have to question whether these claims are about already active individuals participating in more sport, or whether we're referring to new people participating in sport. It sounds like getting new people to participate in sport is harder. So it's the non-active individuals who we really want to take up sport from a health and social perspective, but that's harder to achieve using a mega sport event, it sounds like.
Speaker: LM Time: 10:28
Yeah, because to change people's behaviour and I mean. I work in a School of Kinesiology and my colleagues are from all disciplines in kinesiology, so from sport management, psychologist, exercise physiologist, and this is what we study, is getting people to actually be active and change behaviour, and so just an event in of itself is not enough. The one value I think that's really important that we do need to remember though, in the Paralympic Games or events that demonstrate and show disability sport is, is at the very least it shows people what is available and what the options are. Where we don't see that on a regular basis. That's not physical to us. I don't think a lot of people knew or understood things about how Boccia, for example, is played or that that is a sport that is available to individuals with severe levels of impairment, severe levels of cerebral palsy. That's not something that is known and well understood. So the Games create an opportunity to showcase those things and show people that there are these opportunities available to them. But it's really upon event organisers and cities to do something about that if they want to get people active. Not just show it, you need to lead us to it and let us know how to get involved in that.
Speaker: CB Time: 11:49
So you can't just wait for the event to engender change by itself. That's not going to be sufficient. You need to have supplementary programmes and initiatives to encourage people to be active on a regular basis.
Speaker: LM Time: 12:00
And, essentially, that's the concept, and I know we're going to talk about it, the idea of leveraging. Because that really moves us beyond just simply expecting the event to create the outcomes, to using the event as a catalyst to create particular outcomes. So if we want people to be more active or involved in disability sport, the event itself is a great showcase to what's available. But now we then need to activate on that. So demonstrate to individuals, ‘well, now that you've seen that, here's the local programme that you can get involved in. And here's how you get involved and come and try it out. And let's try a free day’. Let's have, you know, a free pass to it, bring a friend to it, so that we actually get people involved in trying those and then from there we can potentially build that sport participation in those opportunities. So leveraging is really about using the event as a catalyst, and then strategically creating those opportunities to have those particular outcomes and impacts and in this case, if we're talking about sport participation, it's making sure that clubs are ready, that organisations are ready and they're doing something to actually welcome new individuals and new participants into their organisations.
Speaker: CB Time: 13:16
You mentioned leveraging so I think now is a good time to focus on this. Leveraging is quite a hot concept in the legacy literature for the reasons that you mentioned. We know the event on its own is not going to be sufficient. If you want to get some participation benefits from the event you need to have leveraging to complement the staging of the event. But what do we know about leveraging techniques? What do we know about organisations leveraging the event? Is leveraging a common practice? Does leveraging happen before the event? Does it happen after the event? What's your understanding of leveraging in the literature?
Speaker: LM Time: 13:47
Right. So there's a little bit of a debate in the literature and those of us who sit on one side of it. I would argue that there's a clear distinction between legacy, which is just an outcome of the event the event happening, something gets put in place and the event organisers, the Organising Committee moves on. Leveraging is about the capitalising on event related resources, so using whatever resources come in associated with the event, those things need to be tied to local initiatives. So ideally, it's not out of the blue, something completely different, but it really fits and is embedded within the policy structures existing within a local community. And that can then be something that is enduring and sustainable, longer term after the event. So can it happen before, during, or after, was one of your questions and yeah, it can, because in fact, the catalytic effect of an event happens at each of those stages. It happens before when you're gonna have this build-up and excitement of it coming and there are new infrastructure being built and you're recruiting volunteers, so you can use those opportunities to catalyse and create new things that might happen or they may be embedded in the community, new volunteers, new participants, right? So you can use that. During the event you have this celebration opportunity. And it's easy to capitalise on that celebration to create potential new outcomes that you might want to see. And then of course, in the aftermath of the event once the event is actually done, you have left with these legacy pieces, these resources, whether they be infrastructure, financial resources, human resources, in order to use those strategically to create particular outcomes, whether it be sport participation, whether it's to focus on new and accessible programming in the community, transportation, there's all kinds of different things that can be done to use those resources.
So I would say from a theoretical perspective, we know well and we have good ideas about what can and should be done. But to be fair, we don't have a lot of empirical evidence to support this right. This is a good idea and there are events that are doing it, and we have some evidence that shows how events are how communities and organisations have used an event to create new participants in a programme or support a new facility to get new participants into that facility. But, in reality, we don't have a lot of studies that actually demonstrate how this should be done. And one of the key issues is that we know an organising committee is a short-term entity. They’re there to organise an event and then after the event is done, they're gone. So someone needs to be taking ownership over those leveraging initiatives that will be enduring beyond the Games. So if we really want more people to get involved in disability sport, it needs to be living in a different space. Those ideas, those leveraging activities, it can't just live with the Organising Committee. And I think that's the big piece that's been a stopgap in the literature, is that people have studied events and organising committees as being the central entity, but the reality is, as we know, is that event in those organising committees are fleeting, so we need to start to look towards what other organisations, what other groups could be capitalising and leveraging those events. And I’m being a bit long winded here, but I can give you one example of that is I've worked closely with a group in the province of Ontario. That is a group of disability sport organisations and provincial sport organisations that came together around 2015. Pan Am Parapan American Games. And the idea was to increase participation for individuals with disabilities in sport and physical activity. And so the event was the catalyst to create the bringing together of that group, but now we're talking five years out, and that group remains working together continuing to create opportunities, continuing to capitalise on the resources that were brought in as a part of the 2015 Games. And we have seen significant increases in programming opportunities and participation opportunities for individuals with disabilities capitalised on that and use that for coaching resources, increased Para coaching. So there are some instances of demonstrating how this is working. But I would say those instances are few and far between.
Speaker: CB Time: 18:30
In terms of that particular example you refer to, do we have data about the number of people participating? It seems there are resources available and knowledge may have increased, but in terms of converting people from being non-active to active, do we have the data to support the leveraging efforts that have gone on for that particular example?
Speaker: LM Time: 18:50
So I might throw my own government under the bus here by saying this, you know, but unlike the UK where you are, or in Australia, we don't have very good, broad-based statistical data related to participation numbers. So we actually don't have, even on our census data, we don't collect data about participation numbers. So we have very little information to know where the baseline was to begin with. So on one hand, it makes it really easy for politicians to say, ‘we've increased participation! Look at all these new people participating!’ because they have no idea where we started from. So anybody participating suddenly looks like a great increase and we're doing a wonderful job. So we have struggled with really being able to sort of prove that numerically and to really sort of say this is the actual increase in numbers. We have evidence from each of the partners that's involved in this collective to say, you know, they tell us and they have shown us within their own programmes, whether they've seen increased numbers, and they can tell us what those numbers are. But we what we don't know is, are those sports switchers? Did they come from another sport and suddenly decide, ‘well, now there's a new velodrome so I'm going to take up cycling instead of, you know, the swimming I was doing before’. We don't know to the extent at which we're seeing that. Anecdotally, from the partners. We are seeing, many have been saying, ‘yeah, we know these people, we’ve seen them around. It's not necessarily new’. So, because of that, what we actually have done recently is the partners have focused more on trying to get people into introductory programmes through partnership opportunity. So bring a friend to the programme. You know, come for free for your first 5 sessions and actually seen some good uptake on that. Partnering with hospitals and therapy programmes to get those who are maybe already in therapy or using physical activity as a therapeutic mechanism into participating outside of that space and a regular mechanism. So we're seeing some really good uptake on that. So that's a bit of a stay tuned, because I think what we will see is there is some opportunity of that, but overall, I would say the biggest piece for this group is the fact that they stayed together and they're working together. So the partnership is really the key legacy and then they are capitalising on that partnership.
Speaker: CB Time: 21:24
I think this points to the issue of measurement we discussed earlier. You've got the issue of a lack of baseline data and then trying to understand really granular detail about the nature of the participants. Are these new people to sport and physical activity? Are these already active individuals trying a new sport? We don't know because the baseline data isn't sufficient to really give us those insights. So I think this highlights the point you made earlier that it is tricky to measure legacy
Speaker: LM Time: 21:51
Extremely difficult to measure legacy. And, you know, on the one hand, we know governments, politicians in particular, want to see that numerical data, they want to see the numbers of how many people are participating. And then the other there are those of us who are in the research realm who see yes, that's important. But there are other pieces that are important. What is the experience of participation? Because if we think about it, one of the great things that can happen as a legacy is the creation of, for example, accessible facilities. I talked about that at the outset. And for individuals with disability, that's a big piece. You know, they may have been participating before but maybe it wasn't in a venue that was really meeting their needs, or a programme that was meeting their needs. And so that qualitative data has been really important and we have collected some information on that. I’m gonna put a plug in, we have a project ongoing right now. That is actually a website called Project Echo. And it is about asking people, ‘what are their experiences in previously host cities? So do they have better opportunities? Do they feel like they have better access? What is the experience that they're getting?’ Because that qualitative information is really quite critical to understanding legacy, not just the numbers. So we can measure those things but you know, comes back to politicians don't always want to hear that qualitative piece. They want the numbers.
Speaker: CB Time: 23:24
Good plug! Do check it out, Project Echo, really important project going on. Like you said, we do need qualitative evidence, those rich understandings of legacy that may not be highlighted in more quantitative studies. Well, it's clear to me from this discussion, that leveraging is really important. And if we want to get any sport participation benefits from mega sport events, leveraging must accompany the event itself. But do organisations leverage mega sport events from what we know? What's your take on this, Laura? Or how common is leveraging?
Speaker: LM Time: 23:44
It's not as common as we might think. And we go back to the central question of whose responsibility is it? So what we do know is that we think for sport participation, for example, it should reside with community sport organisations, local sport organisations. But we've done some research that has suggested that those organisations don't have the capacity or the ability really to activate in the way we might want them to. If we think about local community organisations, they're already stretched for resources, mostly acting, you know, in the capacity of volunteers and limited volunteer support. So, you know, even when we've tried to work with them to help them and support them leverage an event, it's been very, very challenging. And we haven't seen the outcome that we would have liked in order to support a leveraging effort. But there have been other studies that have shown even small leveraging activities. For example, a colleague of mine at University of Waterloo, Luke Potwarka, did some work around the 2015 Pan Am Games about giving out, you know, free passes, just a singular free pass, come and try this new facility. And it had a really good impact on the uptake. So, many people did then come and try the facility and in doing so, those at the facilities then capitalise on that opportunity and then have developed the programme more. So some small things are happening. They might be happening more than we, as researchers really know, because I don't know that the organisations in the groups doing them really see that as a big deal. Like I think they just do it because, well, this is a great event and why wouldn't we do something how great and so in fact, you know, it's getting and finding those little things that are going on that are really important. And you know, the example that I talked about in the province of Ontario, I don't know that that's necessarily unique. I actually think there are more events that have partnership groups working together to leverage in some way, it's just that this is still a relatively new concept. So there isn't a lot of empirical evidence to support or understand how and why and in what mechanisms.
Speaker: CB Time: 25:56
As an expert in the field, are you able to summarise the current state of knowledge in the Paralympic legacy literature? What do you think will be the most important aspect for future research in this area, do you think?
Speaker: LM Time: 26:10
That's not a small question to end this up! That’s a big question! It's interesting, a number of years ago, some colleagues of mine, and I think you've spoken to one of them, David Legg, was part of that, we did a study on the state of Paralympic legacies. And at that time back in 2013, I think it was, I was astonished at the lack of research that was being done on Paralympic legacy, that we really knew almost nothing about what was happening related to legacy, leveraging and Paralympic Games. The things that we did know tended to be towards managerial implications. So for example, the importance of how the Paralympic Games has helped develop and fuel disability sport governance and developing sports organisations more broadly and across the globe. But beyond that we have very little understanding of what was happening with legacies related to the Games. Fast forward almost, you know, eight years later and it is pleasing to say we know a small bit more. We understand a little bit about, you know, what it looks like in terms of Paralympic impact in terms of venues, volunteers, what do volunteers, why do they volunteer? What are they doing at the Games? What do they get out of the Games? And we know a little bit about sport participation, and the fact that really, there isn't as much impact as we would like or hope that there might be. And we know a little bit more about sort of the broader implications around governance and partnerships, in terms of local level pieces. But I think what we do see is a pretty big gap in really understanding what impact the Games, the Paralympic Games, can have on cities, communities, and individuals. So I believe that is a big open piece because I encourage researchers to really take up this effort and really start to understand that. I think we have a good community of scholars who has really begun to take up that effort and we're learning more about athlete development, media and marketing, the communication strategies, broadcasting of the Games and the impact that has on local communities. And so, I suspect in the years to come, we're going to know and understand a lot more about Paralympic legacy because we have more scholars working in that space. And I find that very encouraging. But at the current time it's still in its infancy. So let's talk again in five years from now, Chris, and maybe we'll have a better understanding of Paralympic legacy.
Speaker: CB Time: 28:44
Yes, hopefully in five to 10 years’ time, we’ll have a larger wealth of knowledge to draw upon about Paralympic legacy. And we can then have an even more in-depth discussion about legacy. Well, that's all we've got time for. It's been really interesting chatting with you today, Laura, about Paralympic legacies and I thank you for your time. I hope you, Listener, have learned more about Paralympic legacies following our discussion. Laura, it's been great talking to you and I look forward to catching up with you soon!
Speaker: LM Time: 29:11
Well, thanks so much. It was great to be here.
*** Discussion ends ***
Speaker: CB Time: 29:13
That's all we have time for, Listener. Thank you for listening to this episode. Stay tuned for the next episode. Until then, goodbye.
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