Olympic Success Cannot Coax Surfers Off the Couch

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Lack of surge in visits during Olympics to popular fitness website C25K.com may mean elite spots are not motivating the ordinary man and woman to get off the couch and get healthy.

It is the case that maybe the Olympics does not inspire people to get fit, and investment in elite athletes may be better spent in other ways to inspire the broader community

The world watched in admiration and amazement as London played host to a fabulous fortnight of sporting excellence, and the end of the month sees the Paralympics throw up similar spectacles of human endeavour and achievement.

The social networks, the newspapers and the television channels have been trumpeting about the inspiration offered by the athletes as they ran, jumped, threw, swam, dived or powered their way to immortality. 'Inspire a Generation' was the motto that the London Olympic Games Organising Committee, led by Sebastian Coe, used to persuade the IOC to vote for London as the host Olympic city. And it was a phrase that appeared firstly with IOC president Jacques Rogge in his opening speech, and then again and again throughout the Olympics.

Watching our heroes perform feats of near super human achievement is the catalyst for us to change our lifestyles. Seeing an athlete hurtle around the track or row at a lung-busting speed is the best way to get people off the couch and into regular physical activity. Or is it? Are we being supremely naive to think that someone sitting on their couch in front of the television will watch the performance of Usain Bolt, Chris Hoy or Michael Phelps and as a consequence be inspired to join their local athletics, cycling or swimming club? Certainly Rob Donkersloot, founder of fitness website C25K.com does not think so.

'It is the case that maybe the Olympics does not inspire people to get fit, and investment in elite athletes may be better spent in other ways to inspire the broader community,' says Donkersloot, who has spent the past five years building the online fitness website C25K.com that helps those wanting to get healthier by doing the Couch to 5k running program.

With Governments promising to match or better the eye watering amounts of money that are poured into the most successful sports, Donkersloot may well have a point. His drive and ambition is to get people out of their armchairs and into a healthier lifestyle, and with his website attracting more than 160,000 visits a month he may well be having as much impact, if not more, than any gold medal-winning athlete.

However, he did have hopes for an "Olympic effect' although these were quickly dashed: 'I expected to see a surge of traffic to my website around the Olympics, but there was really no change at all. At New Year I get a doubling of website traffic, which I put down to New Year resolutions.'

Not that Donkersloot thinks that the Olympics cannot do their bit to boost participation rates. 'If we see more people out cycling that is a good thing, but that is more likely to happen if governments invest in good cycle lanes and off-road routes, rather than as a direct result of Olympic success. What the publicity surrounding Kristin Armstrong, Anna Meares and Bradley Wiggins has done is raise the profile of cycling so the government is under more pressure to facilitate the activity. That will not be the case in all sports; just because Usain Bolt won three gold medals for sprinting does not mean that we will suddenly see heaps more athletics tracks being built with people queuing to get in.'

One of the problems that Donkersloot sees with the concept of Olympic inspiration is the reality of the situation. 'We watch these athletes to admire them and applaud them,' he says. 'That does not mean we think we can get out there and emulate their success. For some people that sort of challenge is an immediate turn-off. People think: "If I trained I could jump like that… no way, I'm not even going to try" and that is the problem.'

"Even if someone did harbour thoughts that they could be an Olympian, very few people have the confidence or the support to get out there and do it. You will not see a sudden rush of people taking up these sports. It was what it was, a great spectacle of elite sport."

Addressing the needs of the wider community is what C25K.com is all about. The website provides would-be runners with all the information and encouragement needed to take the first steps from couch potato to becoming a regular runner. One of the unique points about C25K is its relaxed attitude, cultivated to ease runners into a training program gently. Members of the online community are encouraged to work at their own rate and to only put in the effort they feel comfortable with. The website is flooded with stories from runners who used the Couch to 5k training program and as a result have lost weight, become healthier and in some cases overcome serious and life-threatening illnesses.

It also offers a support network, runners tell their tales and share their woes. There is guidance on the best running gear or equipment, and reviews of running apps and podcasts. As a one-stop shop for would-be runners it is ideal as it presumes everyone is starting from a position of uncertainty and possibly fear of the challenge, so the advice is gentle and the feedback positive and affirming.

That is not to say the members of the community lack ambition. The site is full of stories from runners who began their running careers as 280 pound (127kg) couch potatoes but who are now multi-marathon runners. There is a clear progression for runners to follow. Once a runner has mastered the 5k distance there are programs for 10km training and further. The point is that no-one is pushing too hard or making the experience painful.

'It’s not about creating elite athletes. We are about encouraging people, who probably didn't think they could, to get up, get outside and try a new, free and enjoyable activity,' says Donkersloot, who admits that he was the stereotypical couch potato before the running bug bit him. Next month he is running a 100 mile ultra race.

'We cannot all be Olympians, but we can and should enjoy a fit and healthy lifestyle.'

Visit http://www.c25k.com for more information.

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