Home All 2012 London Olympic Games: The Optimism Legacy

2012 London Olympic Games: The Optimism Legacy

written by Bridget Grenville-Cleave 30 August 2012
Olympic Games Maker

Bridget Grenville-Cleave, MAPP graduate of the University of East London, is a UK-based positive psychology consultant, trainer and writer. She is author of Introducing Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide (2012), and The Happiness Equation with Dr Ilona Boniwell. She regularly facilitates school well-being programs and Positive Psychology Masterclasses for personal and professional development. Find her on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter @BridgetGC. Website. Full bio. Her articles are here.

During the recent London 2012 Olympic Games an unparalleled mood of optimism and hope swept across the United Kingdom. Even people who don’t love sports could not help being drawn into the anticipation and excitement, sharing the heroism of the medal winners and the heart-break of those who missed out, whether by a millimetre or a mile. Who could not be impressed by the sight of beaming Mo Farah winning gold in the 10,000m, the inimitable Usain Bolt and the Jamaican sprint team in the 100m, 200m and men’s 400m relay, or the magnificent, multi-talented Jessica Ennis in the women’s heptathlon? With so many breath-taking moments and new Olympic and world records set, only the most hard-hearted and care-worn weren’t moved.

Power of Optimism

We now know a great deal more about the power of optimism and hope through positive psychology research. Contrary to what you might expect, optimists make continued efforts to reach their goals whereas pessimists are more likely to give up when the going gets tough. Hope and optimism predict many desirable outcomes including academic achievement, good relationships, physical well-being, and freedom from depression and anxiety. In fact positive psychologist Chris Peterson refers to them as velcro constructs because they have so many positive correlates and consequences.

What’s all the more astonishing about the recent wave of positivity and enthusiasm in the UK is that exactly a year ago the world’s media was full ‘Broken Britain’ headlines following the August 2011 riots in London, Manchester, and Birmingham. The British are not naturally optimistic. We know from several studies of national character strengths that hope and optimism fall quite a long way down the list. Linley and colleagues place them at about 20 out of 24 in the UK. We’re not alone in this: hope and optimism don’t feature as signature strengths for any of the 54 nations studied by Park and colleagues.

2012 Olympic Gold Medal

2012 Olympic Gold Medal

Moving from Pessimism to Optimism

So how has it been possible for a population to move from pessimism to optimism in a relatively short space of time?  The feel-good factor we’ve experienced this summer may be the result of focusing on what is going well for the UK rather than what is going wrong. The media play a significant part in this. From the stunning opening ceremony onwards there was positive wall-to-wall coverage of the Games on TV, radio, in print, and online. This was augmented by the somewhat unexpected sporting prowess of the UK team in events such as rowing and cycling. Having been fed a media diet of failing footballers, cricketers, and tennis-players for years, to find out that there is an enormous amount of home-grown talent in such an array of Olympic disciplines has come as a huge surprise to many.

But this unusual wave of optimism isn’t just a result of sporting success. Aside from winning many more medals than anticipated, other aspects of the Games have won admiration, approval, and respect from around the world: the support and encouragement shown by British fans for sportsmen and women of all nations, the upbeat atmosphere, the efficient organization, and the boundless good humour and enthusiasm of the 70,000 Olympics volunteers (a.k.a ‘Games Makers’) over the two weeks of the games.

Our typical down-beat, self-deprecatory, complaining manner (almost!) disappeared for the 17 days of the Games. Instead, we took the opportunity to come together in support of positive endeavour and achievement, to watch together in awe as new world and Olympic records were set, to cheer and celebrate as we witnessed a spectacular performance, to commiserate together when things didn’t turned out as we hoped, and above all to show our appreciation for the highest standards and performance in sport that we will ever see in this country in our lifetime. It was a remarkable demonstration of human endeavour and achievement. As Mo Farah put it immediately after winning the 10,000m gold medal, “It’s all hard work and grafting…It’s been a long journey grafting and grafting, but anything is possible”. (Grafting is a Northern English expression for working hard and making a real effort.)

Now that the Olympic Games are over, many have been putting their minds to the vexing question of the ‘Olympics Legacy.’ Most of the debate has focussed on how to encourage British children and young people to aspire to sporting greatness. The UK government has promised to fund elite athletes up to the 2016 Games in Rio. Of course sport should play a more important role in the school curriculum, and yes, for some people, sport does change lives. But I think this is missing the point. It’s almost as if, in the past, before the 2012 Olympics, our mindset had been one where we simply hadn’t tried very hard (not just in sports but in other domains as well), giving us a ready-made excuse for not succeeding. The real legacy of the Olympic Games isn’t a sporting one, it’s a psychological one.

It’s Cool to Work Hard

Those 17 days have shown us that it’s not just about winning medals or breaking records, or even about successfully organizing and running one of the world’s biggest-ever events enjoyed by millions across the globe. What we in the UK have experienced first-hand by participating even just as spectators is that it’s cool to be seen to try hard and be self-disciplined, that celebrating our achievements rather than bemoaning our losses can bring us closer together, that we can and should be more confident in our ability to make a difference, and that we can be optimistic that we can do the same in the future.

Interestingly, immediately after the closing ceremony France’s Le Monde newspaper was quick to break up the party atmosphere by pointing out that when the party’s over, “…Britain will face the daily realities again, the economic crisis, racial and social divides, the scandals which have rocked [London], they will all quickly return to front of stage.”  

It was without doubt an extraordinary two weeks. The question for us in the UK is whether we can maintain and capitalize on that sense of  Olympic optimism now that the games are over, the athletes have all flown home, and life is settling back to normal. As with the sporting legacy, only time will tell.



Linley, A., Maltby, J., Wood, A., Joseph, S., Harrington, S., Peterson, C., Park, N. & Seligman, M.E.P. (2007). Character strengths in the United Kingdom: The VIA Inventory of Strengths. Personality and Individual Differences, 43, 341-351.

Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2006). Character strengths in 54 nations and the 50 US states. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(3), 118-129.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Jessica Ennis at a Yorkshire Track and Field Event, 2010 courtsy of AdamKR
Mo-mentous  courtesy of duncan:

2012 Olympic Gold Medal courtesy of Plashing Vole:

Olympic Games Maker courtesy of Flickmor
Grafting in the pool courtesy of Daniel Bachhuber

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Senia 30 August 2012 - 11:08 am

Hi Bridget,

You describe a couple of instances of relationships between optimism and hard work:
1) “optimists make continued efforts to reach their goals whereas pessimists are more likely to give up when the going gets tough”
2) ” ‘…It’s been a long journey grafting and grafting, but anything is possible’. (Grafting is a Northern English expression for working hard and making a real effort.)”

Which direction do you think that goes in? That optimists work hard (that has been shown, for example, in the Seligman swimming and false feedback study – optimists swam harder than did pessimists when given false feedback about having a slower-than-expected swim time). Or that people who work hard become optimistic? I really wonder about that latter direction.


Oz 30 August 2012 - 1:45 pm

Bridget – we are all aware of the benefits of optimism however there is little research on the effectiveness of optimism interventions

There is also another message here – think of the money {edited: the UK spent} on the Olympics – imagine if that was put into schools health or encouraging people to exercise

Bridget 30 August 2012 - 5:54 pm

Hi Senia

Thanks for your comment. I think the research is all correlational, however I’m sure there’s lots of anecdotal evidence along the lines of ‘the harder I work, the luckier I get’ (attributed to Thomas Jefferson?).

It makes sense to me, the more you try, the more chances there are that something will turn out right. That’s what I keep telling myself anyway!

Warm wishes

Bridget 30 August 2012 - 6:21 pm

Hi Oz

Thanks for your comments. Regarding optimism interventions, well I think one example would be the Penn Resilience Program which has been successful (although perhaps not as ‘fool proof’ as some would make out). I remember reading an interim report of the UK PRP (2009?) and I’m sure that was pretty promising too, even if not 100% translatable into the UK environment.

As for the money spent on the Olympics. I have to admit I agreed with you completely – I do think the amount spent was unbelievable and I’m pretty sure there were/are more pressing needs in the fields you mention. What we are continually told in the UK is that most of the budget was committed years ago before the current crisis, and decisions made could not be undone. Whether this is completely true I have no idea. Some of it is bound to be political expediency! As to whether the Olympics are worth £9bn depends on what happens in the years to come, and whether it makes a difference to society in the long run. But for now, from my experience of being in the UK in the lead up to the games and going to watch some of the Olympics in person, I can only say that the effect, even on those who are not sport lovers, has been amazing. For example, I’ve used the London tube for years, and rarely do people speak to each other, or even acknowldge each other. Coming back from one Olympics event at the Excel Arena, I was amazed to see that people were smiling, joking and even talking to complete strangers. I have never seen that happen before. I live miles from London, but everyone was talking about the games, it really did seem to unite people. I’ve been lucky enough to get tickets to some Paralympic events next week so I’m looking forward to seeing if the experience is the same.

Warm wishes

Angus 30 August 2012 - 7:25 pm

Great piece Bridget; and it reflects my own slightly more distant experience. I have also been reading Steve Peters excellent book “The Chimp Paradox” on Mind Management. Peters is the Psychiatrist widely hailed as the UK Cycling Team’s coach, and he coached others as well. He is certainly strong on hard work and taking responsibility (and Gremlins).
Best regards

Angus 30 August 2012 - 8:07 pm

PS I can think of few if any better examples to support Marty Seligman, Carol Dweck and others assertion, from evidence, that self-esteem does not lead to achievement, achievement leads to self-esteem.

Bridget 31 August 2012 - 6:12 am

Hi Angus

Good to hear from you, thanks for your comments. I haven’t read Steve Peters, but will definitely put it on my wish list. It’s a good point about hard work, and I was really pleased to hear Mo Farah say that in his post-race interview; I think that message came through the Olympics pretty loud and clear, even for those athletes like Adam Gemili who took up sprinting relatively recently – he has years of football coaching behind him.

I would also like to hear more in the media about how sports men and women cope with the inevitable disappointments as these are great ‘resilience’ learning points. In the Bounce Back training I do with the Young Foundation (http://www.youngfoundation.org/our-work/wellbeing-and-resilience/bounce-back/bounce-back), we use the story about Ian Thorpe, the Australian swimmer who was disqualified in the 2004 Olympics for a (contested) false start. He said ‘Although it doesn’t seem fair, in a lot of cases life isn’t fair and you just have to deal with it. To get angry isn’t going to achieve anything. I have had to get my emotions back in check. You can let it affect you or choose not to let it affect you’.

Warm wishes

Bridget 31 August 2012 - 6:46 am

PS regarding achievement leading to self-esteem – I do wonder how much achievement is required, or how frequent it needs to be. The reason for saying this is that I know quite a few people who are high-achievers across many domains, yet they still appear to have low self-esteem. Perhaps, like Fredrickson’s positive emotions, it’s the ‘quantity’ or frequency of the success/achievement that matters, rather than the quality….

Or perhaps it’s something about the ratio of acheievement to ability? Or about how much we value the achievement in question?

Warm wishes

martin 31 August 2012 - 9:43 am

Being too optimistic is just as bad as being too pessimistic. The challenge you have is that not everyone can be an Olympian, that doesn’t mean that whatever their talents are should not be supported in exactly the same way. It points towards there not being an excuse to change your circumstances, it just takes hard work (graft). This is usually used as way of negating having to transform society by the powers that be. In other words, institutions dont have to change the way they do things because they will point to the Olypians and say:
‘with hard work, anything can be overcome, so stop making excuses’.

That’s not a reality for the starving in Africa. The NHS and Leisure centres in the UK are all under attack with services being reduced and closures. The disabled who are a soft target for blame when the going gets tough, are living in fear and uncertainty as their support is slowly being eroded.

When the spotlight moves away from elite sports, the promise of funding until 2016 will dissipate.

Am I being Un-optimistic? Or am I refusing to ‘fall for that old chestnut’ again?


Bridget 1 September 2012 - 5:01 am

Hi Martin

Thanks for your comments. You’re right that being too optimistic/pessimistic is not a good thing, and I think most (all?) positive psychology practitioners would say the same.

I agree with much of what you say – the ‘hard word (always) leads to success’ message is often used by politicians and others who believe that everyone has the same opportunities in life (which of course they don’t). If this is the case then you are responsible for your own happiness and the flip side is that if you’re not happy/successful etc you’ve only got yourself to blame. This is one of the criticisms of positive psychology that came from Barbara Held. I don’t think it’s entirely fair but I can see where she’s coming from.

Whether the promise of funding for elite sports until 2016 will happen or not, who knows – I certainly don’t put any store by politicians’ promises. Personally I think what’s needed, for all sorts of reasons, is more money/support for grass-roots sports rather than elite, but that’s another matter.

I liked your blog BTW but don’t get me started on British politics or the lack of serious debate in this country about education/the health service etc. ‘Nero fiddles while Rome burns’ came to mind.

Warm wishes

Jessica 1 September 2012 - 6:40 am

“Learned Optimism” by Martin Seligman is a must-read for anyone interested in the subject – he presents very clear evidence that optimism does lead to superior living, in that optimists in general get ill less, fight cancer more effectively and obviously have fewer mental health problems. He also explains that when people feel they have no control over their lives, they are less likely to perform well as they will assume that no amount of hard work can affect the outcome.
The Olympics have been an amazing experience for all involved, and more than anything they have given young people, especially women and ethnic minorities, an enormous number of great role models. However, there are so many people out there who feel like they have no influence on their lives, and no amount of Olympic optimism can change that.

Martin 1 September 2012 - 8:00 am

‘Nero fiddles while Rome burns’, love that quote! Might have to pinch that one on another article, thanks:) Am sure enlightened people understand that you need a positive emotional state, the right systems in society, compassionate, sustainable ecological thinking, empowering belief systems and wisdom combined with the correct behaviours to make sustainable transformation work. Keep up the good work!:)

Bridget 1 September 2012 - 1:58 pm

Hi again Martin

I wonder if the key is wisdom, and (interestingly given your occupation) leadership.

In July I went to a meeting of the UK’s All Party Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing Economics where the discussion focussed on why Costa Rica scores so well for life expectancy, well-being and ecological footprint, the 3 measures used to calculate nef’s Happy Planet Index.

In the Q&A session someone commented that it’s great that we have some solutions (well, we have some good ideas :)) but someone has to lead, and they didn’t think there was anyone currently in UK politics (or in fact any world leader) who was anywhere near the mark. A well-made point I thought. It raises all sorts of questions about what leadership is, whether one person could fulfil such a role, whether change has to be driven from the grassroots upwards etc. I think that’s why Appreciative Inquiry is such a powerful approach.

Until the recent Facebook IPO, I was confident that technology would provide an answer… 🙂

Warm wishes

Oz 1 September 2012 - 3:15 pm

Jessica – I’m not disputing the correlations. But There is no research supporting that that changing your explanatory style changes your health. Oo

Martin Murphy 2 September 2012 - 4:19 am

There is, I believe, a universal life cycle which mirrors the developmental stages of the human brain, it is reflected in relationships, businesses, well practically anything.

Our outer world is a merciless reflection of our inner world, I believe.

As far as leadership, well no one party or person can ever have all the answers.

The days of C2 thinking and behaviours control/conform are over. We’re just waiting for reality to catch up. C3 is collaborative, connected and contributing to the whole. http://www.elephantjournal.com/2012/02/the-universal-product-cycle-of-everything/

International collaboration in science apparently produces more innovative breakthroughs. Cooperatives are more resilient and the most successful start up business model currently, and helped a lot of Argentian people when it’s economy collapsed.

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

~ R. Buckminster Fuller

Capitalism is always touted as being the most successful driver of the economy; actually that’s a myth. It is human ingenuity. Big corporate is an evolutionary experiment along with socialism, capitalism, democrat, republican, left wing and right wing.

They are all a product of someone’s mind, which creates models to save us having to think so much. But evolution doesn’t stop, and these models shouldn’t stay, as Buzz Lightyear exclaimed, “to infinity and beyond!”.
Take away a one-sided ideology and you unleash rampant resourcefulness and ingenuity. People begin to think holistically again, take responsibility and become more adaptable.

The environment has become endangered; politics pointless, religion redundant, the education system erstwhile and the economy is exhausted and capitalism corrupted.

We are in the midst of a perfect storm aimed squarely at the trembling status quo. The institutions can’t fix the challenges from within, because the change agents would have to make themselves redundant in the process. The biggerst challenge humanity faces is loss aversion. At the moment we are just seeing the egoic grasping of old models and ways of life.

But people everywhere at a grass roots level will build a new and seperate existence which will make the old ones obselete. I worry though that they maybe hampered in their efforts. When systems are created, they take on a life of their own and defend themselves. :)) Sorry this discussion could go on for a while….:)

Angus 3 September 2012 - 8:06 am

Hi Bridget
You make important points on self-esteem, a big and much misunderstood issue in my field of social care (which of course includes a few folk whose self-esteem is too high!). Haidt (Righteous Mind p77-78) cites a study by Leary which highlighted self-esteem as reflective of an internal ‘socio-meter’, what we think others think of us. This makes a lot of sense to me. The focus there is on group membership. However it strikes me that since the socio-meter is internal so may be those we want to be valued by, some of whom may not be real and others may be dead. Would may involvement in PP be enough to please my father/mother (who both died decades ago)? Actually I am certain it would please my mother, I am by no means so certain about my father; but I am working on it.
Warm wishes
PS I like the story about Ian Thorpe. I did try and get the Young Foundation’s work extended to Scotland but without success (the reluctance was in the Scottish establishment).

Bridget 5 September 2012 - 6:14 am

Hi Jessica

Thanks for your comments and for bringing up the question of role models. Yes we do need more female, ethnic minority and disabled role models, and we have certainly seen many more of them during the course of the Olympics and Paralympics. Let’s hope it doesn’t just add more fuel to the ‘cult of celebrity’ flames though! We’ve also seen what a huge difference volunteers can make – and in my experience of attending both Olympic and Paralympic games, the volunteers had far more impact on creating a positive atmosphere than the paid staff!

As for learned helplessness and having influence over your life, you touch on the important topics of locus of control, perceived control and positive illusions. Some people do not have as much control over their lives, which might be both perception and reality. We know from various psychology studies that positive illusions and perceived control are important in mental health. However bad things do happen to ‘good’ people (and vice versa), which is why resilience is such a big topic in positive psychology, so sometimes it’s important to try to separate out what you can influence and what you can’t. The difficulty is that you can get weighed down by things you can’t do anything/much to change, and you can also believe that you have no control when you do have some (learned helplessness). Having someone to help you challenge your thinking can be very useful here!

Warm wishes

Bridget 5 September 2012 - 6:52 am

Hi again Martin

Well you touch on a lot of topics here, and as you suggest, too many for us to discuss in depth.

Your universal product cycle reminds me of Charles Handy’s sigmoid curve which suggests that one should aim for change during the period of growth rather than wait for decline when it’s too late. That makes a lot of sense to me. A difficult lesson though. Most people/organisations are (understandably) too busy making hay whilst the sun shines.

As for whether co-operative/collaborative working will deliver transformational change, something has to be powerful enough to counteract/overcome the existing ‘leadership’ so that new ways can surface. I don’t see that happening in any meaningful way in the UK yet. As an aside, I don’t know if you have seen that Danish political drama, Borgen? It provide a great overview of how power tends to corrupt.

Warm wishes

Bridget 5 September 2012 - 7:08 am

Hi again Angus

Thanks for your comments, v helpful. We didn’t have that much space in our busy MAPP programme to cover self-esteem which in retrospect is a shame!

I have located a copy of one of Leary’s papers mentioning the socio-meter: http://dtserv2.compsy.uni-jena.de/__C125715B003DDCFC.nsf/0/1645613A4F975087C125715D006854AA/$FILE/leary95.pdf

Interesting that it comes back to inclusion/exclusion/rejection, and ultimately attachment theory and the importance of relationships/relatedness. No wonder Chris Peterson sums up positive psychology in the 3 words: “Other people matter”.

It does make me wonder though about what impact we’re having on kids who we exclude from school – if there was already damage done our actions are merely compounding it.

Warm wishes

Martin 5 September 2012 - 7:37 am

http://potspansdocumentary.wordpress.com/ Positive Deviance example in a world community, 🙂

Bridget 5 September 2012 - 7:46 am

Hi Martin

Thanks for this link, I’ll watch it later.

Population size matters though – it’s easier to achieve change when you only have 320,000 people to consider….:)

I’m very familiar with the Danish culture and I do think the nordic countries are very different culturally to the UK.

Warm wishes


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