LONDON — Only a few tube stops away from the glittering new Olympic Park, a cluster of British swimmers took to a training pool for the start of an intensive session this week. Rather than going for the gold, the swishing mob doing water aerobics to the warbling sounds of disco was engaged in a national fight of a different kind — the battle of the bulge.
Even as Britain prepares to begin hosting the XXX Olympiad next week, this nation finds itself in the grip of what health advocates describe as an obesity “epidemic,” with the most recent figures showing that 26 percent of English adults are obese compared with 15 percent in 1993. The rapidly expanding waistlines here underscore what critics call a failure by organizers to live up to one of their top pledges for the London Games: To whip the fattest country in Western Europe into shape.
Britons have one of the most sedentary lifestyles on earth, according to a major study released Wednesday, with more than 63.3 percent of the population defined as inactive — compared with 40.5 percent in the United States and 32.5 percent in France. Though the United States retains the world heavyweight title among major nations — with 35.7 percent of American adults classified as obese — England is catching up, with 36 percent of English men and 28 percent of English women projected to be obese by 2015.
Britain is running well short of a stated Olympic goal to get 1 million Brits “off their bums” by the end of 2013, with the government officially dropping that target last December. Opposition lawmakers, meanwhile, are deriding deep cuts made to sports programs in British schools just as the Olympics could have been harnessed to inspire children at risk of becoming overweight.
Yet a number of U.S.-style programs aimed at reducing waistlines in a country that cherishes its pint-in-the-pub culture are nevertheless popping up, such as a new public pool-based initiative in East London subsidized by the National Health Service. London, meanwhile, is studying some of the radical steps taken by New York City to curb calorie intake, with new major measures to combat what Mayor Boris Johnson has called “a fatness plague” in the capital due out by next April.
“But, let’s face it, it’s going to be a challenge to get Britain athletic again,” said Melissa Gawler, 22, a beaming young woman who described herself as “overweight” and recently joined the experimental swimming class in London’s Islington neighborhood. “Even with the Olympics coming, we’re still British, and people are always going to like a nice night out with pies and mash and fish and chips.”
On a recent rainy day in central London, hundreds of British “anti-athletes” gathered in a park for the Chap Olympics — an event of “gentile inactivity” meant to punctuate a point ahead of the Olympic Games. Recent polls have shown that 2 out of every 10 Britons feel motivated by the Olympics to get out and play more sport, a number that seems logical to the likes of Cathy Wigley, a 37-year-old documentary filmmaker “competing” in the Chap Olympics and who insisted that despite the “Chariots of Fire” image, athletics simply isn’t a strong part of British culture.