By Daniel Hunter

The enthusiasm for sport generated by the Olympics and Paralympics is still going strong months after the closing ceremony, according to new research published today (Friday).

A survey by the Local Government Association (LGA) found three-quarters of councils have seen an increase in people accessing their sports facilities or activities, with one-third reporting a rise in people with a disability getting involved. These latest figures are even higher than during the Olympics themselves, when a similar survey found 44 per cent of councils had an increase.

No Olympic host country in history has demonstrated a sustained rise in participation so Britain could be on track to be the first.

The sports facilities which have seen the biggest leap in popularity were athletics, cycling/BMX, beach volleyball, swimming and gymnastics. Handball also seems to be taking the nation by storm, with participation having risen by 50 per cent and several areas setting up new teams.

Paralympic sports which have had a surge in popularity include equestrianism, goalball, cycling and boccia.

Attendance at gyms and fitness classes has also rocketed, and many non-Olympic/Paralympic sports have seen a rise.

Councils are taking a range of measures to manage the demand, including bringing in more coaches, putting on additional sessions or increasing session capacity, investing in new facilities, bidding for extra funding, introducing waiting lists and supporting sports clubs with volunteer recruitment and coaching education.

Key findings of the research, which compared participation levels during October to December 2012 with the same quarter in 2011, are:

- Nineteen per cent of councils saw a large increase in all users, and 53 per cent a small increase.
- Five per cent of councils saw a large increase in users with a disability, and 28 per cent a small increase.
- Facilities and activities related to Olympic sports which have seen the greatest increase were cycling/BMX (51 per cent), athletics (50), beach volleyball (50), handball (50), swimming (48) and gymnastics (35).
- Facilities and activities related to Paralympic sports which have seen the greatest increase were equestrian (33 per cent), goalball (31), cycling (25), boccia (23), swimming (20) and sitting volleyball (20).
- Non-Olympic/Paralympic sports or activities which have seen the greatest rise were exercise classes (62 per cent), gym/fitness suites (55), squash/racketball (25) and netball (13).

The research also showed that councils were exploring a wide range of ways to keep services going and participation rising in the face of 33 per cent government funding cuts. Examples include:

- Working in partnership with other councils, schools, public bodies, business, and volunteer and charity groups.
- Linking council departments to deliver services and achieve shared goals, eg relocating adult day care services into sports and leisure centres.
- Reducing costs by outsourcing management, linking staffing levels to peak and off-peak times and better monitoring energy use.
- Applying for external funding.
- Drives to increase membership to generate greater income, for example, launched a discount card aimed at people on low income/benefits, disabled people, older people, students, children in care, people with health issues and carers.
- Leasing or hiring out facilities to local community groups, sports clubs, schools and training academies.
- Working with developers on Section 106 agreements to fund sports and leisure facilities.

The role of councils in the 2012 Games legacy is being discussed today (Friday) at the LGA's annual Culture, Tourism and Sport Conference.

"The scale of enthusiasm and wide variety of sports that people of all abilities are getting involved in is really inspiring. Usually, participation increases during a big sporting event but then wanes shortly afterwards so it's great that the 2012 Games seem to be bucking this trend. No Olympic host country in history has demonstrated a sustained rise in participation so if we keep this up it will be a fantastic first," Councillor Flick Rea, Chair of the LGA's Culture, Tourism and Sport Board, said.

"It's particularly heartening that more people with disabilities are taking up sports and fitness activities. Last year's Paralympics was the best ever and it appears its aspiration to inspire more disabled people to get involved with sport is materialising.

"Councils have a key role to play in the 2012 legacy as it's their services people often rely on as they find private facilities prohibitively expensive. It's essential governing bodies, councils, local sports clubs and community groups keep working well together to maintain this enthusiasm and make getting involved in sport as easy as possible for communities everywhere.

"Councils are doing all they can to manage Government's 33 per cent funding cuts without reducing their sports and leisure services. However, despite their best efforts, this kind of investment and innovation could become near-impossible were councils to suffer further budget cuts. And without fundamental reform of how councils are funded and an immediate cash injection into the adult social care system, by 2020 most councils will have little money left to do much more than care for the elderly and collect bins."

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