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Image: Sir Steve Redgrave and seven young athletes during London 2012 Opening Ceremony
Cameron Spencer  /  Getty Images
Five-time Olympic gold medal-winning rower Sir Steve Redgrave hands the torch to seven young athletes who represent Britain's hopes for the next Olympics during London 2012's Opening Ceremony on July 27.
By
NBC News
updated 8/9/2012 7:42:44 AM ET 2012-08-09T11:42:44

It is comfortably one of the fattest nations on the planet, a country where one in five admits they take a 20-minute walk "less than once a year or never."

But Britain's couch potatoes appear to be rising from their customary slouched position amid national euphoria over the success of Team Great Britain at the Olympics.

London 2012, which adopted the slogan "Inspire a Generation," made much of its desire to leave behind a genuine Olympic "legacy" as it bid to host the Games. And the early signs appear good for one major strand of that -- to revitalize sports in the U.K. – with some already reporting dramatic increases in interest.

But London 2012 was also designed to help regenerate parts of East London, home to some of the poorest areas in the country. And one expert questioned whether the Olympic Park will become one of city's biggest tourist attractions as hoped or become another example of an Olympic "white elephant."

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Slideshow: Venues for 2012 London Olympic Games (on this page)

Few Games in the past have been deemed an economic success. The 1992 Barcelona event is credited with turning an industrial backwater into one of the most popular cities for tourists to visit in the world and slashing employment, according to Business Insider.

However, other Olympics turned into financial nightmares -- Canada's Quebec province only finished paying for the 1976 Montreal Games' main stadium -- nicknamed the "Big Owe" -- in 2006.

The 2004 Athens Games is estimated to have cost up to $32 billion, a bill that contributed to the country's current financial crisis. Pictures taken this month by The Associated Press showed frogs living in an Olympic Village swimming pool that had been used for training by athletes and weeds growing at the abandoned beach volleyball and softball venues.

For China officials, Beijing's 'white elephants' were worth it

And just four years on from the Beijing Games, only 12 events were held at the $500-million Bird’s Nest stadium last year, which was used as an ice-staking rink during the winter, according to the Caixin news organization. It addeed that the stadium was “relatively busy compared with other stadiums built for the Olympics.”

So the current mood in the U.K. might have been different if there had been a repeat performance of the 1996 Atlanta Games, when Team GB won one gold, coming behind poorer, less populous countries like North Korea and Kazakhstan in the medal standings.

But just 16 years later and the host nation's competitors have won 22 golds, the third highest total behind China and the U.S.

'Fan the flames'
British rower Greg Searle, a three-time Olympic medalist, told BBC Breakfast that London 2012 should be measured on whether it had created interest in sports "people have never seen before" and inspired people like his 11-year-old daughter.

"This fire is going to be burning, we need to fan the flames," Searle added. "Getting these things [sports] to continue after the Games has happened, to me, that's what'll be the true test -- if we're talking about this in 20 or 30 years' time because people are still interested in handball and in water polo."

More than half of Team GB's gold medals have come in two sports: rowing, with four, and cycling, with eight.

Slideshow: When the Olympics is your neighbor (on this page)

Rich Stock, program manager of a British Rowing project designed to boost participation in the sport, said that the impact of the Olympics had been immediate and striking.

He told NBCNews.com that on a normal day about 150 people used the club-finder facility on British Rowing's website. But, on the day that Helen Glover and Heather Stanning won gold for Britain in the women's pair race, he said it had been used 5,500 times.

"We've seen a fantastic level of interest," Stock said. "Our clubs are just inundated now... and I think with any sport the more people you have participating, the more chance you have of finding this top-level athletes."

He said that a large number of new rowers were 30- to 40-year-olds who just wanted “to get out on the water and enjoy it,” rather than seeking Olympic glory, and some were in their 80s.

Video: Race to the Olympic Park: Quickest way is ...? (on this page)

British Cycling, which offers insurance and other cycling-related benefits, broke its record for the highest number of new members in a month with some 2,400 people joining in July, when Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France and Lizzie Armitstead won silver in the Olympic women's road race.

British Cycling's chief executive Ian Drake said in a statement that he believed "we have already established a legacy for the sport."

Who'll win the gold medal for partying? Olympians let hair down

There are also signs of greater interest in other Olympic sports with clubs such as theBlackburn Harriersathletics club, Preston Gymnastics Club, both in northwest England, and Tooting Bec Athletics Trackin London reporting rises in the numbers of people wanting to use their facilities.

The Games' economic legacy perhaps hangs in the balance.

The Olympic Park will be turned into the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park at a cost of nearly $470 million with much of the facilities, such as the main stadium, aquatics center and cycling velodrome, remaining. It is hoped that some 9 million people a year will visit.

Image: Computer-generated images show how London's Olympic Park may look in 2014, left, and 2030.
London Legacy Development Corpor
Computer-generated images show how London's Olympic Park may look in 2014, left, and 2030.

According to the London Legacy Development Corporation, which will take over the site later this year, the park “will be an exciting new visitor destination. Iconic venues and attractions will sit alongside new homes, schools and businesses, amongst open green spaces and pieces of art in the heart of London’s East End.” As many as nine million visitors a year are expected.

The Athletes’ Village will be turned into homes and thousands of new houses and businesses will be built in the area. The corporation expects more than 10,000 jobs to be created. The basketball stadium, meanwhile, will be packed up and possibly re-used at the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016.

Slideshow: Olympic Emotional Moments (on this page)

Peter Tudor, head of venues at the corporation, told NBCNews.com that tourists would be attracted by the Olympic museum, the “beautiful gardens,” bird-watching opportunities, and events such as music concerts at the venues.

“The park is absolutely chock-full of art,” he added, saying Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit tower/sculpture was not the only work on display. “It’s amazing actually, you walk around at the moment and you kind of bump into art.”

Will Games curse leave 'ghost town' London out of gold rush?

However, Alan Bairner, professor of sport and social theory at the U.K.'s Loughborough University and author of a book, "The Politics of the Olympics," was skeptical.

He said the Olympic stadiums at Stockholm and Helsinki had become "cherished landmarks" – but these were closer to the city centers than Stratford, where the main London park is located.

Video: From industrial wasteland to Olympic Park (on this page)

Barcelona was a "glowing example" of how the Games could have a positive economic impact, Bairner said, but he questioned whether visitors to London would come to regard the Olympic Park as a must-see attraction.

"I don't know how many tourists are going to bother going out to Stratford in the years to come. I wonder if there's the possibility of a white elephant there," he said.

And Bairner also doubted the U.K. would pass Greg Searle's test of a lasting legacy, pointing out that Spain occupies a lowly position on the medal table -- with two golds -- just 20 years after winning 13 golds in Barcelona.

"People are inspired for the moment to watch the Olympics on TV to see what happens -- then it just stops," he said. "There will be hardly any reference to the people who won gold medals in rowing. It's unfortunate, but football [soccer] will take over again.

"I'm not sure about this new generation being inspired."

More world stories from NBC News:

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Photos: Venues

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  1. Welcoming the world

    Olympic rings have been mowed into the grass by shire horses at Richmond Park in London. The rings are visible on the flight path to London Heathrow International Airport, ready to welcome athletes and visitors to the London 2012 Games.

    The Games will take place July 27-Aug. 12, 2012. (LOCOG via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Getting around

    A cable car is seen June 28 across the River Thames in London. The cable car will make the half-mile crossing between Greenwich and the Royal Docks, allowing visitors to take in the views of Olympic Park, the Canary Wharf financial center and the Thames Barrier. Each of the 34 cars holds 10 people. Travelers can purchase one-way or round-trip tickets, with a one-way ticket costing 3.20 pounds (about $5 US). (Lefteris Pitarakis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Final countdown

    Work continues July 3 on the entry routes to the Olympic Stadium in London. The stadium will host several events during the 2012 Games. (Luke MacGregor / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Olympic Park

    A July 12 aerial view of the Olympic Park in Stratford, one of the venues for the 2012 London Summer Olympic Games. (David Goddard / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Twisty tower

    The ArcelorMittal Orbit is seen May 11 in the London 2012 Olympic Park. The 375-foot observation tower is the tallest in England and will remain a permanent fixture in the city long after the Games end. (Ki Price / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Shopping, anyone?

    Shoppers are seen at the Westfield Stratford City mall in east London. The 1.75 billion British pounds ($2.75 billion U.S.) mall includes a 24-hour casino, 14 bowling lanes, 70 restaurants and 250 shops between the main public transit hub and the main entry point to the Olympic Park. An estimated 75 percent of fans will have to walk through the mall and its temptations to reach the venues for showcase events like gymnastics, swimming, basketball and track. (Lefteris Pitarakis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Shooting events

    A steward stands outside the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich, London, on April 20. The OIympic shooting events will be held at this venue. (Matt Dunham / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Carrying the torch

    Torchbearer Zachary Franklin carries the Olympic flame on a raft down the Lee Valley White Water Centre on July 7 in Waltham Cross, England. The 70-day relay leading up on the Olympic Games involves 8,000 torchbearers covering 8,000 miles. (LOCOG via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Tennis, anyone?

    Andy Murray of Great Britain serves during a semifinal men's tennis match July 6 against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France on day 11 of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in London. The 2012 Summer Olympics tennis competition will be held in the venue. (Paul Gilham / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Olympic Stadium

    This picture taken with a fisheye lens May 5 shows a general view of the British Universities and Colleges Sport Athletics Championship at Olympic Stadium in London. The 80,000-seat stadium will host the opening and closing ceremonies during the 2012 Games. (Matt Dunham / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Velodrome

    The Velodrome in east London can seat 6,000 spectators and will host the cycling events at the 2012 Summer Games. A glass wall around the venue's perimeter also gives visitors a 360-degree view of Olympic Park. (Ben Stansall / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Home sweet home

    An aerial view of the Athletes' Village in the London 2012 Olympic Park on April 16. (Anthony Charlton / London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Spin your wheels

    Exterior view of the Velodrome within the Olympic Park in London, England, on Feb. 19. The velodrome will host the track cycling events at the 2012 Olympic Games. (Gerry Penny / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Eyes on the prize

    An aerial view of the Aquatics Centre and the Water Polo Arena in the London 2012 Olympic Park on April 16. (Anthony Charlton / LOCOG via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Transformation

    An aerial view of Olympic Park taken on April 4, 2008, (bottom) and Dec. 21, 2011, (top) show the Aquatics Centre (front), Water Polo Arena, right, and the Olympic Stadium, back, in London and the site when construction began. (Anthony Charlton / Olympic Delivery Authority via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Olympic Stadium and Orbit Tower

    The Olympic stadium and Orbit Tower of the London 2012 Olympic games in Stratford, east London, seen on Jan. 12, 2012. (Facundo Arrizabalaga / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Velodrome

    A view of the Velodrome from the Parklands area in the Olympic Park in London on April 8, 2011. (Anthony Charlton / Olympic Delivery Authority via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Olympic Stadium

    The Olympic Stadium is seen from Hackney in London on Nov. 27, 2011. (Eddie Keogh / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Beach volleyball venue

    People walk across the Horseguards Parade on Nov. 29, 2011, in London, which will host the beach volleyball event for the London 2012 Olympic Games. (Andy Rain / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Rising to the occasion

    Hot air balloons rise into the early morning sky July 25, 2011, over London. Seven balloons took part in the flight over London as part of a collaboration between the London Sky Orchestra project, the 30th anniversary of the London International Festival of Theatre, and the Greater London Authority, which is marking a year to go before the 2012 Olympic Games. (Andrew Winning / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Mascots

    Olympic mascot Wenlock, left, and Paralympic mascot Mandeville pose for photographs May 19, 2010, at a school in London. The backstory of the two mascots is that they were created from the last drops of steel left over from the construction of the final support girder for the Olympic Stadium. (Matt Dunham / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Bull’s eye

    An aerial view of Lord's Cricket Ground, which will host archery events during the London 2012 Olympic Games. (Tom Shaw / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Hoop dreams

    An interior view of the London 2012 Basketball Arena. Construction on the 12,000-seat basketball arena for 2012 Olympics in London has been completed, just 15 months after building began. The stadium became the fourth venue at Olympic Park to be finished, on budget and in time for the first test event to be held at the site in August. (Dave Tully / ODA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. The Dome

    An aerial view of the North Greenwich Arena, also known as The Dome, which will host artistic gymnastics, trampoline, basketball and wheelchair basketball events during the 2012 Olympics in London. (Tom Shaw / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Manmade whitewater

    An aerial view of the Lee Valley White Water Centre, which will host the canoe slalom events during the London Olympics. (Tom Shaw / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. In the arena

    Nina Ligon represents Thailand during an equestrian competition at Greenwich Park on July 4 in London. The equestrian eventing was one of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games’ test events prior to 2012. (Olivia Harris / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Goal!

    An aerial view of Wembley Stadium, which will host soccer events during the 2012 Games. (Tom Shaw / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Courtside seats

    An interior view of the Handball Arena at London’s Olympic Park. The Handball Arena became the third venue at the Olympic Park to be completed. (David Poultney - Locog Handout / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Tennis, anyone?

    An aerial view of Wimbledon, which will host the tennis events during the 2012 Olympic Games. (Tom Shaw / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. The Mall

    An aerial view of The Mall, which will host the marathon, race walk and cycling events at the 2012 Games. (Tom Shaw / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Torch unveiled

    Sebastian Coe, chairman of the London 2012 Olympic Organising Committee, poses for pictures with the newly unveiled 2012 London Olympic Torch on June 8 in London. Runners will use the torch to carry the Olympic flame 8,000 miles around Britain to the opening ceremony. (Geoff Caddick / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
    LOCOG via AP
    Above: Slideshow (31) Venues for 2012 London Olympic Games - Venues
  2. Image: Lighting Ceremony of the Olympic Flame
    Orestis Panagiotou / EPA
    Slideshow (50) Venues for 2012 London Olympic Games - Torch relay
  3. Image: security check
    Michael Kappeler / EPA
    Slideshow (15) Venues for 2012 London Olympic Games - Security
  4. Image: London 2012 - Famous Landmarks Of Iconic London
    Oli Scarff / Getty Images
    Slideshow (36) Venues for 2012 London Olympic Games - City sights
  5. Gideon Mendel / Corbis for msnbc.com
    Slideshow (20) When the Olympics is your neighbor
  6. Image: The Spice Girls perform during the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games
    Stefan Wermuth / Reuters
    Slideshow (35) Olympic Emotional Moments - Closing Ceremony
  1. Image: Olympic Games 2012 Water Polo
    Jonathan Brady / EPA
    Slideshow (17) Olympic Emotional Moments - Day 16
  2. Image:
    David J. Phillip / AP
    Slideshow (24) Olympic Emotional Moments - Day 15
  3. Image:
    Lee Jin-man / AP
    Slideshow (23) Olympic Emotional Moments - Day 14
  4. Image: Olympics Day 13 - Women's Football Final - Match 26 - USA v Japan
    Ronald Martinez / Getty Images
    Slideshow (23) Olympic Emotional Moments - Day 13
  5. Image: Kerri Walsh Jennings, Misty May-Treanor
    Jae C. Hong / AP
    Slideshow (24) Olympic Emotional Moments - Day 12
  6. Image: France's Alexis Vastine lays on the canvas after becoming upset with the decision giving the Men's Welter (69kg) quarter-final boxing match to Ukraine's Taras Shelestyuk at the London Olympic Games
    Murad Sezer / Reuters
    Slideshow (23) Olympic Emotional Moments - Day 11

Video: Race to the Olympic Park: Quickest way is ...?

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