An Olympic Legacy: 2012 Remains a Positive Example for the World

Much of the British media has drawn negative comparisons between the Rio de Janeiro Olympics and their London predecessor. But how does the legacy left by the London Games really compare to other recent host cities?

Leading sociologist Dr Gillian Evans was embedded inside London’s planning operation. Her new book, “London’s Olympic Legacy: the Inside Track”, examines London’s imperfect but broadly positive legacy and how its experience offers valuable lessons for future Olympic hosts.

Rio was hindered by the unexpected political and economic crises that hit Brazil after it was awarded the Games. It did well to pull off this summer’s massive undertaking. Nonetheless, hosting the Olympics and Paralympics looks unlikely to leave many lasting benefits for the people of Rio. It has spent fortunes on facilities with no clear future use and done little to stimulate long-term social and economic regeneration.

These failings have been commonplace amongst recent host cities and the Olympics have become associated with profligacy. This has led a series of bidders such as Boston, Hamburg and Oslo in democratic countries to withdraw following pressure from their citizens. Instead, bids are increasingly coming from dictatorships, who care little about cost or the legacy, seeking to divert attention from their shortcomings, following the examples of Beijing and Sochi.

London can be cited as the one recent exceptional case. The path to achieving a positive Olympics legacy for the previously neglected East End of the capital has not been smooth. But Dr Evans’ book explains how it is still possible to use the attention and funding mobilised by hosting the Games for regeneration that would otherwise be difficult to achieve.

outcomes are a double-edged sword

The highest profile controversy surrounding London’s Olympic legacy was the taxpayer-funded conversion of the main stadium for use by a wealthy Premier League football club, West Ham United. In Evans’ view, this saga could have been avoided: “I think it is right that West Ham are in the stadium. But the process proves the point that the legacy use has to be decided before the design specification is set. The political claims on the Stadium were to do with the embarrassment in Britain at its long-standing failure to deliver an elite national athletics facility. But the business case for athletics-only never stacked up, so it was always going to have to be pitched for Premier League football too. Not accepting that when the design specs were set is what led to the taxpayer having to fund the transformation costs.”

Other major venues such as the Aquatics Centre, Multi-Use Arena and Velodrome are also being extensively used for elite events, and by local sports enthusiasts and schools. The swimming facilities are proving particularly popular, not least because of the reasonable admission prices. And visitors are increasingly seeing the Olympic Park as a worthwhile destination on a day out in the capital.

In these respects, the Olympic legacy benefits the local community by providing it with outstanding facilities and a focal point that brings money into the area from businesses as well as visitors. The Games’ Press & Broadcast Centre is being converted into a hi-tech business location for 7500 jobs. Further employment and academic opportunities will be generated by the “Cultural and Educational District” that is being built in the park.

As with so much surrounding the Olympic project these outcomes are a double-edged sword, particularly with regard to employment and housing. Without special provisions being made, some of the beneficiaries will be already-prosperous people from outside the area. Evans believes an obligation to provide jobs, skills training and apprenticeships for local people should have been written into the contracts of the private companies that profited handsomely from Olympics-related work. This would have resulted in a more substantial employment and skills legacy.

The Newham district in which the Olympic Park sits was in dire need of more, better quality, affordable housing. Some members of the community and Olympic Park Legacy Company officials saw the Games as an opportunity for this to be generated. Whilst they have seen off one plan to turn the area into “the Notting Hill of East London”, the amount of affordable and family housing provided will now be less than originally promised. Meanwhile, prices for many other properties have risen beyond the reach of most people in the neighbourhood.

a model for other potential host cities to draw-upon

For all its imperfections, London’s Olympics have left a significant legacy in the form of infrastructure and opportunities in a deprived area of the capital. Evans gives much of the credit for the successes to “the few determined individuals” working inside the system who were willing to fight “to honour the promises made in the Olympic bid to transform the heart of East London for the benefit of everyone who lives there”. Notably, several of the most committed officials have strong connections to the local area. This gave them a strong sense of accountability to their families and friends, as well as their employers. Recruiting people with a similar profile is one lesson future hosts should learn from London’s experience.

Little that has happened in Britain recently feels like a positive example to offer the world. But “London’s Olympic Legacy: the Inside Track” shows that Britain’s last great triumph on the global stage, the 2012 Games, offers ongoing grounds for pride. Its legacy planning experience provides a model for other potential host cities to draw-upon. As Evans says, “regeneration was closer to the centre of London’s planning than at other recent Olympics. It has done better than any other host city to plan legacy uses for its Olympic Park, both in advance of the Games and in the years immediately afterwards”.

More about the author

About the author

Paul Knott began his working life in a hut on Hull's King George Dock before globetrotting for two decades as an unlikely British envoy. His "instructive and funny" (Alan Johnson MP) book about his experiences, "The Accidental Diplomat", is out now.

He is also the Chief Foreign Correspondent for the Sabotage Times and contributes to publications such as The Telegraph, Forty-20 and When Saturday Comes.

All that travel has failed to shift Paul's inherited old Labour instincts.

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