A golden legacy?

As Rio 2016 is in full swing, we reflect on the legacy created from London 2012.

Libby Barrett, Assistant Investment Manager, Rathbones

Hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games represents an increasingly vast investment, which is why grand promises of myriad long-term benefits have become de rigueur. With history suggesting these pledges are seldom fulfilled, is the legacy of London 2012 proving a welcome exception to the rule?

It is sometimes hard to tell whether a Wikipedia entry has been tampered with or whether truth really is stranger than fiction. The page headlined “Legacy of the 2012 Summer Olympics” offers a classic illustration.

The concluding sub-section, entitled “Proven legacy”, might best be described as cursory. According to this account, the demonstrable repercussions of London’s hosting of the Olympic Games four years ago can be condensed into the following bullet points:

— The continued use of Olympic Javelin trains

— The Olympic Park’s staging of four Sport Relief events

— A concert at the same venue by Chigwell Popchoir

With all due respect to the choristers of Essex, such a modest list of accomplishments scarcely chimes with the inspirational tone of Lord Coe’s speech to the International Olympic Committee in Sentosa, a holiday island off Singapore, in July 2005. Nor does it reflect the euphoria that was unleashed when, a few hours later and in front of a global audience, IOC president Jacques Rogge tore open an envelope, removed a small slip of paper and declared simply: “London.”

By common consent, what swung the IOC’s members on that remarkable day was Britain’s determination to be different. IOC custom dictates that would-be host cities focus their bids almost exclusively on infrastructure — stadia, transport links, urban transformation and so on. Coe and his team covered the economic angle but chose to place much more emphasis on the personal, the individual, the human. “Choose London today,” Coe told the panel, “and you send a clear message to the youth of the world: ‘More than ever, the Olympic Games are for you.’”

This eloquent entreaty was undoubtedly decisive in delivering one of the most improbable triumphs in the country’s sporting history, yet it also heaped expectation upon expectation. In recent decades every host nation has promised lasting benefits in terms of investment, trade and regeneration. Uniquely, Britain set itself apart with an additional vow: to restore sport to the young.

Many scholars have sought to analyse the long-term economic benefits of hosting what are known in academic circles as “mega-events”. What is clear from the literature is that genuine success stories are few and far between.

One common finding is that would-be host cities’ boasts are rarely matched by reality, with official projections frequently exposed as woefully optimistic and even disingenuous. As tourism researcher Dr Evangelia Kasimati cautioned ahead of the financially disastrous 2004 Athens Olympics, which some commentators have cited as a major contributor to Greece’s economic decline: “Most [estimates] could be considered potentially biased, because the ambition of those commissioning the studies is to favour the hosting of the Games.”

Another recurring theme is the ephemeral nature of any increase in economic activity. As the sole bidder for the 1984 Games following the loss-making travails of Montreal in 1976 and Moscow in 1980, Los Angeles arguably enjoyed more bargaining power and freedom than any host before or since; yet still the resulting legacy was only fleeting, with a 2002 study noting: “There is no economic residue that can be identified once the Games left town.”

Often it is not even necessary to search for answers in august journals: the evidence is in plain sight. The scenes in Athens and in Sarajevo, which hosted the Winter Games of 1984, are particularly bleak. In Beijing, where China lavished $40 billion on London 2012’s predecessor, only the Bird’s Nest stadium and the Water Cube have been spared ruin.

London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is a long way removed from such profligacy. In 2005 the site was largely a wasteland in a neglected corner of the East End; now it is a spectacular, thriving and practical example of regeneration.

It was built with the future in mind. Some structures were temporary; others were designed for rapid refurbishment in anticipation of serving as public sports facilities, offices and housing. It is now home to the Lee Valley VeloPark, the multipurpose Copper Box Arena, the London Aquatics Centre and, of course, the Olympic Stadium — which from later this year will become West Ham United FC’s new ground.

With the Olympic Village already converted into apartments, some 7,000 properties are due to be built. The International Quarter will soon count the Financial Conduct Authority and Transport for London among its tenants. The Olympicopolis, centred on culture and education, is due to open in 2019, with spaces for the V&A Museum, Sadler’s Wells and the University of the Arts. Nearby Stratford is now second only to King’s Cross in terms of transport links, with two Underground lines and, sure enough, the high-speed Javelin trains that even Wikipedia saw fit to acknowledge.

Coe had maintained from the outset that Britain’s Games-related bill of £9 billion — a sum that appears commendably frugal in light of Beijing’s extravagance and the $50 billion lavished on the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia — would not be wasted. In 2013 Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, went even further, claiming: “London is succeeding where virtually no Olympic city has succeeded before.”

These pronouncements are at present difficult to refute. This element of London 2012’s legacy, for now at least, seems intact. Unfortunately, there is less reason to believe that the pledge widely credited with securing the Games in the first place has been similarly fulfilled.

One of the most striking inquiries into the alleged benefits of “mega-events” was written by Stefan Szymanski, a professor of sport management at the University of Michigan. Entitled About Winning: The Political Economy of Awarding the World Cup and the Olympic Games, it echoed Coe’s grass-roots sentiments by concluding: “Organisations such as the IOC and FIFA could better serve their constituents by diverting competition away from lavish promotion of facilities and towards goals that would raise participation in sport.”

The article was published in 2011, six years after Coe’s pivotal appeal to the IOC. It is satisfying to think London’s bid presaged academia’s demand for a radical new approach based on an understanding that economic masterplans seldom come to fruition; yet the irony, as Coe has discovered, is that non-economic dreams can be equally tricky to realise.

When he was appointed the government’s “Olympic legacy ambassador” on August 12 2012, the last day of the Games, Coe inherited a challenging situation. With £162 million of ring-fenced funding for sports partnerships scrapped and the Department for Education squabbling with head teachers over spending, provision of sport in schools was patchy. A frustrated Coe threatened to quit his role after less than a year.

He carried on, but the necessary momentum was fading. In July 2013 the Commons Education Committee described post-Olympics school sport as “on life-support”. Many projects went ahead only with backing from the National Lottery. Several targets were quietly dropped. Coe lamented that the issue had become “tribal” and later conceded: “That’s probably the only thing we didn’t deliver in the same spirit that everything else was delivered.”

A 2015 Youth Trust survey of 1,329 primary schools confirmed as much, showing a fall in children’s involvement in sport since 2009. Other research has since reported fewer people engaging in at least half an hour’s exercise each week, especially among the lowest socioeconomic groups, and the continued rise of childhood obesity.

In 2013 David Cameron wrote that the legacy of the London Olympics should “last a lifetime”. This choice of phrase might well reveal a politician’s uncanny knack for expert bet-hedging, for the fact is that nothing lasts forever.

As “mega-event” researchers repeatedly stress, there are numerous “intangibles”. Olympic Park’s glory may eventually fade; equally, sport could yet be restored to the young. There is still time.

For now it is certainly disappointing that the positive effects of a triumph made possible by an impassioned plea to inspire a love of sport can be measured only in terms of wealth and not, as was so memorably proposed 11 years ago, in terms of health. All things considered, though, that Wikipedia page is surely a joke. It remains to be seen whether Lord Coe will have the last laugh.

Goodbye, world — hello, West Ham

The London Olympics closed with a ceremony that featured 41,000 performers and reportedly cost £20 million. The global audience was estimated at 750 million.

Although in large part a celebration of the history of British music, the event featured speeches from IOC president Jacques Rogge and Lord Coe. Rogge described the Games as “happy and glorious”. Coe, appointed “Olympic legacy ambassador” on the same day, said London had “lit up the world”.

In March the following year, following a protracted bidding process, a proposal from West Ham United FC was judged to offer the best prospects for the Olympic Stadium’s future use. The club was awarded a 99-year lease. “If we ever have a chance to get our great club back on the path to glory,” said World Cup hero Sir Geoff Hurst, who made 499 appearances for the Hammers, “this is it.”

This article first appeared in Rathbones Review Summer 2016

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