An Olympic Legacy for 2012





AN OLYMPIC LEGACY FOR LONDON 2012?


"We can no longer take it for granted that young people will choose sport. Some may lack the facilities.  Or the coaches and role models to teach them. Others, in an age of 24-hour entertainment and instant fame, may simply lack the desire.  We are determined that a London Games will address that challenge. So London's vision is to reach young people all around the world.  To connect them with the inspirational power of the Games." 
(Lord Coe, Singapore, 6 July 2005)

"At the moment I don't see the policies being put in place that will build on the inspiration of the Games for young people and that will change their lives for a lasting sports legacy … There are too many schools still on two hours or less of sport a week, with no links to the local communities and clubs and volunteers, and that is a missed opportunity in the last six years. Politicians of all parties have the responsibility for setting policy and we have not seen that vision delivered."

[Note: Despite first impressions, it is not the case that everyone in the United Kingdom is a Lord!  There are also Ladies, Sirs and Dames.  And, of course, their servants]


It is widely held that the UK’s somewhat surprising victory in the competition to host the 2012 Summer Olympic Games was at least partly the result of its representative’s ability to articulate a compelling legacy for the Games, that went far beyond the glories of two weeks of elite sport in July.  The Olympic Games is the biggest sporting and cultural event in the world – in the language of sport economists, it is a ‘mega-event’ – but there is an increasing expectation for hosts to provide more than just a sporting spectacle.


As can be seen from Sebastian Coe’s comments, taken from his rousing speech before the final decision of the host city was made, the UK bid was premised on using the Games as a stimulus for long-term social, economic and environmental change.  Likewise, London First, which represents big business in the capital, has asserted that,
“the 2012 legacy must be much more than a successful tournament and the regeneration of the Olympic Park site itself.  The Games must enhance London’s reputation as a dynamic, international city; catalyse the physical transformation of East London; and contribute to a step-change improvement in the skills, aspiration and employment of some of the country’s most deprived communities”.

But there have been increasing numbers of dissenters who have questionned successive governments’ commitments to the wider agenda of the Games.  Colin Moynihan’s statement is most significant, perhaps, because it came from someone very much within the UK’s sporting establishment.  And his is not a lone voice of concern.


The idea that major sporting events should seek to provide such a legacy has become commonplace in recent years.  Commentators usually refer to two examples as instances of successful legacy.  The Barcelona Games of 1992 has been hailed as a great success at almost every level, especially in terms of social and economic regeneration in the region.


But it was the Sydney games in 2000 that set the standard in terms of long-term and diverse effects.  Aside from the considerable improvement in sports performance in the host nation (Australia’s medal tally went up from 41 to 58, and stayed beyond the pre-Sydney level at Athens), its really significant benefits are more intangible.  The international perception of Sydney, and Australia as a whole, as a tourist and business destination has been transformed in the years following the Games and, according to some, the Olympic ideals - such as inspiration, friendship, fair play, perseverance, mutual respect, unity and joy in effort – somehow managed to bring about a reappraisal of attitudes to human and social rights.


Whether or not the Beijing Games can be considered a success depends, to a large extent, on whether or not we think that these political issues, especially human rights, matter in sporting events.  Seb Coe apparently does not think they do.


Of course, the selection of these cities to make the case for the Games is deliberate.  It would be naïve in the extreme to suppose that the hosting of a mega-event necessarily  results of regeneration.  For every success there are many more empty stadia, economic crises and lost opportunities.


In this respect, there are lessons to be learned from the analyses of Bent Flyvbjerg and his colleagues into the planning of megaprojects, such as tunnels, bridges and transport schemes.  They conclude:

“Rarely is there a simple truth … What is presented as reality by one set of experts is often a social construct that can be deconstructed and reconstructed by other experts” (Flyvbjerg, et al, 2003, p.60).

Flyvbjerg has demonstrated that on numerous occasions the advocates of such huge projects systematically misled the public in order to secure support and funding.


However, every case presents a possibility, and it is hard to deny the multifaceted potential of a well-planned, well-executed, well-supported Olympic Games for the host city, region and country. 


The Institute for Public Policy Research and Demos outlined five dimensions of an Olympic legacy for the London Games:


1) The social legacy – sport can in certain circumstances, provide an opportunity to involve a diverse range of people in delivering projects;

2) The employment legacy – there is little doubt that the London Olympics will generate a large number of new jobs, but there is a need for a more nuanced understanding of the employment potential of the Games than in terms of simple claims of numbers of jobs created;

3) The environmental legacy – there are fairly obvious environmental challenges presented by any mega-event, such as accommodating vast numbers of visitors, traffic and transport demands, energy and waste management;

4) The cultural legacy – culture as well as sport is supposed to create the foci of the Olympics.  The 2012 Games has the potential to focus international attention on the areas distinctive cultural assets.

5) The sporting legacy – the Games could act as a vehicle for stimulating increased participation, funding and facility development.


Yet, for all of the gushing excitement of politicians in London, many questions remain unanswered.  The research base on the wider effects of large-scale sporting events is still incomplete.  Academics have been critical of the misapplication of economic data by the promoters of such events for their own ends.  For example, whilst it might be the case that certain Games have resulted in the generation of more jobs in the region, critics have argued that the great majority were short-term, low-paid, or both.  And, of course, there is the danger of focusing on the benefits of an event without weighing up the costs.


Numerous groups have expressed concern at the growing expenditure associated with the event, at last count about £10billion, and the organisers of the 2012 Games have been criticised for their seeming reluctance to discuss their financial management and plans with external agencies.  Others have been critical of the relative investment in elite performance and the other aspects of London 2012.


Certainly, for a proposal based explicitly on young people’s participation and social transformation, discussions of actually implementing strategies have been negligible.


In an essay in Prospectmagazine, David Goldblatt presented a compelling case for Britain to start to take sport seriously.  More than three billion people tuned in to watch matches in the football World Cup in 2006, and the Olympics, for all of its faults, remains even more significant internationally.  No language or religion has sport’s scope or participation.  So the potential impact of the London Olympic Games in 2012 could be massive.


But if advocates for sport are to start to realise the sort of cultural importance that the arts have taken for granted for years, they will also need to be judged by the standards of planning, delivery and accountability that are normal in public life.






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