A golden opportunity but final verdict is years away

economy, sport

Author(s):  Richard Darlington
Published date:  20 Aug 2012
Source:  Financial Times

It could be more than two decades before we can really pass judgment on whether the venues have secured their sustainable transformation. Fundamentally though, the conditions for a successful legacy have already been delivered.

Legacy is not the same as sustainability. Just ask Kay Hope, the fictional head of sustainability in the BBC mockumentary Twenty Twelve. It became her catchphrase in the show. In one episode she tells her nemesis, the head of legacy, that “sustainability is not about taking the easy decisions”. “No,” says the head of legacy, “and legacy isn’t about taking the wrong decisions.”

Team GB has certainly smashed its medals target and eclipsed its success in Beijing. But will mass sporting participation now ensue? There is a big difference between elite sport, where the medals table tells the tale, and mass sporting participation. Sporting bodies used the second week of the games to lobby ministers for investment in additional coaches and primary school sports programmes in the next spending review. But what you do before the games clearly matters most.


Evidence from past Olympics suggests that host cities are not very good at using the elite events to deliver sustained increases in grassroots participation. Australia, for example, did not see an increase in participation after the 2000 Sydney games. But the 2003 Rugby Union World Cup, also held in Australia, put coaches in place before the event to capitalise on the hype.


With girls being turned off sport when they leave primary school in much greater numbers than boys, targeted funding needs to go far beyond a debate about selling off school playing fields and turn towards what school PE offers teenagers, especially girls.


We have seen some fantastic venues, but will they be utilised after the games? Athens was the classic example of what not to do. Little was done for the first few years after the Greek capital won the race to host the games in 2004. This compounded the lack of post-games planning regarding what the venues might be used for and how that could be reflected in their design. In the rush to complete the facilities on time, little thought was given to using large infrastructure projects to provide employment and skills to Athens’ unemployed and low skilled.


Other host cities expected long-term benefits by simply providing new facilities for local residents. Underused stadiums in Sydney, Athens and even Barcelona were not the lasting legacies those cities wanted. The deprived areas next to the Olympic Park in Atlanta felt they received very little from the 1996 games. Sydney’s Olympic Park in the city’s western suburbs is considered a ghost town.


London now boasts fantastic venues but they need to be put to use. Speaking at a conference organised by the IPPR and the Centre for London last year, Baroness Margaret Ford, the then chairwoman of the former Olympic Park Legacy Company, admitted that it takes time to get things right. She explained that the Millennium Dome, now the O2 entertainment complex, was finally sold at the third time of asking and that it took years before the right owner could make the venue work. The future of the Olympic stadium is still up for grabs.


After the Paralympics, the Olympic Park will close for nine months and reopen with a new purpose. According to the London Legacy Development Corporation, the renamed Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is expected to attract more than 9m visitors a year from 2016 to see 2,000 events annually. These include the World Athletics Championships in 2017. It is an ambitious target and it will require many different pieces of a huge jigsaw to come together. It could be more than two decades before we can really pass judgment on whether the venues have secured their sustainable transformation. Fundamentally though, the conditions for a successful legacy have already been delivered.


Back in 2004, an IPPR report argued that the sustainable employment legacy would be the hardest to achieve. The employment problem in east London is not due to a lack of available jobs in the capital but to “supply-side” problems of low skills and employer hiring practices. In advance of the games, the London organising committee worked with London Citizens, an alliance of community organisations, to recruit 1,200 people through community groups but it was never going to be possible for local people to provide all the specialist skills needed for so many big construction projects.


The £1.45bn Westfield Stratford shopping development includes a skills academy and is employing 3,000 local people who have previously been unemployed. John Lewis has employed an even higher proportion of local people and the contract for the social enterprise taking over the handball arena and aquatics centre includes a target for 75 per cent of the workforce being local, with one in 10 having previously been unemployed. It will be a huge challenge to ensure that the companies providing employment opportunities are able to keep offering jobs to local people.


London 2012 is taking place during a unique period of the UK’s economic history. When the city won the games in 2005, no one anticipated the global financial crisis. No one could have imagined that the event would take place not just during the longest and slowest economic recovery since the Great Depression but during a double-dip recession. Every other recent host country has seen stronger economic growth in the two quarters before the games than in the two quarters after. With the national economy flatlining for almost two years now, any Olympic boost is not going to be enough to get the economy back on track.


The games have showcased Britain’s creative talent in an opening ceremony that surpassed all expectations and the athletes have literally flown the flag on many more victory laps than we ever expected. It is a massive task but making sure that “the greatest show on Earth” leaves behind the greatest legacy of any games is about making the right decisions and not necessarily the tough ones.

Richard Darlington is a researcher at the IPPR think tank, which published “After the Gold Rush” in 2004


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