In the search for a legacy, Coe could learn from the past

What happens after the Olympics is almost as important as the event itself. Tom Peck looks back at the lessons of our other Games
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Viewers of the One Show know well the spot where Dorando Pietri collapsed. It was down on that paved walkway, in the window behind those lime green sofas, where in 1908 the Italian marathon runner, exhausted, delirious, and yards from the line, could go no further.

Breathless in his baggy dark shorts and white singlet, mostachioed British officials in tweed suits dragged him up and carried him over the line, winning him the race, subsequently disqualifying him. It is one of the great Olympic controversies.

"This is the site of the finish line of White City Stadium which hosted the 1908 Olympics," is stencilled across the paving stones in white, forming a narrow finish line not noticed by coffee-carrying BBC staff as they cross it on their way in and out of their Media Village in west London. That line, a plaque on the wall showing a medals table dominated by Britons, and the adjacent road, now named Dorando Close, which leads through a housing estate, are the only reminders that just over a hundreds years ago the first ever purpose-built Olympic Stadium was erected there.

In 125 days, London will become the first city to host the Olympic Games for a third time. When the games were last in the city, in 1948, the Olympic maxim was Faster, Higher, Stronger. In theory at least, it still is, but this time, for the first time, it feels as if it has been replaced with a single word. Legacy. Like never before, the focus on what happens after the Games is arguably more intense than the events themselves.

For a city uniquely steeped in Olympic history, London's existing legacy seems conspicuous by its absence, but it is there, and it is a tale both encouraging and concerning.

London didn't have long to prepare for the 1908 Games. They were originally to have been held in Rome, until Mount Vesuvius erupted in 1906. The Great Stadium at White City was erected in just 10 months. In such haste, there is no evidence to suggest much serious consideration was given as to what future there could be for a 130,000 capacity stadium with a swimming and diving pool on the infield, surrounded first by an athletics track of almost 540 metres in circumference, and outside of that, a second track for cycling.

At London's newest Olympic stadium, not yet officially open, officials claim all is fine as it keeps up its nigh-on-impossible juggling act of having to keep an athletics track, attract a football club that doesn't want it, and find room for pop concerts and possibly a rugby club too. Of the 16 parties that originally registered an interest in using the stadium after the games, only four had submitted a formal bid by yesterday's deadline.

If West Ham Football Club is to take on the stadium, the pitch will need to be ripped up and undersoil heating installed, at public expense. They will also seek to cover the track with temporary seating, requiring substantial renovation to the stadium roof in order to cover them over. As the British Olympic Council's report at the end of the 1908 Games so shrewdly observed: "Olympic balance-sheets, like other budgets, are in the habit of proving their healthy existence by a vigorous growth."

The saga unfolding in east London is unnervingly familiar. At White City, Queens Park Rangers football club moved in and out twice in the decades after the 1908 Games. Greyhounds raced there, then speedway bikes. Boxing contests were held, a match in the 1966 World Cup, and Rugby League Club Wigan Highfield became temporary tenants. Ray Davies of The Kinks quit the band live on stage there, before promptly collapsing from a drug overdose. It was demolished in 1984, to spectacularly little fanfare.

Success stories can emerge from the unlikeliest of beginnings. When a world still haunted by the spectre of its recent past again came to London in 1948, it found a city whose coffers were empty. The International Olympic Committee didn't help either, insisting that "many means of raising money are not permissible, such as the inclusion of advertisements in the brochures and programmes."

The British Empire was beginning its decline, but the great palaces it had built for the Empire Exhibition of 1924, still the most expensive exhibition in history, remained in rude health. Wembley Stadium held the athletics events, and swimming and diving took place at the nearby Empire Pool, the finest indoor facility in the world. Boxers competed there too, in a temporary ring on stilts above the water. It still stands today, in the guise of Wembley Arena, one of Europe's most successful live music venues. In a few months time its Olympic story will resume, when it hosts the Badminton and Rhythmic Gymnastic competitions.

For the entire games, only one piece of construction work was undertaken, hidden among semi-detached houses in south London. The outdoor velodrome at Herne Hill had been constructed in the 1890s and had drifted in and out of disrepair. Permanent stands were installed and the track relaid. Unthinkable now, but Britain was not a nation of cyclists back then, and after the games the velodrome entered a 50-year decline.

Not so now. "We're over run," said Rob Mortlock, an accredited British Cycling coach, who runs weekend training sessions at the velodrome. "More and more people are turning up every weekend. We can't wait for Stratford velodrome to open."

The legacy of the 2012 Games is in better shape, probably than any in recent history. Question marks still hang over the stadium itself, but organisers are confident its future will be secured in the next few months. There will of course remain those who would rather the Games were not coming at all. But like the rest of the Olympic Story, London has heard all this before too.

"In the early days there was by no means unanimity in support of the Games," wrote Lord Burghley, the Lord Coe of the 1948 Olympics, in his final report. He had won gold in the 400 metres hurdles in Amsterdam in 1928, having trained by placing matchboxes on top of hurdles in the grounds of his country estate. "Those few who have so far always been hostile to them, those who approved of them but doubted if 1948 was the time to hold them, and those who doubted if, as a result of the destruction by the war and the innumerable shortages, England could carry them through adequately."

There was one minor difference however. When the world packed up and moved on at the end of the summer of 1948, the games had made a £40,000 profit.

Olympic Stadium, Stratford, east London

The word "legacy" has reverberated around Stratford since 2005, but the future of Olympic Stadium is still far from secure. West Ham United FC were one of four groups to submit a formal bid for the venue yesterday. The concert promoter Live Nation is thought to be among the others. The 2017 Athletics World Championships will be held there, too.

Velodrome, Herne Hill, south-east London

The only 1948 Olympics venue still in use as it was then. Its little concrete stands were the only building work carried out for the entire Games.

Harringay Arena, Finsbury Park, north London

Last summer, rioters tore through the shops at the Arena Retail Park in Green Lanes, where Britain's first ice-hockey arena was built in the 1930s. The sport's popularity was short-lived.

White City Stadium, Shepherd's Bush, west London

British officials desperate not to see the US win the 1908 marathon all but carried an exhausted Italian, Dorando Pietri, over the line – but they later had to disqualify him.

Wembley Stadium, Wembley, Middlesex

The old Wembley Stadium, which hosted the 1948 Games, was demolished a decade ago but the road that leads to the new national stadium is still known, officially at least, as "Olympic Way".

Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire

In 1908 and 1948, Henley hosted the rowing events on the Thames, which cost the Games organisers nothing. Wimbledon has hosted tennis, and the Hurlingham Club the polo.

BBC Media Village, Shepherd's Bush, west London

The 1908 Olympic medals table, dominated by Great Britain, sits below the One Show studio and is the only reminder that the first purpose-built Olympic stadium once stood here.