Beijing, China (2008): Capitalise on the buzz and ensure a lasting legacy
By Clifford Coonan
The Games have occupied a markedly different role in the British psyche than they did for China in 2008; the UK didn’t need to host the Games to establish itself as an emerging superpower in the global imagination.
But Team GB’s success in the medals table, and the wave of patriotism it has inspired, are two aspects the UK may now be surprised to share with China’s experience as host. And they are also two aspects it will be under pressure to maintain.
To capitalise on the buzz, London could follow Beijing’s example in some ways. The 90,000-seat £300m Beijing National Stadium, nicknamed ‘The Bird’s Nest’, and the Beijing National Aquatics Centre, known as the ‘Water Cube’ - the two iconic structures of the 2008 Games - are now held up as major tourist destinations. With some 4.61 million people visiting the Olympic Park last year, the venues keep the successes of the Games fresh in the minds of Beijing’s residents, as well as foreign visitors.
Despite spending £25billion on its lavish Games, China paid little attention to the legacy issue – something the UK, where its public will be scrutinising every wasted pound, cannot afford to do. The Birds Nest may work as a tourist attraction, but no Chinese sports team could fill the huge venue for every home game, and with maintenance costs at a reported £7m per year, it is a very expensive place to lay empty.
If any of the UK venues cannot continue to be used for sport, they must be repurposed quickly and cleverly. The Water Cube, where US swimmer Michael Phelps took eight gold medals, has proved surprisingly successful as an aquatic theme park and apparently breaks even every year.
London, like Beijing, should make sure it gets the most out of the infrastructure development sparked by the Games, and continue to support it. The Chinese capital continues to be a better place to live thanks to its new subway network, roads, housing, and airport.
Aside from its material legacy, the UK should not forget its political and social promises. The improvement in human rights that many said the Games could bring to China has failed to materialise, and there has been no marked change in public sports participation.
Athens, Greece (2004): Do not waste the post-Games opportunities
By Nathalie Savaricas in Athens
The world watched with baited breath as Greece raced to deliver its Summer Games in 2004, when the Olympics returned to its birthplace. Despite the facilities being completed just days before the opening ceremony, the show turned out to be spectacular.
In stark contrast to the perceived success of the Games, “empty buildings burning under the sun” is how one security guard minding an Olympic venue now describes the deteriorating facilities in Athens. The city serves as a warning to London, and a prime example of wasted post-Games opportunities.
Pundits now argue that the extravagance of the Olympics, estimated between €6-10bn (the exact cost remains a mystery), contributed to Greece's current debt crisis. With minds momentarily diverted from the double-dip recession, the UK must be careful to show that it its investment in the Games will generate growth.
The mismanagement of the Olympic property in Athens is without precedent. The €222m sea-front Faliron complex, which once staged beach volleyball and taekwondo, is fenced off, lamps have been knocked down, parts of the pavement have been ripped out and Gypsies have squatted on the surrounding area. Though political conferences and concerts sporadically take place there (standard fare for the world’s used Olympic venues), the site serves as a powerful reminder that irregular events are not enough. To its credit, London seems to be aware of this, having won its bid for the 2017 World Athletics Championships last year.
To avoid retracing Athens footsteps, London should not only have already decided on the subsequent utilisation of all its venues, but crucially, it must implement those plans right after the conclusion of the 2012 Games.
Despite its failures, Greece’s Olympic legacy offers at least three venues which can serve as an example to London, having been successfully repurposed. The radio-television press centre was transformed into a luxury shopping mall, the building accommodating the international press was taken over by the government’s health ministry, and the complex that hosted the badminton competition now stages artistic events and concerts.
But all this took time – a long time – to come about, and the delay has left Greece with a bitter taste in its mouth. Authorities contend the remaining property in Athens is in the midst of being auctioned off - but eight years down the line, there is little to justify the pitiful state of the venues that once made this nation so proud.
Sydney, Australia (2000): Use the venues now and keep up the sports funding
By Kathy Marks
The main advice that organisers of the Sydney 2000 Games – proclaimed the “best Olympic Games ever” by the late Juan Antonio Samaranch, then president of the International Olympic Committee – would give to their London counterparts is to put legacy plans into action immediately.
In the first few years after the Sydney Games, the under-used sporting venues cost taxpayers millions of dollars to maintain and the Olympic precinct – built on a former industrial wasteland in the Sydney suburbs – felt like a ghost town. Criticism by the media and other commentators was harsh.
The tide began to turn after the stadium hosted the Rugby World Cup final in 2003. Since then, it has been used for international rugby league, soccer and, most recently, cricket matches, as well as rock concerts. Other venues have also become popular, with the former SuperDome – where Olympic basketball and gymnastics were staged – now the world’s second most profitable indoor arena, eclipsed only by London’s O2.
But the UK should also remember that its Olympic legacy extends far beyond bricks and mortar. Australia’s lack of medals at this year’s Games, compared to its admirable tallies in Sydney and Beijing, has been blamed on a drop in sports funding in recent years - a stark reminder that if Team GB is to keep its place in the medal table at Rio 2016 and beyond, the government must maintain funding.
International tourism, which was expected to soar as a result of Sydney’s exposure, has declined since 2000, and London will have to work hard to avoid a similar fate in the current financial climate.
Hopes that hosting the Games would encourage wider participation in sport, which are shared by the organisers of London’s games, have been dashed. One study even suggests that it only inspired Australians to watch more sport on TV.
The UK should also make sure it capitalises on its new expertise. Australians who helped stage the Games have been employed by Athens, Beijing and now London. Eight of London’s 29 competition venues, including the Aquatic Centre, are being run by Australian general managers, while the stadium was designed by Brisbane architect Rob Sheard.
The Games also offers ongoing economic opportunity, and the chance to improve standard-of-living for city residents. Sydney’s Olympic precinct is now home to more than 100 banks, businesses and other organisations, while the first of several apartment blocks opened earlier this year. The surrounding rehabilitated wetlands and woodlands – Australia’s largest urban parkland – are full of Sydneysiders picnicking and cycling at weekends.
Atlanta, United States (1996)
By David Usborne, US Editor
The most visible legacy of the 1996 summer games in Atlanta is Centennial Park, a wide expanse of public space built as a central spot for spectators and visitors to gather, mingle and celebrate when they were not actually watching competitive events.
Today, the park is still there in heart of midtown. Paved, rarely filled in the way that it was during those two Olympic weeks and fringed by anonymous hotels and convention facilities, it is no longer much loved, however. This is in part because Atlantans have forgotten what was there before – a blighted area of open parking spaces and abandoned warehouses, dangerous at night and a blot in the heart of the city. How can we be sure that the affection felt now by most Londoners for their own Olympic park in Stratford does fade in the same way?
Part of the answer may be to ensure that in the years and even decades to come there is something there to remind everyone that, as in Atlanta, what laid there in Stratford before was mostly unwanted wasteland. Only if London can keep the flame of pride for the park and what it replaced alive will it be able to sustain and, hopefully, improve it.
In terms of a cultural legacy, Atlanta’s museum for Olympics memorabilia has proved a popular tourist attraction, and could work similarly in London. The city could also learn from Atlanta’s continued commitment to its flourishing outdoor arts scene – an initiative that was originally ramped up just for the Games.
If Atlanta hosted the games because it wanted to elevate itself into a world class city, then maybe it worked. London had already established itself in that way, but it still has room (believe it or not) to grow. In the years that followed Atlanta’s Games, the city boomed in a way it might not have otherwise. Its population surged from 3.5 million metro-area inhabitants in 1996 to 5.5 million last year. And some of the investments that were made, remain. Though some facilities have died off, the stadium is now home to the Atlanta Braves baseball team and the Olympic pool is part of a downtown university.
“I suppose the games maybe did a little more for Atlanta than Atlanta did for the games,” observes Richard Digglemann who led Kodak’s sponsorship of the 1996 competition. “When you go into the history books, the Olympics will hold a very important part in Atlanta history. I’m not sure it's the other way around.” The same would not be said for London, if its legacy succeeds.
Barcelona, Spain (1992)
By Alasdair Fotheringham
Before the Games, many Brits may have regarded the Olympics a poisoned chalice. But if London follows the example of Barcelona 1992, it too could be regarded as a force for urban and even political good in the long term.
Across the Catalan capital the number of hotel rooms doubled from 1990 to 2004 and restaurants increased by up to tenfold in the waterfront area alone - a vast plus for the hitherto fledgling tourist industry. London was already an established destination, but venues such as Eton Dorney (near Windsor) and Hampton Court Palace can now capitalise on their time in the Olympic spotlight.
For Barcelona, and Spain, the Games felt like a fresh start, and the UK would do well to seize on the renewed sense of enthusiasm and national pride the Games appear to have brought.
For the first time since Franco's death in 1975, the modern-looking, vibrant, cosmopolitan image that the city transmitted in 1992 helped give Spaniards a sense they had cast off dark, inward-looking decades of military dictatorship for good.
“The Olympics really helped to sell the brand of Barcelona above and beyond the brand of Spain or Catalunya,” Santi Duran, a Barcelona resident who started worked as a sports reporter for Catalan daily newspaper El Mundo Deportivo in 1982, tells The Independent.
“It gave Barcelona a huge boost as a tourist destination and simultaneously confirmed” - together with that year's Universal Exhibition in Seville, Expo '92 - “that Spain had entered a period of normality, and could look other European countries in the face.”
Underlining that sensation of a city - and country - moving into a new era, Barcelona's two main inner ring-roads were completed in time for the Games, and huge sections of the previously industrial, run-down waterfront were rebuilt for the Olympic village. Barcelona even got its first beach, albeit a man-made one.
Using the Olympic stadium as a venue both for sport and rock concerts, as Barcelona has done, is an obvious move to secure London 2012’s legacy, and could help ensure ‘footfall’ remains high in Stratford after the closing ceremony.
Plans are already afoot in London to keep the swimming pools open and for use by the public - as they are in the Val de Hebron in Barcelona. But if there is one example not to follow, it is that of Barcelona’s Olympic velodrome, which is “underexploited” according to Duran. Tellingly, since the Games, it has never been used for a World Track Championships – an event London is already bidding for in 2016.