Olympics legacy: One year on, how much remains of those heady days of London 2012?

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Almost a year has passed since the British amazed the world – and themselves – by hosting the most inspiring Olympics in living memory. Tom Peck introduces a week-long examination of the legacy

“To make an Olympic champion it takes eight Olympic finalists. To make Olympic finalists, it takes 80 Olympians. To make 80 Olympians it takes 202 national champions, to make national champions it takes thousands of athletes. To make athletes it takes millions of children around the world to be inspired to choose sport.”

So said Seb Coe, in Singapore on the 6th July 2005, to the members of the International Olympic Committee, a body made almost entirely of men in their sixties and beyond. Video inserts showed a child swimmer growing stronger with every stroke, a Chinese gymnast transforming, backflip by backflip, from a shaky-legged kid to an Olympic champion. A few hours later, Jacques Rogge opened up his envelope and shocked everyone. He read out the word ‘London’, and Trafalgar Square went bananas.

The next bright morning, in a world in the middle of a great, bogus, economic boom, Parisians cried into their croissants. “Pourquoi Londres?” pondered the French sporting newspaper, L’Equipe. But London had made a very public promise that be all but impossible to keep, even if all that money had been real. And it had given birth to the L word. Legacy. It would turn into a monster.  

In the years leading up to Singapore, two things had been weighing on the minds of the voting members of the International Olympic Committee. One, that their travelling city state had been leaving behind a growing herd of white elephants, scattered across the globe, and it was getting a bit embarrassing. What use did Athens have, for example, of a 10,000 seat baseball diamond? Two, that viewing figures showed that young people were turning off the Games in increasing numbers. When you’ve got a lot of Coke and McDonalds to sell, that’s a recipe for disaster.

Lord Coe, in a truly dazzling piece of political opportunism, promised to fix both. London would be the Legacy Games. It would transform a toxic swamp to the east of the east end, delivering infrastructure the city needed. Unlike Athens, a comparatively tiny place, London could genuinely make use of a velodrome, two Olympic-sized swimming pools and the rest. The stadium would become a 25,000-seat permanent home for athletics. Most of all, the London Games would inspire young people to play sport.

Not long after, more promises were made. The Games would boost adult participation in sport by a million. “A nice, round number somebody probably plucked out of the air,” said Hugh Robertson, the Sports Minister since 2010, when the target was all but given up on last year. Now, the headlines vary. In the glowing aftermath of the Greatest Show On Earth (and it was, wasn’t it?) there was “a soar in participation”. A few weeks ago, however, the numbers were down on this time last year. The wet weather has been blamed, the long cold spring, the way the figures are calculated, the way the data collected. This time next year the numbers may well be soaring again.

But what legacy, really, did we expect? No Games, ever, has delivered a lasting boost in sporting participation. And in an already sports-obsessed nation, why would it?

Yes, the politicians made promises, but Olympic decision-making has to be understood in its real context. Bidding for the Olympics was never a lightbulb moment in some crusade to get the nation’s kids off the sofa. We wanted the Olympics for their own sake. Legacy was merely a marketing strategy, a story the old men of the IOC wanted to hear – a good news message they could sell to the Big Mac men.

Unfortunately, politicians do have to be held to account for the promises they make, even when it’s particularly hard to believe they meant them, and even when a tsunami of economic misery no one saw coming all but obliterated them anyway. When suddenly there’s no money, it’s not surprising that schools should look to sports clubs, and sports clubs to schools, to start delivering on extra promises for which neither has the cash.

It hasn’t helped that since 2010 we have had an Education Secretary driven by ideological evangelism like no one in decades, and for whom sport is not a priority. Among his first acts was to scrap the school sports budget, which ring-fenced spending on school sports, and scrapped Labour’s “aspirational target” of two hours of PE lessons a week.

When, on the morning after the Olympics Closing Ceremony, the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt was asked by a reporter about the “hole” in the middle of the sporting-funding model that school sport represented, he laughed, and expressed surprise, given the success of the Games, that the questioner had “dared to ask”.

With its controversial, Dow-sponsored wrap removed, even the stadium is looking decidedly white and elephantine. Not long after 2005, it transpired that a 25,000-seat permanent home for athletics was a business impossibility. So began an impossibly protracted pantomime which will conclude, in 2016, with around £750m having been spent on transforming it into one of the world’s most expensive football stadiums, which, according to the published designs, really doesn’t look as thought it will be a very good place to watch football.

One of the few times Coe lost his cool in the long build-up to the Games was when he was being questioned by the London Assembly on the latest twist in the stadium saga, in this case the illegality of the West Ham United bid that won at the expense of Tottenham. He snapped and said, “Look, I didn’t make a promise in Singapore to Tottenham Hotspur season-ticket holders.”

In other areas, however, the outlook for Olympic legacy is more promising. The Athletes’ Village is about to deliver a sizeable chunk of affordable housing to the market, even if the other half of it has been bought by the Qatari sovereign wealth fund. All the Olympic venues appear to have viable, sustainable futures. More housing is being built. A school, Chobham Academy, will open in the Olympic Park in September, and soon a healthcare centre too.

The politicians, too, saw very clearly how much we loved all those gold medals, and so the funding for elite sport is in place until long after Rio 2016. And, meanwhile, those immaculate heroes we all fell in love with do seem to have inspired some people to follow their example. In the wake of Nicola Adams’s furious punching, women taking part in boxing has doubled. Athletics clubs, too, are reporting a rise in members.

But will it last? Tickets to the London Grand Prix athletics meeting, which will take place back in the Olympic Stadium on the anniversary of opening ceremony, sold out in seconds, but it would. That hallowed place is still bathed in Olympic afterglow, but it won’t be for ever.  Meanwhile, a couple of weeks ago, Mo Farah won an electrifying 5,000m in Birmingham, in an all but empty stadium.

The last brick on the four new neighbourhoods that will be built around the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is not scheduled to be laid until 2030. That seems like a sensible time to deliver a verdict on the success or failure of London’s Olympic legacy.  In the wake of the most recent, disappointing figures, the Sports minister stressed yet again that the Government “remains absolutely committed to delivering a lasting sports participation legacy from London 2012.”

Perhaps it was he who chose Bruce Springsteen to reopen the park for the first time last weekend, for a series of rock concerts. Perhaps, after all, we were all born to run, not just Mo Farah. Yet you can’t help but feel a growing sense that, where Olympic legacy is concerned, our politicians are still dancing in the dark.

PROMISES, PROMISES

In 2007, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport published “Our Promise For 2012”, highlighting five key pledges. These were:

1. We will make the UK a world-leading sporting nation.

2. We will transform the heart of east London.

3. We will inspire a new generation of young people to take part in local volunteering, cultural and physical activity.

4. We will make the Olympic Park a blueprint for sustainable living.

5. We will demonstrate the UK is a creative, inclusive and welcoming place to live in, visit and do business.

A 2008 document, “Before, during and after: making the most of the London 2012 Games”, added some more specific pledges: for example, that, by 2013, one million more people would be playing sport three or more times a week, with a further million engaging in wider physical activities (including gardening or decorating) three or more times a week. However, these were quietly dropped in 2010.

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