Daniel Howden: London doesn't need a herd of white elephants

Six months after the closing ceremony, the Athens Olympic legacy is as clear as it is bleak
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The Independent Online

The red carpet is unrolled once again for the International Olympic Committee as the cabal of unelected officials arrives this week to a reception normally reserved for visiting heads of state. Amid the fanfare and patriotism, the central theme is one of transformation. The Olympics, we are told, will transform run-down urban areas from concrete eyesores devoid of investment or employment into oases of green parks and sporting arenas.

This might sound like a description of London in 2005, in fact it was Athens in 1997. Then, as now, the IOC decision-makers were greeted as potential saviours. Lord Coe's claims this week that the 2012 Games will transform London, exactly echo the claims made by the leader of the Athens bid, Gianna Angelopoulos, as she sought to fend off the challenge from the favourite, Rome, eight years ago.

Returning to the present, six months after the lights went out at the closing ceremony and Athens' Olympic legacy is as clear as it is bleak. Athens is bankrupt, or as near to bankrupt as any city can be. Nobody has yet put forward a cohesive plan of what to do with the herd of white elephants expensively coaxed into life for a fortnight last summer. The loud and long claims that the whole country would share in the success of a "magical Games" still ring true if only because everyone in Greece is sharing in paying the £7bn bill.

As British television viewers are treated this week to a promotional video showing the urban sprawl of East London swept away in a green wave of computer graphics, it might be instructive to take a look at what happened to last summer's host city.

Athens' weightlifting arena sits atop the crowded huddle of concrete apartment blocks in the rundown neighbourhood of Nikea like a blue and grey sandcastle on a pile of rubble. It must have looked appealing to somebody at some point, either as an architect's sketch or a computer-generated model - but looking at it now, it's hard to see why. The only evidence of its Games glory are some battered-looking cardboard placards - a now-forlorn reminder of Athens 2004.

The arena is surrounded by the evidence of poor development and disastrous urban planning. The locals were bemused by the choice of their poor neighbourhood as an Olympic venue and have little idea what they are to do with their legacy. The venue did enjoy one memorable night last August as Greece's modern-day Hercules, Pyrros Dimas, tried and failed to win a fourth consecutive Olympic gold in front of a raucous and partisan crowd. Was that one night worth the millions it cost to build the unwanted arena?

This scene is repeated all over the city, from the plains of Marathon with its deserted rowing lake which cost nearly £100m, to the harbour at Agios Kosmas with its rusting sailing centre which cost half that. These are the same venues we were told would would be scattered through the city like so many seeds of urban renewal. But the seeds are dying in the ground and no one has the money to make them grow

It is not that the Athens Olympics were not successful. According to the IOC they were the best ever. It is just that there is no evidence to support the claim that sports infrastructure can be used as an engine for urban renewal.

Olympic venues are not built to meet the needs of local communities they are built to meet the requirements of international sports federations. These self-promotion artists are not driven by the thought of leaving a legacy for schoolchildren; they want venues that make their sport look better than the others when the television cameras start rolling. Host city organisers have to sign a massively detailed contract with the IOC before starting work, one that ultimately gives away control of how the sporting infrastructure is built.

As far as the much vaunted Olympic legacy effect on transport goes, it should be remembered that the IOC does not build public transit systems - governments do. Either they have the money to upgrade bus, train and road networks, in which case they should do so, or they don't. They should not need a green light from the IOC to start investing.

Once the flag-waving begins in earnest, anyone who seeks to question why billions of taxpayers money is being spent on a sporting extravaganza, is treated as a national traitor. In Greece, all discussion of the value of staging the Games was submerged in the panic over whether they would be ready on time. Now the dust has settled, Athens' experience has a more sobering message to the cities vying for 2012.

Before significant amounts of public money are committed to launching an Olympic bid there are a few questions to consider: Why is there no public consultation before cities decide to bid? Why is public money automatically committed to only one side of the argument in the form of expensive "back the bid" campaigns? And since democracy is in vogue, perhaps it is time people were given the chance to vote on whether they want to pick up the bill for the most expensive show on earth.


The writer covered the Athens Games for 'The Independent'