In Search of a Legacy: Examining the Aftermath of London 2012

Much was promised. Back in 2005, the government saw the Olympics as a good news story for Blair’s Britain; a demonstration of the country’s shift to a modern, outward-looking nation. Come 2016 however, the Games are viewed as an anti-Brexit symbol: representing a time when Britain, historically often seen as insular and isolated from the rest of world, opened its doors to people from all nations in the name of sport. But what did we gain from spending over £10 billion other than a fuzzy feeling of nostalgia? What in the way of a concrete legacy did London 2012 leave us?

There were two main legacy commitments promised by the application to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2004. Firstly, a generation would be inspired into taking up sport leading to ‘increased grassroots participation’. Secondly, that there would be mass redevelopment of the area around Stratford, East London.

The first promise to increase the country’s sporting participation has been a catalogue of missed opportunities and government inefficiency. Shockingly, the amount of people participating in sport on at least one occasion per week has decreased from 15.89 million in 2012 to 15.8 million in 2016. It is for another article to debate whether we are a fitter, healthier nation now than in 2012, but it is undeniable that we are doing less sport.

And while those on the Committee on Olympic and Paralympic Legacy may argue that since 2005 (when work towards leaving a sporting legacy began) there has been a one billion increase in the number of people doing sport once per week, it is misleading to attribute the increases pre-2012 to ‘legacy’. After all, the Games had not even happened yet.

‘Missed opportunities and government inefficiency’

Yet those who blame this failure at the feet of the Olympic organisers do so prematurely. Wider forces were at work. In fact, it was indiscriminate budget cuts which damned the Olympic generation. The discontinuation of the Schools Sport Partnership — a programme which allowed for £162 million of funding for improvements in school P.E. — by the Conservative government in 2011 was, in the words of Tessa Jowell MP (Minister for the Olympics 2005–10), a “missed opportunity”. The cuts removed a vital instrument that was to carry out much of the Olympic sporting legacy: indeed, some community workers were actually doing more before the Games than after.

The idea then that Britain is a mass ‘sporting nation’ at all is a myth. But to search for a lasting impact requires more than examining such sporting statistics. Though not a ‘sportier’ nation in terms of participation, there is certainly scope to argue that our knowledge and awareness of more sports has increased. As a nation, we now more quickly accept triathlon, cycling and kayaking as sport, and our sporting culture is now more varied and interesting. In the last 20 years, there has been a proliferation of everything from parkrun.com to triathlons in Hyde Park and cycling superhighways. And while it is hard to say with certainty whether this is a direct effect of London 2012, there are certainly some tangible example of Team GB’s success, with bike sales increasing by 14% since 2012.

It is also important not to overlook the impact of inspiration. Elite sport took a place in the national conscious after the Games in London and its impact was felt right across the nation with gymnast Louis Smith winning Strictly Come Dancing and cycling star Bradley Wiggins appearing on The Archers. London 2012 made stars out of Wiggins, Chris Hoy, Jessica Ennis-Hill et al., and this is what inspires children. Already involved in high level sports, they can begin to see themselves following in the footsteps of these unlikely celebrities. Though it was perhaps too naive to suppose that the London Games alone would convince our couched country to ‘Get Inspired’, it has provided invaluable role models for our future Olympians.

Elite athlete Mo Farah winning a gold medal in London 2012

The second pledge was to regenerate London’s frayed outskirts. It is easy to criticize the lifeless Olympic Park: Stratford has not quite lived up to potential, let alone the hype. Poor management has meant it has yet to fully grow into itself, a problem that can be more understood by way of a comparison with the Rio 2016 Games. In Brazil, the slatted wooden cladding, the concrete circulation cores and the steel frame from the Future Arena in Rio will be used for new structures.

But a similar plan in London 2012 never quite happened: the inflatable pillows from the Coca-Cola Beatbox pavilion were intended to be recycled into a canopy for a local school, but the cost of dismantling the structure intact proved prohibitive, causing the whole thing to be scrapped. In short, innovative attempts to adapt venues post-Games were made, but were slightly before their time.

However, despite its corporate rigidity, Stratford is growing and looks set to be an important area for London in the next 20 years. The late Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre is a masterpiece and the Lee Valley velodrome retains its charm, though less can be said for Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit. And while the area has average employment and sport stats, Stratford will still be a good foundation for long term investment and development, as well as offering the only affordable graduate accommodation London. London 2012 is thus far from a Sochi 2014 or a Montreal 1973, where the infrastructure built became infamous white elephants. Indeed, though it does not say much, London 2012 had some of the most far-reaching set of legacy considerations in Olympic history.

For example, beyond the confines of the Olympic Park, Great Britain was topping the ‘Soft Power 30’ survey of countries: that is, those with the ability to wield cultural influence around the world. The Opening Ceremony for instance — which is worth watching again — provided a chance for thoughtful but daring study of our culture, presenting us as good-humoured, eccentric at times, and, in the words of Fernando Meirelles, the director of the Rio 2016 Opening Ceremony, ‘smart’.

The opening ceremony touched on our industrial past

While this concern may seem remote, affecting only summits and trade deals, it is actually vital for attracting top doctors to the NHS, impacts upon how we are treated when we go on holiday, and helps Cambridge to compete with Ivy League and Asian universities. The Olympics in London were in effect a marketing coup for a declining Britain.

So while it was a very expensive summer party, we should recognise and be grateful for the long-term benefits of London 2012, whatever their form. Granted, change in a developed and modern society does not happen as a result of large-scale, one-off events. And it is fair to say that prior knowledge of the global economic meltdown which occurred in the years following our application, the bid would certainly not have garnered such support.

But the Olympic Games provided this country with quantifiable benefits; the redevelopment of Stratford, major sports infrastructure, tourism, and increased our reputation abroad. Perhaps more importantly too, it inculcated a sense of national unity in support of the inclusive and idealistic concepts that the Olympic Games carry with them. This made London 2012 everything that Brexit was not. The result announced on the 23rd June was an undoing of the open-armed spirit of the Olympic Gamemakers, and the multiculturalism of the Opening Ceremony.

The London 2012 Olympics were a huge opportunity for our country that we grabbed with both fists. But, as we forgot the internationalist and the sporting ideals of the Games, our chance to create a long-lasting and valuable legacy was lost.