Olympic legacy questions still unanswered

The British nation eagerly anticipates hosting the world’s biggest sporting spectacle in July 2012, but at what price?

Tower Bridge
Preparations for the 2012 London Games have run smoothly but plans for future are unclear [GALLO/GETTY] 

It is here. The wait is over. The arenas have been constructed, the athletes are deep into their preparations and the tickets have been sold. Seven years on from London winning the right to host sport’s greatest showpiece, the English capital has now reached its Olympic year.

Few doubt London 2012 will be an incredible sporting spectacle, but there are rising concerns in the UK over what the legacy of hosting the Games will be.

When London was awarded the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Singapore in 2005, it was probably the most competitive bidding process any sporting event has ever known as the city fought off the stiff challenges of Paris, Madrid, New York and Moscow. The news was broadly greeted in the UK as a huge triumph.

The nation was economically prosperous and buoyed by an upturn in sporting fortunes characterised by medal-laden Olympic campaigns by Team GB in Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004. The Olympic Games in London? A confident, bullish UK Government had eagerly chased the prize and their success was celebrated excitedly by the majority of the British people.

But as we move into 2012, there is a different atmosphere in the UK.

The financial landscape has changed drastically. Credit crunch was followed by banking crisis and the country has also become embroiled in the Eurozone crisis. Every little outlay is counted more fastidiously. Now, upward of $14.5 billion seems rather frivolous for a few weeks of sport.

Britain has the creative flair, professional expertise and sporting heritage to provide the perfect stage for the Olympic Games. The build-up has lacked any major crisis and preparations have been as smooth as the surface of the Olympic velodrome.

London 2012 will be fabulous and the British can also be virtually certain the home nation will enjoy massive medal success as elite sport continues to prosper due to funding drawn from the UK’s National Lottery.

What is less certain now is why we are hosting the Olympic Games. It is a question that is being asked more frequently and since the country has become enveloped in economic woe, it is being asked louder.

Uncertainty over legacy

Even senior individuals closely tied to the winning bid in 2005 now have serious concerns. Sure, it will be a fantastic fortnight of sport but what of the aftermath? What will be the benefit? What is the greater goal?

In delivering the bid seven years ago, London 2012 Chairman Lord Sebastian Coe spoke of the ‘need to inspire a generation of young people to take part in local volunteering and physical activity’. Yet early in December, it was revealed that far from people being motivated to take part in sport, the number of people playing sport regularly has actually fallen in England.

Among young people, the number of 16-19 year olds taking part in sport three times per week has fallen by more than 100,000 to 825,900 since the successful Olympic bid in 2007.

The figures, released by Sport England, the Government body responsible for the development of grass roots sport, also reveal that the number of people doing no exercise at all has risen to 57.8% of the population.

Similarly, there is still no guaranteed legacy for the Olympic stadia – in particular, the main athletics arena. In February 2011, it was announced that English football club West Ham United would take over the stadium as their new home ground with the facilities for athletics remaining in place.

Eight months on the deal had collapsed amid legal challenges from fellow London football clubs Tottenham Hotspur and Leyton Orient. As of today, the stadium will stay in public ownership – and still has an uncertain future.

Recent flirtations with Rugby Union and even American Football demonstrate the Olympic Park Legacy Company’s increasing desperation to avoid the stadium becoming a $780m White Elephant – an outcome that would be completely unacceptable to the British taxpayer.

On the economic question. Would the Olympic Games jump start the ailing UK economy? A report suggests that it could provide a stimulus of up to $8 billion over the next four years. However, much depends on the unquantifiable feel-good factor and the perception of the UK overseas post-Games.

So it is a rather uncertain host country that is set to entertain the world in July. Most of the country is supportive of London 2012. But what of 2013, 2014 and beyond? 

Chris Broadbent is a London-based journalist who specialises in Olympic and Paralympic sport.

Source: Al Jazeera