Edition number 51; dateline 5 April 2012
Faster, stronger, higher, braver: what London might have been
It’s almost time. If you haven’t got tickets you may well have forced yourself to forget about it. If you have got tickets you may well be worrying already about how you’re going to get there in plenty of time. If you are in the sport, leisure and culture sector and were hoping that your organisation would be one of the beneficiaries of the legacy of London 2012 you may already have completed the tearing of hair and be too exasperated to care. And so, with only a couple of months to go until take off, it only remains for the final touches to the Olympic Park to be made and a few difficult questions to be avoided before the great and the sporting good can start handing out the medals.
Just for the record, the view of The Leisure Review – well at least the view of the editor – has been largely consistent since the days when the bid began to take shape, to wit that we would be able to do it, that we would do it well if given the chance, that it would cost at least four times the number first thought of and then some, and that it would prove to be worth even this inflated figure, although not necessarily for the reasons first envisaged. All this was, however, tempered by the recognition that dealing with the IOC would be, at the generous end of the scale, distasteful at best and, at the realistic end of the scale, completely unconscionable, and a requirement that would provide a perfectly valid reason for having nothing to do with the whole Olympic edifice in any form or at any cost.
These are views that I would still largely stand by, although some aspects of it, not least the dealing with the IOC, have been thrown into sharper relief by the bid and delivery processes. One of the bolder, some might say irresponsible, statements outlined above, that regarding the cost, still seems to be defensible despite the ridiculous nature of the numbers involved. There has been, quite rightly, huge debate about the amount of money being spent but one of the most frequently heard arguments, that the Olympic bill is being paid at expense of libraries and public services, strikes me as somewhat naïve. This argument presupposes that if we had cancelled the Olympics the £11 billion would somehow have been redirected towards libraries by a relieved chancellor desperately trying to shore up the public realm for the good of the nation rather than given to rich people as an incentive for wealth creation. The reality is that this latter option, as demonstrably idiotic as it may be, is what in recent history the British government, whatever its constituent parts and parties, has come to accept as its role. Under the current administration libraries are being closed and public services are being axed because that is what the government wants to happen. Cutting services for the undeserving – in other words, anyone who is not wealthy enough to go private – is what Tories are elected to do and no one can be surprised when, despite heartfelt pre-election promises made to the contrary, this is exactly what happens.
The £11 billion or so that hosting the Olympics and Paralympics is going to cost the British taxpayer is a lot of money but let us not pretend that it has ever been a question of London Olympics or libraries ongoing; let us admit that national public finances are a little more complex than that, if only to flatter the chancellor. The reality is that the cost of the Olympic Games is a one-off item of expenditure that is not so remarkable in terms of the British GDP and when measured against the money-literally-no-object costs of the invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya not even worthy of mention. Watch in the coming months how the government manages to justify the spending of £85 billion on replacing Trident, a weapons system that even the armed forces accept is an utter waste of money, and wonder what the reaction would have been in 2005 had one or more of the London boroughs asked the government for £11 billion to spend on revamping a swathe of east London.
However, even if we find the arguments about the money less than persuasive the arguments about missed opportunities are harder to dismiss. Visiting London recently Jacques Rogge congratulated London, saying the organisers of the 2012 Games had “set the bar for legacy”. What he omitted to mention was that the bar was set so incredibly low by the IOC that the press corps should be careful not trip over it on the way out. By simply repeating the word at every opportunity London has done more than any previous host to achieve any kind of positive legacy from the Games, whatever the reality of the legacy left behind in 2013 and beyond. Given the potential of the Olympic movement, it is sad that the ambition of the IOC in terms of the social good the Olympics could do is so small as to be all but absent. Nick Reeves’ forthright attack in this issue of The Leisure Review on the avoidance of any genuine commitment to sustainability, seen most obviously in the enthusiastic embrace of BP as a major sponsor of the London Games, is indicative of the opportunities to deliver a genuinely different Olympic Games that London has missed.
London 2012 will leave a legacy for the UK – the Olympic Park will be well used by the public, international events will use the venues, a huge number people young and old will be inspired by seeing the Games on the television to do something beyond their habitual experience (as perhaps they would be were they to be watching the Games live from Paris) – but it could have been so much more. A genuine commitment to legacy could have achieved something more than the half-hearted, box-ticking exercises on behalf of participation that have already been cancelled but London 2012 could also have been more insistent on maintaining the integrity of the bid. Not having Dow or BP as sponsors may have required a scaling down of proceedings but there are some obvious opportunities for savings (yes, opening and closing ceremonies, I’m looking at you) and we seemed to manage pretty well in 1948 when circumstances were if not similar then at least analogous.
We will not know for decades the extent to which London 2012 delivers a legacy or value for money but I fear in 20 years time there will be a clear consensus that we could have done better had we had the courage of our convictions. We all know that the Olympic Games and the Olympic movement requires fundamental change but the conclusion is likely to be that London left the task of radicalism to someone else.
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