One Year On

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This weekend London’s Olympic Park was publicly unveiled exactly one year after the curtain came up on the 2012 Olympics and Danny Boyle produced what was a master stroke in British cultural programming.  It is a good time to reflect on Legacy – what is working and what isn’t.

The London Anniversary Games – unfortunately a displacement of Crystal Palace’s long tenure of the London Grand Prix – aimed to rekindle the embers of Super Saturday. Jess, Mo and Greg were booked but so were their competitors.

The event is a milestone in London’s Olympics, as the much talked about ‘legacy’ starts to take shape.  The extraordinary transformation from industrial wasteland to lush meadows and iconic sporting facilities is, in fact, a minor miracle. Should we really have expected anything less?  The scale, complexity and time constraints were punishing. But the individuals and companies procured to deliver the infrastructure represented some of the world’s leading figures in their fields. They certainly performed, but are they so deserving of honours?  I’m not sure.

There are, of course, some unsolved problems.  While the threat of judicial review over the Olympic Stadium’s future has finally been put to bed and West Ham appear to be on track (literally!) to take up occupancy, the solution is far from perfect. The Legacy Company’s refusal to sever football from athletics will always be the stadium’s Achilles heel. It was a misjudged decision by Baroness Margaret Ford – the first chair of the Legacy Board – to reopen the debate on whether to retain the full stadium or downsize it. That decision alone cost more than the estimated price of remodelling the stadium, not to mention the cost to West Ham, Tottenham Hotspur and London taxpayers. The only winners were the lawyers and we have simply ended up with what they stubbornly tried to avoid in the first place: football in the Olympic Stadium. What chance do West Ham have of filling it week-in, week-out?

Overall, however, the physical legacy has been positive.  It is a real vindication of the London 2012 Bid Team’s original vision of using the Olympics as a means to accelerate the delivery of infrastructure and regeneration that London needed anyway.

In contrast to the physical legacy, the ‘intangibles’ are less, well… tangible. Recent announcements make heroic claims that sports participation levels have increased. But they have not increased by much and, in any event, a short-term bump was inevitable.  Everyone starts jogging after the London Marathon.  Everyone plays tennis during Wimbledon.  Continuous improvement requires meaningful investment at the grassroots level and that has sadly been lacking since the Olympics.  The Games left us with a lust for gold (at the elite level), but no great taste for sport (in the schools and playgrounds).

One year on, I’d also hoped that a big ‘wrong’ of that triumphant Summer of Sport would be righted.  In all the speeches, all the interviews, all the poetry and prose that was written about the Olympics, I don’t remember hearing or reading a word of recognition for Barbara Cassani.  She was there at the very start, long before Seb dipped for the line and stole the show in Singapore.  I remember working on parts of the Bid, back when London was an underdog, Paris the runaway favourite, and the British mostly ambivalent about wanting the Olympics at all.  Cassani marshalled a winning team and presided over an outstanding technical Bid that set the template for all that followed. It was right and tactically astute for her to hand the reigns to Lord Coe when the time came for a little ‘star power’, but did she really need to be so thoroughly and undeservedly airbrushed from the popular history of the 2012 Games?

The Anniversary Games has afforded some of those who did not get Olympic tickets the opportunity to experience the packed-out stadium, a partisan British crowd and a hint of the atmosphere from those heady 2012 nights. And for those lucky ticket holders, the walk to the stadium gives a tantalising glimpse of the re-shaped park and venues, which will progressively open in the coming months.

I applaud the ODA and LOCOG in their planning and execution of the infrastructure and the Games themselves. What was achieved was impressive, but let’s not get carried away.  A basketful of medals and a strong physical legacy should not distract us from the longer term challenges.