Stuff the ‘legacy’, enjoy the sport!

The sports philistines who govern modern Britain want to use London 2012 as a tool of mass social engineering. They must be stopped.

The sport is the thing. It always was. It’s why the Olympics continues to entrance and enchant. It’s why millions of us love watching it, why we drink it up, why it can, in those special moments, fill us with awe. Because that’s what the sight of someone pushing their mind and body to the limit can be – awe-inspiring.

Not that the vast assortment of politicians, bureaucrats and quangocrified officials involved in the so-called delivery of the Games seems to have grasped this. For them, that sublime, bloody-minded pursuit of sporting glory never seemed to be that important. Instead, for the past eight or so years, when the London 2012 bid was a mere glint in Lord Coe’s eye, sport consistently came a distant second to the real point of hosting the Olympics. That was, of course, the ‘legacy’, the social and economic benefits which flow, seamlessly, magically, from the hosting of a global sports event.

Now, with the Greatest Show on Earth approaching its final curtain, attention will no doubt turn, once again, to this much-trumpeted legacy. And no wonder. The reason for the Olympics, the reason why so many of us love it, has consistently been denigrated not just by the tedious, sports-hating cynics, but by the very politicians and quango heads currently basking in the reflected glory of the likes of Olympic champions Mo Farah and Usain Bolt.

Right from the start, those supposedly driving London 2012 forward seemed to think that the Olympics was little more than a means to realise a whole host of social and economic ends, from the much-needed (better transport) to the downright sinister (’encourage individuals and communities to make more sustainable lifestyle choices’). This was certainly the opinion of then foreign secretary Jack Straw who, on the day after London won the 2012 hosting bid back in 2005, attributed the success to its ‘special Olympic vision… the vision of an Olympic Games that would not only be a celebration of sport but a force for regeneration’ (1). In 2006, the then head of the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA), David Higgins, went further, characterising London 2012 as a ‘sporting overlay for the biggest regeneration project in Europe’. A ‘sporting overlay’? That’s like describing the works of Shakespeare as a ‘cultural add-on for the reconstruction of the Globe Theatre’. Writing in 2007, LOCOG chief Lord Coe was similarly under the impression that the remit of hosting the Olympics had to be ‘broader than simply 60 days of spectacular and spirit-lifting Olympic and Paralympic sport’.

And broader it was: the Department for Media, Culture and Sport published a report in 2007 in which it outlined the legacy-laden point to London 2012. It was: to make the UK a world-leading sports nation; to transform the heart of east London; to inspire a generation of young people to take part in cultural and physical activity; to make the Olympic Park a blueprint for sustainable living; and to demonstrate that Britain is a creative, inclusive and welcoming place to live in, visit, and do business in. What London 2012 was not primarily about, it seems, was the one reason we do actually value it: the sport.

So, with an Olympics as the means, the then Labour government set about attempting to realise politically loaded ends. Principal among these was getting people to adopt healthier, obesity-combating lifestyles. This, Labour promised in the afterglow of winning the bid, was part of the point to hosting the Games: to increase the number of people playing sport at least three times a week and the number of people doing a little bit of exercise by one million by 2012. Aside from the political fact that how people choose to relax, be it in trainers or slippers, should be no concern of the state, there is another problem with attempting to use the Olympics in this way. It is simply not up to the job. That is, just because London is host to a brilliant festival of sport, there is no reason why this should trigger huge numbers of people to take up sport, or as the government intends, exercise a bit more.

And so it has proved. By the beginning of this year, the Lib-Con coalition government was forced to drop the Labour-set target for sports participation, following Sport England’s revelation that participation had increased by only 111,800 – well short of the one million target. Not that this has stopped the sporting philistinism of politicians. A couple of months ago, Conservative MP Rehman Chishti persisted with the delusion that hosting a sports event turns a nation into rake-thin sportsmen: ‘The Olympic and Paralympic games are a platform from which we can inspire a generation and encourage increased participation in sport, which goes hand-in-hand in the fight against obesity and other health issues.’

The attempted use of London 2012 as a means to change people’s behaviour, to engineer society according to the government’s view of the good, healthy life, has been one of the most striking currents running through the babble about an Olympics legacy. In the words of the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012, the Games are a way of encouraging people to adopt ‘healthier ways of living through sport and better lifestyle choices’. So determined have the authorities been to use London 2012 to change people’s lifestyles that, according to a research fellow at the London School of Economics, the artists who made the visuals for the first Legacy Masterplan Framework, in which images of a future east London were to be shown, were given a strict visual remit by the London Development Agency. So, for the future Olympic Park community, no resident could be pictured smoking, no local could be pictured drinking a glass of beer. The legacy, you see, was always imprinted with New Labour’s image of the good life – free, that is, of everyday freedom. Officialdom’s enthusiasm for the lifestyle-fiddling legacy of the Games has not waned following the supplanting of New Labour by the current Con-Lib coalition. Writing in the Guardian recently, the director of the London Observatory continued to praise the behaviour modification wrought in the name of London 2012. In the London borough of Tower Hamlets, apparently, fewer women are now smoking during pregnancy, more mothers are breastfeeding, and the local borough council has acquired expertise in commissioning maternity services. Quite what any of that has to do with the shot put is unclear.

Still more absurd, perhaps, has been the expectation that London 2012 should transform the economic and social fortunes of east London. As Gavin Poynter argues elsewhere on spiked today, the so-called Olympic-led regeneration of the Lea Valley has done little more than reinforce the social and economic patterns prevalent elsewhere in the capital, complete with a focus on increasing property values and an economic vision that amounts to increased shopping opportunities. But then, why would an Olympic Games have revived the UK’s stagnant economy? Cameron can talk all he likes, as he did a month ago, about ‘devoting my energy to making sure we turn these Games into gold for Britain’s business’; but the question as to whether an Olympic Games should, let alone could, revive an economy is ignored.

And this, perhaps, is the most damaging legacy of the legacy obsession. Not only is the Olympics reduced to a mere instrument for social and economic ends, a purpose for which it was and is entirely unsuitable, but the legacy obsession is also underpinned by the contemporary political aversion to democracy. Because by turning the Olympics into a so-called ‘catalyst’, an agent of social and economic transformation, the state can pursue certain policies, certain objectives, without any public questioning. The public, be it the residents of east London, or the unhealthy citizens of the rest of the country, are reduced to mere objects of external London 2012-branded policies. The policymaking ends are never up for debate because they are justified and authorised in the name of the Olympics legacy. The Olympics has effectively provided a way to conduct political matters, to make policy and to imagine a future, in the absence of politics proper. Lacking an electoral mandate, lacking mass support, successive governments have opted for the Olympics as an alternative form of mandate, an alternative authority for policymaking.

Of course, there has been no shortage of people willing to criticise London 2012. And there is no want of criticism of the legacy. But so far, this criticism has been largely content to hold the assorted London 2012 quangos to account for failing to live up to legacy pledges. So the regeneration of east London is accused of failing local residents. The attempt to change people’s lifestyles is criticised for giving people too much opportunity not to change their lifestyles – that is, by eating Big Macs courtesy of Olympic sponsors McDonald’s. Making such flimsy criticisms is to accept that the ends to be pursued are right; it is to leave the existence and content of the legacy pledges unquestioned. But it is the idea of an Olympic legacy itself, the idea that the Games should leave a lasting impression on people’s waistlines and exercise regimes and everyday community life, which is the problem. The Games should inspire awe, not engineer new, government-approved social attitudes.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Footnotes and references

(1) Cit p185, Olympic Cities: 2012 and the Remaking of London, Gavin Poynter, Iain MacRury, Ashgate, 2009