Olympics: forget the legacy and enjoy the spectacle

The transformation of 2012 into a vehicle for regenerating east London and re-engineering the populace is bad for sport, and bad for politics.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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Topics Politics

Back in 2008, the UK Department of Culture, Media and Sport certainly seemed convinced that the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games would realise a whole host of policy objectives in its wake. It would: ‘make the UK a world-leading sporting nation’; ‘transform the heart of east London’; ‘inspire a new generation of young people to take part in volunteering, cultural and physical activity’; ‘make the Olympic Park a blueprint for sustainable living’; and ‘demonstrate the UK is a creative, inclusive and welcoming place to live in, visit and for business’.

This was why the London 2012 Olympics was happening. This was its justification, its reason to be. Forget about the Olympics being the greatest sporting spectacle on Earth. Right from the start, London 2012 has been all about the legacy, the what-happens-afterwards. As then New Labour minister Tessa Jowell put it in the 2008 DCMS legacy plan, ‘The prize [of hosting the Olympics] is the greatest in a generation – the chance to turn the rhetoric of Olympic legacy into fact’.

Sadly the greatest prize in a generation has also become one of the heaviest burdens for the government. The ministerial hype, replete in grand promises of urban regeneration and sporting nirvana, has pulled in an army of critics willing to point out the legacy’s impending failure. The latest to join the fray, Lord Moynihan, is the chairman of British Olympic Association itself. ‘At the moment’, he told the Observer this weekend, ‘I don’t see the policies being put in place that will build on the inspiration of the Games for young people and that will change their lives for a lasting sporting legacy’. Moynihan is far from alone when it comes to criticising the sporting legacy. In September, Richard Caborn, sports minister when the UK launched its bid for the 2012 Olympics, said the UK was ‘failing completely’ to honour its pledge to increase sporting participation and deliver a sports legacy.

In fact, it doesn’t matter whether one is talking about increasing sporting participation, or the ‘biggest regeneration project in Europe’, as the then head of the Olympic Development Agency called the London Olympics in 2006; at every point, the legacy is stubbornly refusing to become fact. There is nothing to suggest sporting participation, whether among kids or adults, will rise, and plenty of research to suggest it won’t; businesses are seemingly none too keen to move into the Olympic Park with even the governmental entreaties to the EastEnders production team falling on deaf ears; and the centre piece of the legacy, the regeneration of east London, has been consistently attacked for providing neither the potential employment nor the low-cost housing promised. As the Guardian’s Dave Hill put it, ‘Will the end results resemble those vibrant, mixed communities of regeneration cliche or a rather less attractive legacy – one that benefits the affluent and wealthy investors from which ordinary working and struggling Londoners are all but priced out?’

Yet, while there has been no shortage of people willing to hoist London 2012 by its own £9.3 billion legacy, few seem to question the idea of the legacy itself. And this is what made Professor Gavin Poynter’s intervention at last month’s Battle of Ideas so pertinent. This is not just because Poynter, chairman of the London East Research Institute, is something of an authority on London 2012, having co-edited a 2009 book, Olympic Cities and the Reshaping of London and co-written London 2012 and its Legacy for the Department of Communities and Local Government. It is because he is still prepared to separate the sporting event from all that which is being done in its name.

As Poynter describes it, the whole legacy discussion is indicative of the marked political ‘role’ sport ‘plays in contemporary society’. This is not to say that sport in the twentieth century was not politicised. The 1936 Olympic Games in Nazi Germany are a case in point; far from being apart from politics, sport has long been infused with political tensions. That is partially what has made the Olympic Games such a compelling spectacle down the years, from the ‘Blood in the Water’ water-polo match between the USSR and Hungary in 1956, to the Cold War rivalries of later years. But sport does not simply channel politics now, argues Poynter: ‘what we find in the twenty-first century is that sport has become a substitute for politics’.

Nowhere is this development more striking than in the concept of the Olympics legacy. In the name of the Olympics, a whole raft of social policies – from combating obesity to building new houses – is being justified. And what is telling is that none of these policies are being justified in their own terms. ‘In fact’, Poynter continued, ‘if we look at the process of city building that has been continued through the rhetoric of legacy in relation to East London, it shows that the politicians and the political world, and business, commercial and other elites lack the confidence to say, for example, that we really should be building houses or that we should be developing East London in terms of its technology and its infrastructure. Instead, all of these developments are bundled into the positive legacy to be achieved by a sporting event that most people would like to see happen.’

According to Poynter, this use of London 2012 by ‘successive governments’ as ‘a vehicle to legitimate public investment when governments don’t have the confidence to argue the political case themselves’, has profoundly undemocratic implications. ‘All sorts of other political policies that ought to be open to debate and question’ evade both debate and question, ‘not least the re-engineering of social behaviour implicit in the attempt to raise sports participation levels’. In effect, the people for whom such policies are being enacted, considered as mere objects for engineering from above, are bypassed. We have no say as to the polyvalent content of the so-called Olympics legacy. This is policymaking without public debate, indeed, policymaking without the public. What legitimacy there is for getting kids to exercise more, for example, is derived not from winning the support of the public, but from the invocation of the magical word, ‘legacy’. Under its banner, it seems, anything can be justified.

Poynter was also keen to draw attention to the sometime contradiction between the commercial and social imperatives at work in the legacy. ‘What “the legacy” disguises and what it legitimates in the context of city building is a kind of revalorisation of urban areas, as economists would call it, a re-development of Brownfield sites that it is assumed will become increasingly valuable over time, a removal of planning controls and a re-development of a city in the image that the business elites would like to see.’ This makes sense in terms of trying to attract commercial investment. ‘[But] the consequence of this is that the government makes all sorts of promises about the social transformation of east London: from enhancing life expectancies to improving the lives of people in the East End. But when you actually begin looking at the legacy as it is unfolding, it looks like it is going to achieve exactly the opposite.’

So, Poynter continued, ‘At the Olympic park itself, we have the Olympic Park Legacy Company attempting to manage the problems of commercial and social uses. Outside of the Olympic park, we have a developers’ farrago which is taking place in Stratford and in East London, that will create undoubtedly a range of flats and other things which will be very useful for international investors, but will do nothing to improve the conditions in which the vast majority live in the rather rundown estates in that area.’ Little wonder, concluded Poynter, that many east Londoners ‘will become cynical about politics’. After all, ‘they will see the hollowness of the apparent legacies that they are being offered’.

There is a salutary lesson in all this: not only should the Olympics not be doing the job of politics, but Olympics legacies are a very poor substitute for what should be a festival of sport.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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