This week will see the start of the 2016 Olympics in Rio where medals will be won, records will be broken and drugs will presumably be taken.
That means it’s four years after the London Olympics and eleven years after the bid was won by the UK to host the most expensive, largest and most prestigious sporting event on earth. The original bid document wowed the International Olympic Committee with wonderful dreams and exciting ambitions, telling them that
“For the city, hosting the Games would leave an enduring sporting, social and economic legacy. “
It went on to promise a generation in the UK inspired by the ideals, an economy and environment stimulated by the Games and a fitter, healthier nation feeding off the excitement of the Olympic movement.
Now that time has passed and having spent £9billion for the Games, now is as good a time as any to see whether all this effort and money was worth it. Has spending such a huge sum of money in one little pocket of three poverty stricken East London Boroughs delivered on all these promises?
To start, aside from a great month long sporting event, have any upsides been achieved? Well, the Olympic Park is amazing. A Guardian journalist who started his career reporting for the Newham Recorder once told me that when there had been a murder in the area he would always stroll over to the polluted canals where the Olympic Park now sits. He did that because he knew that that was where all the bodies were dumped. The area was derelict and hostile. Gritty and reeked of urban decay. Yet where once there was only rubbish and rubble there are wildflowers and stadia that any country in the world would be proud of. There is a weird red 160m tall structure in the middle with a crazy slide down the side of it. There are parks and ponds and wildlife and trees and greenery the likes London hasn’t seen created for a century or more.
And these outstanding stadia are available to anyone. Fancy a pedal round the velodrome – sure no problem. A crawl down the 50m lane of the Olympic Pool – you betcha. Play basketball in the Copper Box Arena – absolutely.
There have been economic and housing benefits. Property in the area has shot up in value and the skyline is awash with cranes building row after row of flats and apartments so desperately needed with the current housing shortage in the capital.
The sporting legacy shows no signs of abating. Bronze medallist from four years ago in the time trial, Chris Froome is now a thrice winner of arguably the toughest sporting event in the world – the Tour de France. Andy Murray, Olympic tennis gold medallist, has now won grand slams to add to his tally of victories. Ben Ainslie, winner of so many sailing medals is leading the first ever British charge for the oldest trophy in the world – the Americas Cup.
So at face value, Britain delivered on what it promised the IOC and the world when it won. And yet…
The very things that are upsides are also downsides. The Park is amazing. It really is. But on every side there is still the stench of decay. Cross an Olympic Games developed road to the otherside and graffiti, empty polluted land, half bulldozed buildings and rubbish litter the area. It is a green oasis in a concrete jungle – akin to how Canary Wharf shines as a beacon of modernity into the poverty addled squalor of the marauding East End docks. Sure it is amazing, but in doing that bit up to such a high spec came at the price of ignoring the rest. Meanwhile, the dead bodies simply pop up further down the canal – not in Newham but in Tower Hamlets.
Then there are those magnificent stadia. The bid document promised an
“Olympic Stadium – conversion to a 25,000 seat multipurpose venue with athletics at its core. It will become a house of sport with training facilities, offices and sports science and sports medicine facilities.”
which has now turned into a 60,000 football, not athletics, stadium, costing the taxpayers hundreds of millions to convince West Ham to move in and millions more in unknown sweeteners to keep them there.
The other stadia are lovely. Well, except the Aquatics centre which is now so filthy that it will give you flu, cut your feet on the broken tiles, or put you off swimming when you see the green mould under the starting blocks or the yellowing underwater movable floor. The building was designed to host an Olympics, not cater for a million people a year coming through the doors.
And then there is the prohibitive cost for anyone except the most affluent. If you want to regularly swim it is £5.20 a pop as an adult, £2.90 for kids. Great as a one-off, but that is a huge expense if you are wanting to go regularly. To do the velodrome, it is over £36 for an hour. Use the 1 mile tarmac cycle track it is a fiver, the exercise bikes twelve quid, the BMX track ten to sixty pound and scratting round the mountain bike track, that has no mountains,fifteen. The Copperbox is only to hire for corporate gigs and for all these venues there are no concessions if you are unemployed, on benefits, a pensioner or a local. These are not legacies helping to inspire a generation, these are middle class facilities for middle class people – the ones who are already into these sports and the only ones that can afford to do them without a considerable, unoffered discount.
The economic and housing legacy has also got a dark side. Property in the area has shot up in price. This in part is due to the Olympic park and the legacy but also in large part due to the rest of London becoming so unaffordable with people have to move east in order to get a rung on the house ownership ladder pushing up demand and, consequently, prices.
This would be all well and good, if you already owned a home. But if not, you are stuffed. It doesn’t benefit you, it bankrupts you and prevents you sharing in the profits or the dream of owning your own home in an area you may have been brought up in or now live. Meanwhile the skyline of apartments now dotting over Stratford have been bought by entrepreneurs or overseas investors seeing Buy to Leave as a sounder investment than 0.5%APR in a stable European bank. On paper this boosts the economy, in reality it destroys the dreams of the young.
But, I hear you cry, our sports stars – our Gold medal winners. Thanks to the London Games they stand an even greater shot of winning gold and bringing back medals for Team GB than ever before. Well, possibly. Yet a big problem is that the taxpayer money invested into getting these medals – about £10million a pop – is massive, and there is not a guarantee on the investment into these athletes. So with the shrunken pot of cash since 2012, Team GB funding now concentrates on those who are proven – the Farrah’s and the Ennis-Hill’s and not the newbies hoping to break through. The legacy is that the focus is on the the tried and tested to repeat 2012 and not to nurture the new for 2016 or 2020 in case it goes wrong.
And finally, there was the overall ‘inspire a generation’ tagline. A promise to get Britain healthier, fitter and more into sport than ever before. To banish obesity and create a nation obsessed with loving the world of exercise. Yet, while obesity levels in adults dipped a fraction the year of the Games it is now back to where it was before, and rising. In 11-15 year olds it has never stopped rising since 2001 and while there is a slight reduction in under 10s fatness it is only by a statistical margin of error.
Meanwhile, 58% of adults play no sport and only 1 in 5 manage to do the basic amount of recommended exercise each week. Only 1 in 4 eat the recommended 5 fruit and veg a day. The older and poorer you are the worse you are at meeting these basic standard. All these stats have worsened since the Games bid was won and the Games happened, not improved. On all measures it failed to inspire a generation. They watched the people run, swim, row, pedal and box. And then they got on with their increasingly sedentary lifestyles. A TV even that stayed on TV and never truly captured the hearts or minds of anyone in the UK.
So was the London 2012 Games worth it for Britain? If you were a home owner near the Park, a middle class Home Counties family who already do a lot of sport, West Ham United’s pornography making owners or an already established Olympic medal winning athlete, then yes, the £9bn plus spent on the Olympics was almost certainly worth every penny. Yet for the rest of us, I am afraid to say, we didn’t win gold, we won the wooden spoon.