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Reflecting on the legacy of the London Olympics

By Dr Steven McCabe on Jul 29, 13 09:02 PM in General

Watching the television over the weekend was poignant in that it brought back memories of the incredible period of competitive sport we enjoyed during the London Olympics.

Having an anniversary event in the stadium at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park which is undergoing transformation where many of the events took place last year, was inspiring and the fact that tickets for both days sold out almost immediately showed that there is still a phenomenal amount of support for sport in the UK.

Whilst is unsurprising that we still regularly hear the names of the UK stars of the able-bodied such as Jessica Ennis, Mo Farrah, Greg Rutherford, Christine Ohuruogu, Rebecca Adlington and Tom Daley, to name just a few, it was really great to recall the fact that London 2012 allowed us to become familiar with the amazing feats of those competing in the Paralympics.

Can we ever forget the wonderful performances of our own Jonnie Peacock, Ellie Simmonds, Hannah Cockcroft and, of course, Dave Weir which made us realise that competitive sport is not exclusive.

What London 2012 proved to the rest of the world and, I believe, a fair number of people in this country, was that we are capable of putting on a fabulous show.

Those who thought that the 2012 London games would be a flop were proved wrong. There were many who wondered whether we could really justify the cost of almost £9 billion in a time of austerity.

It would seem that winning a bid to host an Olympic games is a curse of sorts once you realise what will have to be paid to put them on as Brazil which is about to host the 2014 World Cup is finding in terms of the expense of getting ready for the 2016 Rio games.

To be fair, the weeks leading up to the opening ceremony didn't bode well; it seemed that the rain would never stop. Remember, tennis player Andy Murray suffered that emotional defeat to Roger Federer under a closed roof.

For me the point when people began to realise that something extraordinary was going to happen was the tour of the country of the Olympic flame.

We all suddenly woke up to the fact that a once-in-a-lifetime event was about to take place. The flame actually came past the end of my road one Sunday at just after 7.00am and I joked that if I missed it I couldn't be sure when I would see the next one come past!

As if by request the weather suddenly improved and I recall the sense of anticipation leading up to the opening ceremony. Given the show that the Chinese had put on four years previously many reckoned we would look not just second best but amateurish.

I would challenge anyone who watched the ceremony not to have been utterly amazed by the spectacle.

What Danny Boyle and Frank Cottrell Boyce achieved in last year's opening ceremony was to show that this country has a rich history of inventiveness and creativity.

As Boyce himself acknowledges, one of the reason people though that the ceremony would be "rubbish" was to believe that it would simply be a procession of kings and queens from history, some historical characters such as Shakespeare and Dickens and the triumphalism of our role in the two world wars.

Instead we got a sense that this country has been influential in creating the modern world through the Industrial Revolution, arts and culture.

That the opening ceremony was carried out with such panache and a soupçon of self-deprecation and humour made us realise that we were witnessing something special and quintessentially British.

I have to admit that I feel guilty that I didn't manage to gain a ticket to see the games and felt disloyal for being away in France for the last week of the Olympics though I did manage to see the closing ceremony which was not as impressive as the opening event.

Sadly, if this was meant to be a showcase for contemporary talent and creative flair it didn't work as well as it might though, to be fair, there were enough references to icons and our lasting impact on the creative world.

I also accept that there is a very narrow line to be trod between entertainment and outright marketing and product placement.

But it seems we live in a world where the desires of corporate concerns and being able to do deals are paramount. Competing in the Olympic spirit is fine so long as the multinational sponsors get their way; as anyone who attended any of the games and wanted to eat food will attest.

That the Olympics and Paralympics were such a success was due to the spirit of the competitiveness among those involved and, of course, the organisation of officials and army of volunteer helpers.

The successful sports will continue to be funded to try and maintain our medal haul in Rio in three years. However, those sports which did not achieve expectations have experienced funding cuts.

It's fairly certain that there will be a much smaller squad going to Rio in 2016 than were able to compete in London in 2012.

And I have seen stories that cuts to disability benefit will make it harder for some Paralympic athletes to be able to train effectively.

Some might suggest that in times of austerity it is necessary for everyone to suffer together.

One legacy of the 2012 London Olympics was that there would be a greater participation in sports.

Sadly this does not appear to have been the case and a recent survey from Sport England's Active People indicates a 200,000 drop since the games.

Compare that to the belief that in the period between the games being awarded and their commencement an additional 1.4 million people were engaged in sport.

There is surely a connection in the fall off in participation.

Austerity has caused savage reductions in budgets that supported local sports where young and old first have the opportunity to participate. It is well-known that regular exercise is universally beneficial to health.

For example, a scheme in Birmingham between the Council and NHS to allow every adult to avail of free swimming has ceased. For those on low income this was a great way to stay fit.

There is a definite advantage to investing in sports facilities at local level to ensure that everyone, young, old and those who have disability can participate.

We also need a more joined-up approach to sports in schools. According to an education select committee report the government's £150 million school sport policy is in danger of being seen to be a "gimmick".

It is worth pointing out that this policy was a replacement for the £162 million network of national school sport partnerships which had been axed and led to a torrent of criticism. As the committee chair Graham Stuart believes, there must be a longer term vision to ensuring that the legacy of last year's Olympics is built upon:

"Successive governments have kicked school sport around as a political football, announcing short-term fixes without any sustained vision for the future, Occasional pump-priming is simply not good enough for something so important. If the government want to capitalise on the legacy of London 2012 it must commit to programmes and funding for the long-term."


And it was interesting to note that a recent official report on the economic benefits of the 2012 Olympics demonstrates that there are definite advantages to be gained through investment in creating employment and infrastructure.

Though there are many who question the figures contained in the report which suggests that an additional almost £10 billion of business was generated as a result of the London Olympics, there can be no doubt that economic activity has been generated.

Sadly this weekend's anniversary event will be the last we see of the iconic stadium in the form where so many wonderful moments occurred last year; "Super Saturday" being especially so.

Like the rest of the Olympic Park the builders will now move in and start converting the stadium to allow West Ham Football Club to use it as their new ground from August 2016.

We, the taxpayer, will pay some £60 million of the almost £200 million needed to convert the venue to extend the roof and reduce the capacity.

West Ham have agreed to contribute £15 million to the cost of the conversion and will pay £2 million for a 99 year lease which will mean that the running track will only ever be seen when pitch-side seating is removed for athletic events that are held.

Some might see this as being typically poor return on our £9 billion investment in the 2012 Olympics particularly when compared to the £371 million cost of Glasgow hosting next year's Commonwealth Games.

Though not on the scale of the London Olympics, Glasgow's Commonwealth Games will involve 6,500 athletes and officials and generate one million ticket sales for 17 sports which will be watched by a television audience of almost a billion people worldwide.

Perhaps we should simply be glad that we will not be left with the 'white elephant' stadia that are typical in many cities that have hosted the Olympics in recent years such as Sydney in 2000 and Greece in 2004.

Even the Barcelona Olympics held in 1992 and which were seen as being so successful to the city's regeneration have created underused facilities which are expensive to maintain. I used the Olympic swimming pool on Montjuic a few years ago and was surprised at how shabby it had become.

Perhaps it will have a makeover for the world swimming championships which are currently taking place there?

The diving pool in Barcelona which was also built for the Olympics in 1992 and which was used for the weekend's world diving championships was built overlooking the city so that when competitors launch themselves from the 10 meter board television viewers get an astonishing panoramic view which includes the yet-to-be-completed though fabulous Antoni Gaudi designed Sagrada Familia.

When you have views such as that there is no danger of the facility falling into disrepair.

Maybe the legacy of London 2012 will be the fantastic memories of those few weeks last summer when, as a nation, we felt utterly proud of what had been achieved in staging the Olympics and the performance of our athletes.

I heard one commentator say, "It was like we were suddenly living in a different country."

The anniversary games held over the weekend were a tantalising glimpse of what we were so lucky to live through during those weeks when as the Bowie track that kept being played told us "We can be heroes, just for one day."

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