Revisiting the Olympic Legacy

By Graham, James; Gilbert, Bob et al. | Soundings, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Revisiting the Olympic Legacy


Graham, James, Gilbert, Bob, Minton, Anna, Perryman, Mark, Poynter, Gavin, Westall, Claire, Soundings


One of the most important debates about the Games is the nature of their legacy. First of all let's look at the claim about their effects on increasing sporting participation.

Mark It's no surprise that soon after the Games athletics clubs in the East End of London were reporting hundreds of children turning up wanting to be Usain Bolt, wanting to be Jessica Ennis. The question is whether that will be sustained in eighteen months or two years time. There are huge question marks over that. There is absolutely no evidence from reports after previous Games that they have led to sustainable increases in participation in sport. And there is also no evidence for any connection between numbers of medals won and participation. For example Finland came sixtieth in the medals table at the 2012 Games, but they are number one in Europe for numbers of participation in sport. There are all kinds of different economic, social and cultural factors accounting for that. A very simple example of the disconnect between sporting success and mass participation is football. Once the Olympics were out of the way, sports pitches were full of football, the radio was full of football, the television was full of football, to the exclusion of almost any other sport. Does that lead, year on year, to increased participation in sport or in football? No. What the Olympics does is turn us into a world-leading spectator sport nation.

Claire. I don't think we'll see much change in sporting participation in schools - in terms of increased provision or the development of facilities - in the next five years. This is already clear from education budgets and schools budgets, and the introduction of free schools will not help.

Does the left have a specific take on this?

Mark There is a broad consensus across the political parties on the Olympics and Paralympics. In the London mayoral election in 2012, the Olympic Games was the one issue that was not mentioned at all - because Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone are in complete agreement on it. Both of them basically were saying, 'Come to London, and not only will we inspire a British generation to sport, but we will inspire the world'. There is a pomposity in these claims, right across the political spectrum. That means it is very difficult to use the usual terms of left and right on this - we are essentially a one-party state when it comes to the Olympic Games. And in fact, of course, if you simply discarded the entire discourse around legacy, the Olympics can appear to be a wonderful event. The day after the Games finished, everyone was saying that they did not care about the costs, that [pounds sterling]318 per person was worth it because they had such a wonderful time. It could have been double that and it would still feel worth it. The disappointment comes in when you look at all those legacy claims - more jobs, the regeneration in East London, increased participation in sport. If you were not trying to make all those claims on behalf of the Games, if you discarded the entire discourse around legacy, you would then have much less of a problem around the Olympics.

One dominant narrative of the Olympics linked the whole faster, higher, stronger ethos to wider political claims. The Games were partly politicised through attempts by the government and others to claim this ethos for themselves, or for other areas of national life, including the economy. I wonder if we ever could appreciate the event purely as an event? But moving on to some of these other claims - that the Games would lead to jobs, to a better environment and so on - what is at stake here?

Anna One issue I would highlight here is the aim of 'convergence': that East London would reach a particular standard of living, improved healthcare, improved mortality rates, improved literacy - that it would begin to 'converge' with other areas when measured on these standards. But if we don't fundamentally look at the structures through which our society operates - including far more widely than East London - we are unlikely to be able to improve the huge social problems that exist there. …

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