There are only 6 months to go until the beginning of the Olympics, the finishing touches are being put on the infrastructure but the enthusiasm of the general public is still lagging behind. We’re told that the games will be “the most sustainable ever” and will generate revenue from business investment and tourism, rejuvenate one of the more deprived parts of London and most importantly restore our national pride. Considering these are the statements we hear from the people who have most to lose from an Olympic flop we can assume that the real benefits will be negligible at best.
Back in 2005 when we won the bid, things looked rather more rosy. Public support for the games was running high and the nation was ready to showcase our sporting talents and engineering skill. A few years later and we were left wondering what the hell we’d let ourselves in for. The financial crash took the wind out of our sails, it became clear that private firms wouldn’t be able to fund nearly as much of the project as we’d have liked (they're now contributing a princely 2% of the total), and an already cash strapped government would have to step in to shore up the project. Living up to the scale of the Chinese Olympics, already a struggle, looked more and more like an impossible dream. Against a backdrop of falling public support and massive government overspending the real challenge will be to find any kind of tangible benefit.
The best chance that the Olympics will have in producing a lasting legacy will be in encouraging the sportsmen and women of the future. The common line is that kids that go to watch the Olympics and young people around the country will be inspired to take up a sport and with any luck be incredibly skilled at it or at least stick with it long enough that it keeps them healthy. This is an optimistic view at best.
First off, a minuscule proportion of the young people of this country will have been able to get a ticket, the chances of them getting the ticket that they wanted are even lower. Your budding tennis star won't be particularly impressed to pursue their sport after watching judo or the diving. For those that didn't get a ticket the Olympics may as well have been half way round the world for all the difference it makes.
Secondly, the assumption that holding a sporting mega-event will get more people playing and discover more talent misunderstands what drove most of our current athletes and sports stars o pursue excellence. For the majority it was a supporting family, private tuition and access to local facilities that gave them a start and it was their talent and their own enjoyment that kept them going. The Olympics will most likely cause a spike in uptake immediately afterwards but return to baseline quickly afterwards as the realities of day to day life re-assert themselves. It happens every year with Wimbledon. Pursuit of sport has more to do with economics than anything else.
It doesn't help that while the government are spending billions on the Olympics they are cutting millions from the provision of sports facilities across the country. Although the residents of London will get a new stadium, velodrome and swimming pool, the rest of the country will be suffering fewer opportunities to play sport. Even the new facilities won't be held by the government to provide reasonably priced services but will be sold off to private investors who can charge prices high enough that the poorest residents of East London will be unable to enjoy the redevelopment of the area.
The government have also failed to uphold their original commitment to give 30% of construction jobs to people living in the local area and to build 11,000 new affordable houses. The Olympic Delivery Authority decided not to honour the agreement because its chair Sebastian Coe signed the letter outlining the commitment to an “ethical Olympics” in 2004, a year before the establishment of the ODA. Not to mention the ethics advisor to the ODA who has just resigned over allowing Dow Chemical, owners of Union Carbide who oversaw the Bhopal disaster, to clad the Olympic stadium.
The claim to be a “sustainable” Olympics seems to largely boil down to using biodegradable packaging for food and drink. The original pledge to provide 20% of the energy for the games from renewable sources has been quietly revised downward to “maybe 9%”. Considering that China banned most car use around the games, I imagine even they will be considered a “greener” games than ours, simply because of the huge dent they took out of their CO2 emissions for the two weeks.
As far as boosting our international reputation and showcasing the UK as a place for investment goes, I don't really buy it. For a developing country, eager to prove itself in the world, hosting the Olympics might attract some potential business, but the UK is hardly off the beaten track. The UK's international record is more likely to be set by our intervention in the middle east, slow domestic growth and a reckless finance sector, hosting the Olympics won't change any of that.
I don't mean to be a spoil-sport, hosting the Olympics is an honour, and we deserve to be the first to hold them for a third time. The oft repeated sense of national unity, that the games are supposed to bring, could be a real boon to the UK's knocked confidence but to claim that they will be worth the effort or the money seems farcical. The sad fact is, that for most of the nation the Olympics will pass by despite them. The residents of East London will see some slight improvement, some stadiums, a new park, a few new houses and a few transient jobs, and nearly 2 million people will get to witness the greatest athletics event in the world. However, the remaining 60 million or so citizens of the UK will just be wondering what local jobs and services could be saved with the 9 billion pounds we've had spent on our behalf.
Photo by Stephen Craven of Geograph.org.uk