A desultory discussion has broken out again about the Olympics legacy. Comments range from one miserable view in today’s Times that ‘the Orbit should be taken down and the stadium razed’ to Lord Moynihan’s (responsible for the British team at the London Games) sceptical, if political, prediction last year that ‘the 2012 London Olympics will fail to deliver any lasting sporting legacy for most young Britons’ to various specialist journals who are less pessimistic about the impact on their discrete sectors.
The first excellent legacy will be the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The plan is that, by next year (or the year after), the Olympic Park will become an exciting new visitor destination and community park. It will certainly look good, if it is properly maintained. And it will hugely benefit the people of the area and be attractive to visitors, no doubt to foreign visitors, for some years to come. But it is a major commitment maintaining such a huge area (560 acres). I visited the 1970 Osaka Expo (a sort of commercial Olympics) Park a few years back to see the site of one of the most successful British promotions. Sadly, the park is now a bit derelict. But the proposed usage of the London park, and the overseas interest, suggests it will survive.
The next obvious legacy arises from the commitment to ‘Inspire a Generation’. Some effort (if not massive funding) has gone into a school sports promotion and the signs are that young people in Britain have indeed been inspired – there are reports from up and down the country of increased memberships at boxing gyms, archery ranges, athletic clubs, etc and reports of major sales by bicycle shops. There was also a recent survey which found that 5m more adults had recently signed up to sports clubs too. This legacy was of course the pledge that won the Olympics for Britain, but it was made with no evidence that I am aware of that Olympics do in fact inspire anyone to do anything (except watch more television). The Sydney Olympics of 2000 has apparently had no such legacy, since Australian athletes won fewer medals this year than athletes from Yorkshire. The feel-good factor of both the general euphoria at these Games and the pride of the success of Team GB has though it seems inspired many.
As we struggle with the Olympic hangover (described by one blogger as picking out iced gems biscuits from a dish after someone has eaten all the icing), and in a country beset with obesity in every age group, maybe even the immediate interest in exercise and health is good news and legacy enough. Of course the adults may have been less encouraged by the toning as by the salacious undertones of watching a succession of finely honed, semi-naked bodies for two weeks. But even that’s a start.
However, apart from the Olympic Park, it’s clear to me that inward tourism will benefit enormously from the London Olympics. Security is good after all, the transport works after all, it doesn’t after all rain all the time, the people are wonderful; why shouldn’t foreigners pour into London next year? The Olympic period has apparently not been brilliant for shops or hotels, although I remain unconvinced that anyone visiting for the Games would stay or shop in Central London anyway, so any hopes of such a bonanza may have been misplaced (pricing may also have had a bearing here), but London theatres seem to have done particularly well in the last two weeks. And it appears that the Paralympics are also set to be a success too – all advertising slots on TV during the Games has been sold, all ticketed event are sold out. I’m not sure how much Paralympics I will watch; I will watch the start, but somehow feel awkwardly voyeuristic (in a different way from when I was watching the beach volleyball intently and over and over of course).
The longish debate before the Games started over this question of legacy hinged primarily on whether the Games would actually offer a return on investment and lift Britain out of recession. I felt at the time that this was a sterile debate; I don’t think the intention was ever that hosting the Olympics would make a profit and provide an immediate boost to the economy. Any effect was always going to be long-term. And the economic forecasts are not bright, particularly with the Eurozone going backwards.
There was a temporary construction boom of course and unemployment has gone down also in the short term, and there is some optimism in the business world that companies will feel confident enough or will feel that the populace is now self-confident enough for them to expand employment. And we have seen companies showing growth, Land Rover Jaguar for example have just introduced a three shift round the clock employment to cope with burgeoning demand. And, once sponsor-imposed advertising restrictions are lifted, engineering, construction, design, etc companies in particular feel that they could benefit from the Olympic venue showcase.
The Olympic Village owner is also introducing creative selling/letting plans which should help first time home owners. This will be of particular benefit to Londoners, since so many first-time buyers seem to want ‘affordable housing’ near Central London.
The blue Union Flag segment of Team GB has also become something of a hit around the world too and has been turning up on fashion clothing, bags, etc. I’m not sure whether any royalties are paid for this, but the interest in the brand is a plus.
And perhaps that’s the most important legacy. Our confidence and patriotism will not have gone unnoticed around the world. Coupled, as I say, by evidence that all is well with British infrastructure, this will encourage a new wave, or reassure an old one, of investors in Britain. Our system of free market enterprise depends vitally on companies investing in the country, both through M&A and green-field start-ups, as well as the employment of British expertise in a range of sectors. The Olympics has been one of the most successful investment promotion campaigns we’ve ever had. And this comes at a time, not of British desperation, but of the faltering of the Eurozone, accompanied by unrest, notably in France, Greece and Spain, but even in Germany, as economic measures bite. Britain must look a good bet in Europe at the moment.
And perhaps the surge in self-confidence and renewed pride in our nation, as it is today, is a legacy to be proud of in itself. I have seen many comments from members of the public which encourage me in this thought, several from those who have seen the patriotism of immigrant athletes or the camaraderie of different nations’ athletes, and even comments from immigrants about how proud the Olympics made them (including from one who had always thought Madness’ Our House was an anthem of skinheads and racists, but hearing it at the Olympics opening and closing ceremonies now sees it as an inclusivity anthem). And one has to say that the very natural way in which athletes and performers from all ethnic backgrounds have represented Britain in the last two weeks has been quite remarkable (or maybe I mean not remarkable?). All this makes one feel that multi-culturalism does have a place in a peaceful world. What a legacy that would be! (Of course Peter Hitchens takes the opposite view of international competition. But that too only encourages me in my view). Wouldn’t it be wonderful, if the sight of a united kingdom encouraged divided nations – N and S Korea, Israeli and Arab, Syria, Ireland even, to put aside their differences? OK, sorry, that was a bit of daydreaming there for a second.
But it is true that the foreign athletes and the foreign spectators returning to their own countries will be the best ambassadors we could have. They had great time, they loved the people, they loved the country. And maybe the appearance of Iranian athletes at the Games (despite the threatened boycott) and of Saudi women (despite criticism at home) will have reassured some sceptics of the harmlessness of such gestures.
But, one has to say, I still have this sneaking suspicion that the whole Olympics programme may just have been one massive political ploy to convince Scotland that it is better off joined inextricably to England in a sort of Team GB. In the present wave of mass euphoria, Scottish Ministers must now begin in earnest their campaign for Scottish independence. Who will now listen? Can this have been the Government’s first shots across the Scottish bows? Anyway that’s a whole different question. But even Andy Murray has shown that he is not after all a miserable git and has clearly now been adopted by English spectators. The Olympics has, if nothing else, shown one thing – that anything is possible.