What makes a successful Olympic legacy?

What’s left when the rings are gone? Image: Fæ at Wikimedia Commons.

For as long as the Olympics have been running, eager host cities have expected them to do far more than entertain the world’s TV audience for just under two and a half weeks. While they might cost more to hold than they immediately earn back, they’re meant to leave behind a “legacy”, a conveniently vague notion taking in well-maintained stadiums and sport-loving children. As no less an authority than the International Olympic Association says, the games are expected to leave behind “more than just good memories”. 

In some cities, the Games deliver on this hazy prophecy. Others are left with ghost town Olympic villages and “white elephant” stadiums*. Debt can be another a nasty reminder of the Games’ excesses: the Quebec government ended up introducing a new tax on tobacco to pay off Montreal’s whopping Olympic bill. Damaging Olympic legacies may well have contributed to the general lack of interest in hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics (all but two cities have dropped out of the bidding process).

So why do some games leave golden legacies, while others take the metaphorical form of a large, destructive pet?

Sydney's games apparently accelerated the growth of 'brand Australia' by 10 years

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) publishes a factsheet outlining the long-lasting benefits for its host cities. For some, even the length of the entry speaks volumes: Vancouver 2010 gets two pages; Nagano, Japan just a quarter of a page.


More damning are those reports in which airy, untestable claims are presented in place of concrete achievements. In Beijing, for example, 400 million schoolchildren were apparently “exposed to Olympic values”, while Sydney’s games “accelerated the growth of ‘brand Australia’ by ten years”. Other reports have shown that Sydney’s games drove more people to watch TV than ever before – a positive effect for the country’s networks, but arguably not top of the priority list for anyone else. 

Last February, former US presidential candidate Mitt Romney wrote an op-ed slamming excess spending on the games, and arguing that Greece’s $11bn spend on Athens 2004 “pushed the country towards collapse”. He had a point: Athens constructed purpose-built sporting venues a long way out of town. These are now rarely used and barely maintained, with stopped clocks and damaged facilities that have become the subject of photo essay after photo essay

Yet Barcelona, which reportedly spent $9.3bn on the 1992 Games – the equivalent of $12.5bn in 2004 – remains one of the biggest Olympic success stories. The key was the city’s decision to spend only 9.1 per cent of its budget on the operating costs of the Games themselves; the remaining $8.5bn, the vast majority of the funding, went on improving the city’s transport and services and constructing two miles of beach on a stretch of coast previously occupied by industrial buildings

Barcelona’s Port Vell harbour, built for the 1992 games. Image: Diliff at Wikimedia Commons.

The Sochi winter games cost $51bn, the highest price tag ever recorded. Human rights abuses, stories of bribery and logistical mess-ups (what better way to generate bad press than putting up journalists in unfinished hotels?) marred the image of the Games themselves.

Yet Sochi was far from a straightforward tale of failure: the Games kickstarted long-lasting development in the region, including the completion of an airport (which had been on pause since 1989) and improvements to power, telecommunications and access for the disabled.

The success stories, on the whole, are those which prioritised forward planning at the expense of the wow-factor. Before the 1984 LA Olympics, officials decided that only two sporting facilities would be built for the Games. That meant the  $413m cost of the event – a snip compared to the $1.35bn spent by Moscow four years before – was almost entirely spent on other projects. The profits from the games were reinvested into projects like LA84, a youth sporting foundation.

Compare and contrast with Montreal’s 1976 Games, which may well have the worst legacy of all. The greatest disaster was, unsurprisingly, the stadium. Construction originally cost at $770m; by the time the debts were finally paid off 30 years later, the figure had reached $1.5bn.

Montreal’s Olympic stadium, paid for by the city’s smokers. Image: Tolivero at Wikimedia Commons.

London had a near-miss. In 2008, mayor Boris Johnson slammed the lack of post-Games proposals for the Olympic park, and final plans for the park were not unveiled until August 2012, weeks after the Games’ completion. Better managed were the original proposals for the sporting structures. Of the venues used, 95 per cent were hired out, while 25 temporary venues were constructed. The permanent venues have been converted for community use, leaving the city with no looming, useless sporting structures. The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, which opened to the public in July 2013, has already received over 1 million visitors, and, in the words of London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, forms the “glittering centrepiece” of the post-Olympics regeneration effort in East London.

It looks like Germany, at least, has learnt these lessons. Both Berlin and Hamburg have put forward remarkably restrained proposals for the 2024 Summer Olympics; both feature inner-city building and the reuse of existing venues, too.

There’s no one size fits all formula for a successful legacy – not least because the challenges facing host cities in advanced economies are so different to the ones facing emerging ones. According to the European Bank for Reconstruction & Development, the cost to emerging markets is usually higher; as in Sochi, however, investment purportedly for the Games can be used to boost infrastructure and living conditions, making the return on this investment look pretty worthwhile. The lasting legacy of the Beijing Olympics is not its Birdcage stadium, now touted to be transformed into a shopping and entertainment centre: it’s in the improvements to sanitation, air quality and transport that came with it.

 

*This phrase “white elephant”, incidentally, comes from a story in which Siamese kings gave the animals to annoying courtiers, as they would cost so much to maintain or dispose of that they would ruin the recipient. So, now you know.

 
 
 
 

What’s killing northerners?

The Angel of the North. Image: Getty.

There is a stark disparity in wealth and health between people in the north and south of England, commonly referred to as England’s “north-south divide”. The causes of this inequality are complex; it’s influenced by the environment, jobs, migration and lifestyle factors – as well as the long-term political power imbalances, which have concentrated resources and investment in the south, especially in and around London.

Life expectancy is also lower in the north, mainly because the region is more deprived. But new analysis of national mortality data highlights a shockingly large mortality gap between young adults, aged 25 to 44, living in the north and south of England. This gap first emerged in the late 1990s, and seems to have been growing ever since.

In 1995, there were 2% more deaths among northerners aged 25 to 34 than southerners (in other words, 2% “excess mortality”). But by 2015, northerners in this age group were 29% more likely to die than their southern counterparts. Likewise, in the 35 to 44 age group, there was 3% difference in mortality between northerners and southerners in 1995. But by 2015, there were 49% more deaths among northerners than southerners in this age group.

Excess mortality in the north compared with south of England by age groups, from 1965 to 2015. Follow the lines to see that people born around 1980 are the ones most affected around 2015.

While mortality increased among northerners aged 25 to 34, and plateaued among 35 to 44-year-olds, southern mortality mainly declined across both age groups. Overall, between 2014 and 2016, northerners aged 25 to 44 were 41% more likely to die than southerners in the same age group. In real terms, this means that between 2014 and 2016, 1,881 more women and 3,530 more men aged between 25 and 44 years died in the north, than in the south.

What’s killing northerners?

To understand what’s driving this mortality gap among young adults, our team of researchers looked at the causes of death from 2014 to 2016, and sorted them into eight groups: accidents, alcohol related, cardiovascular related (heart conditions, diabetes, obesity and so on), suicide, drug related, breast cancer, other cancers and other causes.

Controlling for the age and sex of the population in the north and the south, we found that it was mostly the deaths of northern men contributing to the difference in mortality – and these deaths were caused mainly by cardiovascular conditions, alcohol and drug misuse. Accidents (for men) and cancer (for women) also played important roles.

From 2014 to 2016, northerners were 47% more likely to die for cardiovascular reasons, 109% for alcohol misuse and 60% for drug misuse, across both men and women aged 25 to 44 years old. Although the national rate of death from cardiovascular reasons has dropped since 1981, the longstanding gap between north and south remains.

Death and deprivation

The gap in life expectancy between north and south is usually put down to socioeconomic deprivation. We considered further data for 2016, to find out if this held true for deaths among young people. We found that, while two thirds of the gap were explained by the fact that people lived in deprived areas, the remaining one third could be caused by some unmeasured form of deprivation, or by differences in culture, infrastructure, migration or extreme weather.

Mortality for people aged 25 to 44 years in 2016, at small area geographical level for the whole of England.

Northern men faced a higher risk of dying young than northern women – partly because overall mortality rates are higher for men than for women, pretty much at every age, but also because men tend to be more susceptible to socioeconomic pressures. Although anachronistic, the expectation to have a job and be able to sustain a family weighs more on men. Accidents, alcohol misuse, drug misuse and suicide are all strongly associated with low socioeconomic status.

Suicide risk is twice as high among the most deprived men, compared to the most affluent. Suicide risk has also been associated with unemployment, and substantial increases in suicide have been observed during periods of recession – especially among men. Further evidence tells us that unskilled men between ages 25 and 39 are between ten and 20 times more likely to die from alcohol-related causes, compared to professionals.

Alcohol underpins the steep increase in liver cirrhosis deaths in Britain from the 1990s – which is when the north-south divide in mortality between people aged 25 to 44 also started to emerge. Previous research has shown that men in this age group, who live in the most deprived areas, are five times more likely to die from alcohol-related diseases than those in the most affluent areas. For women in deprived areas, the risk is four times greater.


It’s also widely known that mortality rates for cancer are higher in more deprived areas, and people have worse survival rates in places where smoking and alcohol abuse is more prevalent. Heroin and crack cocaine addiction and deaths from drug overdoses are also strongly associated with deprivation.

The greater number of deaths from accidents in the north should be considered in the context of transport infrastructure investment, which is heavily skewed towards the south – especially London, which enjoys the lowest mortality in the country. What’s more, if reliable and affordable public transport is not available, people will drive more and expose themselves to higher risk of an accident.

Deaths for young adults in the north of England have been increasing compared to those in the south since the late 1990s, creating new health divides between England’s regions. It seems that persistent social, economic and health inequalities are responsible for a growing trend of psychological distress, despair and risk taking among young northerners. Without major changes, the extreme concentration of power, wealth and opportunity in the south will continue to damage people’s health, and worsen the north-south divide.

The Conversation

Evangelos Kontopantelis, Professor in Data Science and Health Services Research, University of Manchester

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.