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.

 
 
 
 

“Every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap”: on the rise of the chain conffeeshop as public space

Mmmm caffeine. Image: Getty.

If you visit Granary Square in Kings Cross or the more recent neighbouring development, Coal Drops Yard, you will find all the makings of a public space: office-workers munching on their lunch-break sandwiches, exuberant toddlers dancing in fountains and the expected spread of tourists.

But the reality is positively Truman Show-esque. These are just a couple examples of privately owned public spaces, or “POPS”,  which – in spite of their deceptively endearing name – are insidiously changing our city’s landscape right beneath us.

The fear is that it is often difficult to know when you are in one, and what that means for your rights. But as well as those places the private sector pretends to be public space, the inverse is equally common, and somewhat less discussed. Often citizens, use clearly private amenities like they are public. And this is never more prevalent than in the case of big-chain coffeeshops.

It goes without saying that London is expensive: often it feels like every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap. This is where Starbucks, Pret and Costa come in. Many of us find an alternative in freeloading off their services: a place to sit, free wifi when your data is low, or an easily accessible toilet when you are about in the city. It feels like a passive-aggressive middle-finger to the hole in my pocket, only made possible by the sheer size of these companies, which allows us to go about unnoticed. Like a feature on a trail map, it’s not just that they function as public spaces, but are almost universally recognised as such, peppering our cityscapes like churches or parks.

Shouldn’t these services really be provided by the council, you may cry? Well ideally, yes – but also no, as they are not under legal obligation to do so and in an era of austerity politics, what do you really expect? UK-wide, there has been a 13 per cent drop in the number of public toilets between 2010 and 2018; the London boroughs of Wandsworth and Bromley no longer offer any public conveniences.  


For the vast majority of us, though, this will be at most a nuisance, as it is not so much a matter of if but rather when we will have access to the amenities we need. Architectural historian Ian Borden has made the point that we are free citizens in so far as we shop or work. Call it urban hell or retail heaven, but the fact is that most of us do regularly both of these things, and will cope without public spaces on a day to day. But what about those people who don’t?

It is worth asking exactly what public spaces are meant to be. Supposedly they are inclusive areas that are free and accessible to all. They should be a place you want to be, when you have nowhere else to be. A space for relaxation, to build a community or even to be alone.

So, there's an issue: it's that big-chain cafes rarely meet this criterion. Their recent implementation of codes on bathroom doors is a gentle reminder that not all are welcome, only those that can pay or at least, look as if they could. Employees are then given the power to decide who can freeload and who to turn away. 

This is all too familiar, akin to the hostile architecture implemented in many of our London boroughs. From armrests on benches to spikes on windowsills, a message is sent that you are welcome, just so long as you don’t need to be there. This amounts to nothing less than social exclusion and segregation, and it is homeless people that end up caught in this crossfire.

Between the ‘POPS’ and the coffee shops, we are squeezed further by an ever-growing private sector and a public sector in decline. Gentrification is not just about flat-whites, elaborate facial hair and fixed-gear bikes: it’s also about privatisation and monopolies. Just because something swims like a duck and quacks like a duck that doesn’t mean it is a duck. The same can be said of our public spaces.