Inspiring Olympic legacy or poisoned chalice?

The Olympic park. Photo: London 2010

With the recent news that the official beer for the Olympics in 2012 will be Heineken rather than our native Fuller’s, should we be worried that this is not the only instance of the Games being a red herring for Britain?

At 8pm on the eighth day of the eighth month in the year 2008, the attentions of the world were focused on one spectacular event, taking place on the outskirts of Beijing. After three years planning by film director Zhang Yimou, the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics featured 14,000 performers and 29,000 fireworks to start the Games with a bang.

To an estimated audience of one billion people, the ceremony encapsulated the pomp that has come to precede sporting events of this magnitude. Received with near universal acclaim, the event was described as the “best ever opening ceremony” and, “spectacular, explosive and unforgettable”.

However, hosting the Games is an expensive business, as many governments have found to their cost in the immediate aftermath. The variety and scale of the sports on offer demand a number of purpose built venues, many of which will become superfluous as soon as the games conclude.

Two and a half years have passed since the Bird’s Nest Stadium’s finest hour, and now there is a real danger of it slipping into the white elephant graveyard like so many other venues from past Olympiads. After proposals for the football club Guo’an to rent out the stadium fell through, the owners have not been able to find a permanent tenant, instead funding the £6m a year running costs by giving stadium tours and holding one-off events. There are also plans to convert part of the stadium into a shopping and entertainment complex in an attempt to generate further income.

Beijing, like Athens and Sydney before it, crowed loudly about sustainability and legacy in their plans for the aftermath of the Games, but these promises seem to be ringing hollow months down the line.

Greece spent £9.5bn on the 2004 Games, almost three times as much as it originally planned. The Greek equivalent of the OPLC, Hellenic Olympic Properties, was created at the time to manage the legacy, but six years on they are spending an estimated £75m annually on the maintenance of unused and inaccessible facilities.

In Sydney too, many venues are surviving from government handouts. Four years on from the Games the International Shooting Centre, for instance, was visited by only 5,388 people, meaning taxpayers contributed 10 AUS$ for every 1 AUS$ of income the centre earned.

The nearby Sydney International Equestrian Centre, at Horsley Park, was still being subsidised to the tune of 1.3m AUS$ a year in 2004. That equates to 310 AUS$ for each of the 4,185 people who rode there that year, an average of just 11 riders a day.

As London awaits the results of the bidding war between football clubs West Ham and Spurs, fears of similar broken promises have become a major point of conflict for organisers, politicians and local communities.

Ed Warner, the chairman of UK Athletics, said: “I’m looking at the Olympic Park Legacy Company to deliver an Olympic legacy, not just a football legacy in that park, which will be for generations to come.”

Britain’s only other purpose-built Olympic stadium demonstrated how multi-use facilities can stand the test of time. The White City Stadium, built for the 1908 Olympics went on to host football and rugby teams, dog races, speedway and boxing, and remained in use until the 1980s.

With the cost of the new Olympic Stadium reaching £525m, almost double the £280m estimate, it is increasingly important that it remains profitable in the wake of the games. The OPLC have a difficult balancing act between maintaining the integrity of the original proposals, and getting the best value for money for the British taxpayer.

Whatever their decision, they would be wise to draw on examples of prudence from our own history, rather than emulating Icarus, as Greece is now discovering to its cost.

Leave a Reply