Can London's Olympics 'buck trend' and leave true legacy?
by Peter Grant
Studies of previous Olympics have shown no real long-term economic benefits or increased participation in sports – but if certain conditions are met London is well placed to buck this trend
Much has been made of the potential economic and sporting legacy of the London Olympics, but how far are these hopes justified? From the very first, the games of Ancient Greece were of more social, religious and political than sporting or economic importance and this trend has accelerated since their re-founding in 1896.
Both the Melbourne and Sydney Games were significant milestones for Australia to demonstrate their emergence as a post-colonial state. And those in Tokyo, Mexico City, Seoul and Beijing showcased their countries' emergence onto the 'world stage' – likewise the forthcoming event in Rio de Janeiro.
Detailed studies of previous Olympics, especially the four held between 1996 and 2008, have concluded that none brought significant economic gains for their host cities nor was there any increase in sports participation. So does this mean that the long-term gain for Britain will be nothing more than the memory of an excellent two-week party? Well, there is room for optimism, providing certain conditions are met.
With regard to the financial legacy there are signs that London can buck the trend of previous Games. Firstly ticket sales were much higher – 50 per cent up on Beijing, 250 per cent on Athens – and the Paralympics look like breaking all records. If this enthusiasm for sport in a recession continues it bodes well for events such as the Glasgow's Commonwealth Games in 2014 and the World Athletics championships at the Olympic stadium in 2017.
Secondly the bane of previous host cities – empty facilities that eat up revenue – looks like being avoided. There is already significant legacy usage for the aquatics centre, velodrome and Copper Box. If the main stadium attracts regular crowds of 40-50,000 this will bring significant benefits to the immediate area, which means the bid from West Ham United football club is by far the strongest. Finally, tourism could receive a shot in the arm from specific targeting, which is already happening with expenditure specifically in the Chinese market.
The sporting legacy is even less supported by evidence from previous Games but will actually be easier to deliver – if the government commits to long-term investment. Expenditure at the elite end, wisely overseen by UK Sport, must be maintained at its current level not just up to Rio but beyond. In addition, and the two are inter-dependent not separate, grass-roots sport must be strengthened. This means building more high quality facilities but, even more important, financial assistance for sports clubs and the volunteers who ensure they continue running.
This is a complex issue. Many sports facilities are run by local authorities whose funding is being reduced and sports clubs face increasing costs with few direct tax benefits. Any long-term policy must entail the support of the Treasury and would hugely benefit from cross-party support. Perhaps the euphoria of the 2012 Games could get politicians of all parties together to ensure they put in place a plan for sport that truly inspires a generation.
Peter Grant is a senior fellow at Cass Business School in London