Probing behind 'Olympic legacy' political posturing

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
1 Oct 2012

Now that the medals have long been awarded, the plaudits made and the ceremonies completed, the final Olympic and Paralympic contest is underway. Who will claim political gold in the much-publicized Games ‘legacy’ race?

London Mayor Boris Johnson has certainly opened up an early lead over Prime Minister David Cameron in this respect. His profile boost follows much flag-waving, a series of barnstorming speeches, and a rapid move to replace socialite Daniel Moylan as chair of the London Legacy Development Corporation after only a few months in the job.

With previous media cynicism largely swept aside by a summer of sporting spectacle and heroism, normally unpopular politicians and their advisers see a real opportunity to associate themselves with the undoubted feel-good factor the Games have produced.

But the benefits to be gained from being wrapped in an Olympic flag do not come without a price. The handling of the major stadium deal is by no means straightforward, and communities in East London are busily scrutinising regeneration promises made in a flush of calculated optimism.

Housing and economy will be two significant areas of contention. Living costs for local people in the Olympic catchment area are rising, displacement has been significant, gentrification has set in, and there has been a sharp escalation of up to 35% in rental prices across the host boroughs.

In Stratford alone, the Clays Lane Peabody Estate, once Europe’s second largest social housing cooperative, was bulldozed to make way for Olympic facilities. Over 200 businesses were lost and 5,000 jobs dispersed, in addition to hundreds of people losing their homes. Allotments and local sports or leisure facilities were cast aside.

Compensation battles are only part of the story here. Critics say that what is spoken of as an Olympic boost to the local economy is mostly a reallocation of expenditure, not a net increase in activity. The massive £4 billion Stratford City development was planned well before the Games came to town. Some £2.2 million worth of National Lottery funding has also been redirected.

Globally, research into the long-term impact of mega sporting events does not back extravagant claims made by commercial beneficiaries and sponsors. But it is in the interests of politicians to sweep awkward facts aside in the rush for glory, and much of the media has been uninquisitive or compliant about this.

Meanwhile, disability campaigners point out that while the Prime Minister talks of a sea-change in attitudes arising from the Paralympics, the reality is that £2.1 billion per year is being slashed from benefit and welfare support for disabled people over the next decade – a figure that could increase if former defence secretary Liam Fox’s new think-tank gets its way.

“Civic boosterism is the preserve of transient growth coalitions drawing personnel from chambers of commerce, financiers, business leaders and real estate developers,” concluded analyst David Harvey in a landmark study of urban transformation two decades ago.

Large-scale, prestige projects divert attention from broader problems. The real question remains, ‘whose legacy?’ That issue will now be directed at Glasgow, for the Commonwealth Games, and Rio, in the run-up to the 2016 Olympics.

Further reading:

Games Monitor: Debunking Olympic myths: http://www.gamesmonitor.org.uk/
Transparency in Sport: http://transparencyinsportblog.wordpress.com/
Julian Cheyne, 'The Games Hurt Londoners' (New York Times): http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2012/04/02/are-the-olympics-more-tr...

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. This article is adapted from his September 2012 politics column in Third Way, the magazine of Christian comment on culture and society. http://www.thirdwaymagazine.co.uk/

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