It is a year since the opening of the London Olympics. As protests rage in Brazil against the profiteering and corruption revealed in the preparations for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics the question is raised, what exactly was the legacy of the London games?
Judged purely as a sporting event, the London Olympics can be seen as a success for the organisers. However, the enormous scale of the games – in terms of their cost to the host nation and their commercial, cultural and political impact across the globe – means they cannot be assessed simply in sporting terms.
The question of the games’ wider legacy has particular importance in Britain. Enormous amounts of money were spent by the state (£6.71bn according to latest figures) at a time when public services are being cut or privatised, working conditions are worsening and pay is stagnating.
Given the costs of hosting the Olympics it is reasonable to ask why governments are willing to embark on such a project in the first place. From the perspective of the capitalist class and its representatives in government, broadly speaking there are three potentially positive outcomes from hosting the games: domestic and international prestige, advertising the host city as an international business centre, and urban regeneration (or turning poor areas of a city into profit-making ones).
Hosting the Olympic Games carries with it a great deal of international prestige. In the case of Seoul (1988) and Beijing (2008), they were used to advertise those countries’ emergence as modern industrial powers. This political dimension leads some on the left to dismiss mass sporting events as ‘bread and circuses’, a distraction from the problems of everyday life. Although this is true to some extent there is a limit to how much sport can paper over the fault lines in society.
Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the London Olympics themselves. It is questionable whether the Con-Dem coalition received any political boost from the games at all. Only a few weeks after the closing ceremony of the summer Olympics, chancellor George Osborne was booed by the crowd at the Paralympic Games in the same stadium! The Con-Dem coalition’s cruel persecution of disabled people on benefits, as well as the general unpopularity of his government’s austerity policies, undoubtedly played a part in this. For the rest of 2012 and well into 2013 the opinion poll ratings of the coalition partners have been in decline.
While the direct political impact of the games has been minimal there is a broader ideological purpose that hosting the Olympics serves. There are striking parallels between the way the games are funded and organised and the right-wing vision of how public services should be provided.
In both cases the bulk of the funding comes from the public purse. The delivery of those services, however, is farmed out to private-sector providers who cream off a considerable profit as a result. The farce that was the G4S security operation will be grimly familiar to any public-sector worker with experience of companies like Capita. The unprofitable and unglamorous part of the work, of course, is placed in the hands of unpaid volunteers. This is not to criticise those who volunteered their time to assist, and who played a crucial role in the games’ success. But there are similarities between this method of keeping the expense of the Olympics down and David Cameron’s talk of ‘the big society’, where charities fill the gaps in public services left by underfunding and privatisation.
In the commercial sphere, the legacy of the games is mixed, to say the least. On the plus side, are the new jobs and increased commercial activity generated by the new Westfield shopping centre in Stratford. The direct economic impact of the games so far, however, has been disappointing given the huge outlay of sums involved. According to the Evening Standard, “688 jobs would be created in the first year [of the Olympics] rising to 1,061 after the third year and contributing £260 million to the London economy”. (14 January 2013) The proposed regeneration of housing in the area is presented as a chance to improve an impoverished part of London. The London Legacy Development Corporation has received £640 million for 160 acres of land zoned for 6,500 houses. (Evening Standard, 14 September 2012)
The involvement of property developers means that it is unlikely that the new homes will be affordable for existing residents in Newham. Instead of regeneration that benefits working-class people, particularly locals, it seems more likely that the Olympics will simply accelerate the trend where inner-city London is gentrified and working-class people are driven out to surrounding suburbs.
A study by the University of East London on the economics of hosting the games found that the private-sector led regeneration under the mantle of the games was likely to result in widening inequality and disruption of working-class communities in the area.
Another, frequently touted legacy of the Olympics is that the example of sporting excellence will inspire a generation of young people to take part in sports. For those who excel there will be modern infrastructure to help them reach the top. The reality is more complicated.
A recent study by Sport England quoted in the Independent (14 June 2013) found that, although numbers participating in sport had gone up by 1.4 million since 2005 (when London won the bid for the Olympics), participation in sport had actually declined since the Olympics themselves. There are a number of factors that may explain this. The report cites the unusually cold and wet weather since the Olympics, for example.
But cuts to the public sector are also a factor. Many local sports facilities that are the starting rung for children in sport are funded by local councils. They are often the first in line for council cuts. In Sheffield, the Don Valley Stadium, where Olympic heptathlon champion, Jessica Ennis, began her participation in athletics, is to be demolished. The council has blamed shortage of funding for its decision to close the stadium.
A similar process is under way in schools where playing fields are sold off to bridge funding shortfalls. Cuts in education are also leading to a shortage in specialist physical education teachers. The UK Sport and Youth Trust reported: “We have seen a rise in the number of youngsters wanting to get involved in sport after the Olympics but we do not have the specialist PE teachers in primary schools. There is a lot of enthusiasm but not the know-how to provide the right kind of opportunities. We have inspired a generation but can we convert it into participation?”
This question goes to the heart of the matter. Bearing in mind the relentless cuts in public services and children’s playing fields, longer school and working hours, etc, the avenues to participation in sport are being systematically closed to most working people by the logic of increasing austerity and unbridled capitalism.
To compound the problem, capitalism sets up a false division between sport as elite performance and sport as leisure and play. The former is a multibillion-dollar business that monopolises vast amounts of funds from governments and the private sector.
Sport as leisure is either left entirely in the hands of the private sector in the form of gyms and commercial facilities or is dependent on charities as publicly funded facilities are cut.
A socialist society would treat access to sport in the same way as it would treat access to healthcare and education: an essential public service vital to the development of the individual and the wellbeing of society. With wealth controlled by working people, wasteful spending on advertising and sponsorship could be used to ensure communities have access to the best sporting facilities, free at the point of use. Proper funding for PE teachers in every school could ensure that talent is spotted early and developed. Sharing out the enormous wealth generated by a modern economy among all workers would allow the working week to be significantly reduced, allowing greater access to sport and recreation for all ages.
The removal of the dead hand of profits would see achievement in team and individual sports that would far exceed anything seen under capitalism. That would be a real sporting legacy.