AT the end of every Olympic Games it falls on the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to try to characterise the 16 days of competition in a simple phrase. Exceptional, magnificent, unforgettable — just a few of the descriptions used for recent editions of the games during my time as president.
But how will London be remembered? Record-breaking? Certainly. Fun? Definitely. Rainy? Let’s just keep our fingers crossed.
Whatever the vagaries of the much-debated British climate, the games themselves already have all the elements necessary for success — not just for the two weeks of competition, but long, long after the flame has been extinguished. This is thanks to the local organisers who have firmly rooted the foundations of the games in the concept of legacy: what the event will leave behind when the last athlete turns off the lights in the Olympic Village and heads for home.
London Organising Committee Chairman Sebastian Coe knows he has some very tough customers to please. As he recently put it: “The most demanding stakeholder any city now has is not the International Olympic Committee, not the government. It’s actually the population of the city and the country where you’re delivering the games. And the key question they ask is: What are you leaving behind?”
With such demanding judges, Lord Coe and his team simply had to put legacy at the heart of their bid. And London 2012 stands to leave behind a great deal for the citizens of the host city and country. They spoke of inspiring a generation, of revitalising long-depressed areas of London, of providing Londoners with improved infrastructure, employment opportunities and access to sports facilities. With the help of unwavering governmental support at all levels, the organisers have already taken a huge step toward achieving this and much more.
For every pound spent on infrastructure, 75 pence has been dedicated to legacy purposes. This initiative helped finance the radical transformation of a huge section of East London from a contaminated, neglected landfill into the glittering new Olympic Park, which will be converted into an innovative and sustainable community offering jobs, housing, schools and leisure activities after the games. Thanks to the Olympic Park Legacy Company, six of the eight permanent venues have already found post-games tenants — a major achievement in itself.
Legacy has not always been at the forefront of Olympic planning, however. Many years ago it was sometimes more of an afterthought for games organisers; a concept often left to chance. Some host cities clearly fared better than others in this regard.
The IOC recognised that for a city to truly leverage the Olympic Games as a catalyst for sustainable renewal, it had to be planned for from the very beginning. This is why we now require all bid cities to define their objectives and long-term strategies from the very moment they become an applicant city: so that if successful in their bid, the games organisers have a clear vision for the seven years of Olympic preparation and beyond.
New host cities can also draw on the lessons of previous host cities through the IOC’s transfer of knowledge programme, which provides access to a vast amount of information, including case studies of previous games programmes and initiatives, Olympic Games impact studies and technical reports.
One of the first host cities to truly benefit from early planning was Barcelona. Like London, Barcelona used the opportunity to stage the Olympic Games in 1992 to regenerate some of the more neglected parts of the city, including 100 hectares of industrial land along its shoreline. The revitalised waterfront area has transformed the city, as has the huge increase in accommodation thanks to the games, helping put Barcelona on the map in terms of tourism. The city’s tourist numbers, as one example, have grown from fewer than two million per year prior to the games to 7.4 million last year.
There have been many other examples in the years since. Lillehammer 1994 set a standard for ‘green’ Olympic Games by staging the event with social and environmental benefits in mind; Sydney 2000 included the creation of one of the largest urban parklands in Australia; Beijing 2008 resulted in 400 million children learning about the Olympic values in a programme designed to educate youth through sport; while Vancouver 2010 led to major transportation improvements, including the addition of 180 diesel-electric hybrid buses, a new metro line linking the airport to downtown, and an overhaul of the Sea-to-Sky highway that has made travel from Vancouver to Whistler safer and faster.
The London organisers have benefited greatly from the achievements of previous Olympic host cities via the IOC’s transfer of knowledge programme and other legacy initiatives. Soon it will be London’s turn to help future host cities improve their projects.
Will the Games of the XXX Olympiad be remembered as exceptional, magnificent or unforgettable? Only time will tell. But one thing is certain: London 2012 has everything in place to produce a lasting legacy.
The writer is the president of the International Olympic Committee.