London 2012: where’s the Olympic Spirit?

Officials don’t care about sport for sport’s sake: they want the Games to boost British self-esteem, fix public transport and solve global warming.

James Woudhuysen

Topics World

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Everything the British have heard about the London Olympics of 2012 boils down very simply. The Olympics are not really about the holding of Games themselves. They’re about what the Games will leave behind for London and the nation. As the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) points out, one of the basic principles behind London’s 2005 bid to hold the Games was the commitment to delivering a ‘sustainable legacy’ after them.

The Olympic Board – Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell, mayor of London Ken Livingstone, British Olympic Association chairman Colin Moynihan and London 2012 Organising Committee chairman Sebastian Coe – has set out five priorities for that legacy:

1) Making the UK a world-leading sporting nation;
2) Transforming the heart of east London;
3) Inspiring a new generation of young people to take part in volunteering, cultural and physical activity;
4) Making the Olympic Park a blueprint for sustainable living;
5) Demonstrating the UK is a creative, inclusive and welcoming place to live in, visit and for business.

The Games, then, are not really about the force of international competition in sport – the setting of new peaks of achievement in human skills, strength, speed or stamina. They’re about economic, environmental and social regeneration. David Higgins, chief executive of the ODA, is very careful about all this. The 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games in London, he has said, ‘can be viewed as a sporting overlay for the biggest regeneration project in Europe’. Indeed, the Games can and should be the ‘Regeneration Games’, says the Olympic Board.

This essay argues that such priorities are misplaced. Like sportsmen and sportswomen, we’re all for ambition. But the Olympic Board’s desire to make a sporting event into an exercise in urban regeneration isn’t ambitious. It’s defensive. In all the discussion on ‘legacy’, the subconscious feeling is generated that Britain would be quite wrong simply to allow the Games to be held on their own account. Sport for sport’s sake is out: instead, it must be an instrument for reaching policy goals outside itself. Altogether, official policy suggests that the operational costs of the Games themselves can only be justified in the light of the lasting and beneficial legacy that will follow them.

In this scenario, the sporting ‘overlay’ invoked by Higgins all but evaporates. In place of the idealism of the Greek founders of the Games, we have cost/benefit analysis. It is the kind of analysis which imagines not just that the Games are an investment that will pay for itself, but also that they can be a ‘catalyst’ for the regeneration of east London. That is an error. A true geographical rebalancing of London from west to east is a feat too historic even for the Olympics to begin to bring about. The regeneration of east London is not a chemical reaction just waiting for a catalyst to show up and set it off.

Anyway, the economics of ‘legacy’ are not really the establishment’s main concern with the Games. The real legacy looked for is political: it’s to do with setting the world an example in environmental correctness, and it’s to do with that wonderful thing, social inclusion. With the Games, value for money is held to be vital – but Labour’s interpretation of British values is held to be more vital still.

The ‘triple bottom line’: first, economics

The consultancy SustainAbility claims that it coined the phrase ‘triple bottom line’ in 1994. The phrase refers to the idea that the corporate pursuit of a profit in economics is compatible with – nay, can actually be inspired by – the pursuit of moral goals in ecology and society. It is an attractive idea; but even if the Olympics were a classical corporation, they would not be able to realise it in practice.

In principle, there’s nothing wrong with trying to do more than one thing at a time. Human beings are multi-taskers, after all. But to hope that a sporting event, and the infrastructure that goes with it, can turn east London round is an illusion. If the experience of the Millennium Dome is anything to go by, to get the Games to open and be run without a hitch will be success enough.

Yes, there will be jobs generated, some of them for good. Yes, as the mayor of London’s website tells us, the influx of spectators will produce a boost for the hospitality industry across London – though we will have to see whether the Games will really turn out to be an ‘international showcase for London’s culture and creativity’, as the mayor claims. It’s even true that ‘the effects of London 2012 will be felt long after the Olympic flame has left the capital’ – particularly in the realm of infrastructure.

Yet the fact is that, even before the Olympic bid was won for London, Britain already boasted Europe’s largest regeneration project: the development of the Thames Gateway. And the fact is that the Gateway, which was based on the hope that 120,000 houses would regenerate east London and everywhere 40 miles east to Southend in Essex and Sheerness in Kent, is now a thoroughly incoherent project. Why should we have the confidence to believe that the regeneration of east London by indirect means – the Games – should succeed where regeneration through means somewhat more direct – housing, and not just in east London – has failed? After all, the Olympic Village will, once retired from its initial use, provide east London with just 4,000 new homes.

Some of the improvements in infrastructure brought by the 2012 Olympics are impressive, and will indeed be of lasting benefit. Beneath and between Hackney and West Ham, four giant boring machines have shifted 200,000 cubic metres of earth so that 200km of electricity cable can be laid underground, so ridding the Olympic landscape of 52 overground electricity pylons next year.

There will be improvements in transport. For instance: each hour during the Games, 10 Javelin Class 395 trains will whisk people from St Pancras station, next to King’s Cross, to Stratford International Station and the Olympic Park in just seven minutes. The mayor of London highlights the following changes:
‘London will be a connected and convenient host city for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, with:

  • 80 per cent of athletes within 20 minutes of their events;
  • five airports, including Heathrow – the best-connected airport in the world;
  • 10 railway lines carrying 240,000 people every hour to the Olympic Park;
  • 240 km of dedicated Olympic lanes.’

Let’s leave aside the thorny issues of journeys by athletes and journeys through Heathrow. Let’s also admit that, in transport as elsewhere, you have to start somewhere. But here’s what Ken Livingstone has to say after his four bullet-points: ‘All of the transport improvements planned for the Olympic Games are ones London needs anyway: the Games will simply make sure these things happen faster.’

Here we see what even the most tangible aspect of the legacy – transport – amounts to. Scandalously, east London has continued to lack decent transport for the six decades that have passed since the end of the Second World War. But now we’re supposed to enthuse about how the Olympics will make changes happen ‘faster’! What is really being hinted at here is that we might have to wait another 60 years, for another London Olympics, for something substantial like it ever to happen again.

With transport, Livingstone feels the need to apologise for the Games. In that sector, he says, ‘Londoners will benefit from a range of improvements that are every bit as useful to London’s everyday life as they are to the running of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games’. Altogether, we are asked to believe both that the Games are vital to kick-starting transport investment in east London, and that they’re of little independent significance and nothing to fret about.

Most of the improvements planned in transport are actually very modest. Stations will be refurbished, cycle lanes provided. The case of transport shows that, for east London, the Olympics bring too little innovation, too late. So: of course we should celebrate the Games – but on their own account, as the pinnacle of sport. At the same time, however, we should fiercely emphasise that, in the regeneration of east London, a tenth of a loaf and a whole lot of rhetoric are no better than the status quo.

The basic idea of an Olympics ‘legacy’ is derived from what economists insist on calling a ‘positive externality’. The Games, it’s argued, will have positive, beneficial economic side effects, outside of and beyond the direct and time-limited exchanges between organisers, contractors, workers and paying spectators. Yet if we take, say, the hard-edged economics of globalisation, the evidence that foreign investors bring the ‘spillover’ of knowledge and technology to host countries is, at best, very mixed. So why, if externalities don’t work in the domain of research and development, should we credit the idea that the Olympic Games, an athletic event with a construction budget in tow, will claw back its costs and go on permanently to revitalise east London?

No doubt the rail improvements around the Olympics will allow people to get to work in and from east London more easily than before. No doubt, too, the Olympic stadium, the two hockey pitches, the handball arena, the aquatics centre and the VeloPark will all confer benefits on those who live near them. It’s wonderful to know, too, that the Olympic basketball arena will not just be dismantled but resurrected somewhere else in the UK, and that fencing pistes and equipment used for the Games will be given to schools, clubs and leisure centres around the country. But such externalities to the month-long Games themselves are hard to get really excited by, and hard to quantify.

The idea of externalities originates with Principles of Economics (1890), written by the Victorian eugenicist, economist and would-be priest Alfred Marshall. In his second chapter, on wealth, Marshall emphasised not the intrinsic creation of value through the exchange of capital for labour-power in the process of production, but factors external to that process: factors such as the ‘good will and business connection of traders and professional men’ (what we would now call brand reputation); the ‘advantages of climate, light, air, and … privileges of citizenship and rights and opportunities of making use of public property’; roads and canals, buildings and parks, gasworks and waterworks; and also, interestingly, the Thames (it added, he argued, ‘more to the wealth of England than all its canals, and perhaps even than all its railroads’). In this eclectic and parochial worldview, positive externalities had a sublime force: like God, they were to be found everywhere, yet moved in mysterious ways.

For Marshall there was little place for human labour or inspiring technology, just as there is today little place, in the official conception of the Olympics, for sporting achievement. And once we turn to the environmental impact of the Games, we quickly find out that externalities can be negative, not just positive.

The ‘triple bottom line’: second, the environment

Staying on the back foot, Olympic Board feels that it has to deal with what today’s culture apprehends as the inevitable downside of the Games: their carbon footprint. The Board protests that the footprint of the Games will be minimal. And it does more than this. The Games will be a public transport Games; they will be a low-carbon Games. Specifying that buildings, local transport, merchandising and catering are low in greenhouse gas emissions will also, the Board’s blog says, help define a different set of accountancy rules for future Games – ‘just with carbon rather than money as the currency’. The London Olympics will, then, be the first major event of any sort ever to undertake such a complete analysis of its carbon footprint. Indeed, carbon accounting will provide ‘thought leadership as part of the knowledge legacy of the Games’.

The ODA’s target is for half of the building materials to be brought on or off the Olympics site by rail or barge. As a result, with British Waterways, the ODA will create a new lock and water control system at the deliciously named Prescott Channel, so that 350-tonne barges can gain access to the construction site. Meanwhile, a wind turbine at Eton Manor, just north of the Olympic Park, was supposed to have gained planning consent by summer 2007.

Now, access to east London for 350-tonne vessels is a step forward. Yet for the rest, these Green catchphrases on the Olympics are empty. The whole metaphor of carbon footprints is dubious. And do the Games really need even more accountants – carbon accountants – than they already have? Notoriously, the ODA’s ‘delivery partner’, CLM, a private sector consortium, won £400million of extra business from the ODA last year. Its task: to count Olympic beans more carefully.

Big barges are fine. Yet just as environmentalists now oppose large-scale investment in bio-crops, so even waterborne transport now faces indictments for its carbon footprint. Once the Olympics go carbon accounting, logic would suggest that they not be held at all. We can be certain that the 2008 Beijing Olympics, in particular, will be vilified for their eco-unfriendliness.

Perhaps the £2million wind turbine at Eton Manor, 120 metres high and complete with 40-metre-long blades, will offset some of the negative externalities of the Olympics. But in terms of east London, this really is a white elephant. If approved, the machine will last just 20 years, and provide enough energy to power about 1,200 homes for a year.

That’s barely energy generation, let alone urban regeneration.

The ‘triple bottom line’: third, society

In the Lower Lea Valley, the ODA wants to help reduce historic and long-standing inequalities. It wants recruitment and management throughout its supply chain to be demonstrably fair. It will work to combat workplace discrimination, and to make its procurement process transparent, fair and open to diverse suppliers. It wants its constructions to be inclusive of people of all cultures, faiths and ages, and fully accessible to disabled people with a wide range of impairments. On top of all this, the ODA wants the economic and social benefits it brings to east London to reach other parts of the UK.

The ODA doesn’t list all the social aims of the Olympics. In 2010, the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games will begin to recruit volunteers for stewarding, the issuing of tickets and the looking after of athletes. LOCOG will also need volunteer linguists, medics and referees; and it’s already working with the Greater London Authority and central government to develop a pre-Games volunteering programme. Thus, while the final 70,000 Games volunteers will particularly be selected for their experience of volunteering, it’s hoped that skills acquired in pre-Games volunteering will also help a wider group of individuals – people from hard to reach communities, individuals who do not normally volunteer, ‘compete in the job market, or … volunteer at other events’. Indeed, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has already begun to encourage people to ‘start building their volunteering experience within their local community’.

The ODA, LOCOG and DCMS have set themselves formidable goals in the politics of paid and unpaid work. The three bodies want skills improved, and the atmosphere of inclusiveness extended, beyond Olympics-related work to the image projected by the Games to the outside world. Yet even if we were to accept the conventional wisdom about social ‘exclusion’ and skills shortages in east London, it is unlikely that the Olympics can transform the labour market there. Research at the University of East London suggests the Thames Gateway needs not only houses, but also new industries and employment opportunities. That same formula applies to those without jobs in east London.

The Olympics will not make a durable difference to incomes, or to first-time house-buyers, in east London. Yet the Games are already making a difference to political psychology in Britain. Already 100,000 people have registered their interest in volunteering, something which represents idealism on a huge and commendable scale. On the other hand, though, Labour will do its best to conscript this group into its campaign for a carbon-accounting, walk-or-cycle-to-it, you-can’t-park Olympics, a boosterish advertisement for how brilliant the British are.

Perhaps the Olympics it will find a positive political externality and succeed in boosting national self-esteem. But generating a feel-good factor is not the same as regenerating east London.

Conclusion: boosters, whingers – and an alternative

In 1890, in his discussion of the value of urban sites and what he called ‘external economies’, Alfred Marshall wrote about what he called the ‘situation value’ that a site derived from the opening up of railways and other good means of communication with existing markets. This, Marshall said, was one of the ‘most striking’ of all the influences that changes in the industrial environment exerted to lower general costs of production.

In 2012, more than 120 years later, we are asked to believe that the spin-off from the facilities and infrastructure built for the Olympics will, similarly, dynamise the economy there. The Olympics will also help save the planet; they’ll be a fillip, too, to what remains of east London’s old working class.
It won’t wash. Google different combinations of the four words ‘Olympics’, ‘kick-start’, ‘synergies’ and ‘regeneration’, and you’ll find how many times tired officials use motorbikes and management-speak to try to convince us that everything will turn out well.

Yes, everything. A leader in the UK Guardian, written at the time that the success of Britain’s Olympic bid had been announced, confirms how the know-nothing magic of Marshallian externalities dominates the middle-class imagination. The successful bid, the Guardian wrote, was:
‘Brilliant for British sport, which will never receive a greater boost than it will get over the next seven years – a legacy for the generations. Brilliant for east London, one of the poorest parts of urban Europe, which can at last look forward to the ambitious regeneration that it never properly got after the batterings of World War Two and the collapse of old industries like the docks. Brilliant for modern London as a whole, for which the Olympics will provide a thrilling validation and climax to its 21st-century re-emergence as an open, multiracial and dynamic world city. And brilliant too, we must ensure, for other cities and other parts of Britain too. Many of them will play a role in 2012 and their interests must not be forgotten, even if in the end the focus inevitably concentrates on this extraordinary and wonderfully diverse capital city of ours.’

What are we hearing here? We are hearing a doctrine most influentially espoused by the guru of American management-as-psychobabble, Stephen Covey. In his massive end-of-Cold War bestseller, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey wrote a whole chapter – it was Habit 4 – around a neologism that has since passed, unquestioned, into the vocabulary of business: Win/Win. What the Guardian hopes is that the Olympics will be a Win/Win/Win/Win.

For Covey, Win/Win is ‘a total philosophy of human interaction’, applying to parents and management alike. He holds that most people have been ‘deeply scripted’ in the Win/Lose mentality since birth, and that, for young men, athletics has been a ‘powerful programming agent’ disposing them to think that winning means beating someone. Well: we would all like a peaceful, collaborative world. We might not like Covey’s Habit 6 – Synergize; but to be human is to want to get together and make things work.

That’s one thing. It’s quite another to do what Labour’s Olympians are doing: trying to fool the British people that the Olympics can really meet all the targets set out for it. Yet if boosters of the Games are bad, then – as with the old Dome project – those who simply whinge about them are worse.

The false economic critique of the Games correctly observes that all previous versions, with the exception of Los Angeles in 1984, have lost money. Therefore, it’s said, corporations and property developers will make huge profits, but London taxpayers will have to pay for the enormous and spiralling Games for years to come. The point is also made that the Olympics will take up National Lottery funds that would otherwise go to sport and charities all over the country.

These objections are parochial and plain wrong. Even £10 billion or more is not a lot for Britain to blow on a month-long Games for the whole planet: it amounts to well under half the annual budget of the Ministry of Defence. If taxes to pay for the Olympics weigh too heavily on the Londoner’s purse, that’s a reason to raise wages in London, not to moan about distortions imposed by holding the Games.

Still, there’s an alternative to the boosters and the whingers.

East London’s last great leap forward took place when it had to clear up and rebuild after Luftwaffe bombing. Since then the London Docklands Development Corporation and even Canary Wharf have not contributed an enormous amount. What we now need, quite separately from the 2012 Olympics, is a programme for building real, pervasive wealth in east London and beyond.

Let’s begin with infrastructure. Thames Gateway must actually build some houses. Some thought about IT for the Gateway would make a nice change. There will be a need for Thames Water’s desalination plant in Newham, whatever Ken Livingstone’s objections. And there will be a need for massive amounts of energy, too.

A windmill will not suffice. So, this side of a nuclear power station in east London, let’s reinforce the flood defences of the Thames with a new barrier that can also generate tidal energy. Along with seven larger estuaries (the Severn, the Dee, the Mersey, Morecambe Bay, Solway Firth, the Humber and the Wash), the Thames sees waters rise and fall so much, tidal range energy generation from all eight sources could meet 13.5 per cent of current energy demand across the UK.

The flood barrier that’s a power plant – now that’s a Win/Win worth working for. Next, build a motorway over it, so people can drive unimpeded from Dover to Cambridge. Then build some houses around it. And, meanwhile, raise this country’s paltry R&D expenditure enough to allow east London to boast a real swath of laboratories, prototyping works, demonstration facilities and even factories.

As a sporting event, the Games are fine. What London and the nation now require isn’t a self-consciously cultural Games, à la Hoxton and Brick Lane. What we need is investment in wealth generation on its own account; what we need is confidence in science and human ingenuity.

The Win/Win formula is shallow. Pinning down the positive externalities of the Games will be harder than hugging a cloud. To be regenerated, east London would benefit from the direct approach.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation, De Montfort University, Leicester. Visit his website at here. This essay was first published as a Battle in Print by the Battle of Ideas. It was edited by Toby Marshall.

Previously on spiked

James Woudhuysen suggested that urban planning should be about more than the Olympics. Rob Lyons argued that the 2012 Olympic games should be about sport not sustainability. Mick Hume highlighted how the London Olympics could fall under the spectre of PR imperialism. Or read more at spiked issue Sport.


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Homes 2016, Ian Abley and James Woudhuysen, Blueprint/Wilmington Media, 2004

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A famous victory, Guardian, 7 July 2005

Ships emit more CO2 than aircraft, Financial Times, 13 July 2007

Celebrating the ‘human footprint’, by James Heartfield, 26 April 2007

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Defining a different set of accountancy rules, Olympic Board/London 2012, 16 July 2007

From Beijing to Bow Bells: measuring the Olympics effect, Gavin Poynter, London East Research Institute Working Paper in Urban Studies, 2006

House of Commons Hansard Written Answer, Column 1602W—continued, 19 June 2007

Play as the main event in International and UK Culture, James Woudhuysen, Cultural Trends 43-44, 2003

The globalisation of UK manufacturing and services, 2004-24: toward the Agile Economy, James Woudhuysen, UK Trade & Investment, 2004

Thames Gateway: when IT really matters, James Woudhuysen, 2006

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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