When the cheers die down and the crowds go home what is left after major sporting extravaganzas such as the Olympics or the World Cup? Is the host nation just left with white elephants gathering cracks and opprobrium? Or is there a positive legacy? The answers to these questions have now become an integral part of the bids to host such events. But it is rare for the promises, made when seeking to attract these international extravaganzas, to match the actual achievements.
Los Angeles won the bid for the 1984 Olympics by default. No other city wanted what was seen at the time as a costly, political minefield. It was the commercial success of those games, brought about with corporate sponsorship, which changed attitudes towards what the Olympics has to offer to its host city. These vast sporting events are no longer only about who wins on the track or pitch. They are projected as reflections on the city and country where they take place. These reflections are not only examined in terms of the grand occasion itself. They are also evaluated for how that location uses the international games to change things there for the better; their legacy.
Indeed the rhetoric of legacy has now become ingrained in the whole process of selecting cities to host major sporting events, especially the Olympics. As Alan Tomlinson, professor of leisure studies at the University of Brighton, describes in the current special issue of Contemporary Social Science, being able to convince the International Olympic Committee that the Olympiad will leave a positive inheritance has become crucial in winning the opportunity to host the games. The terms ‘sustainable development’ and ‘legacy’ actually became part of the Olympic charter as it moved into the 21st century.
As the significance of legacy has gained momentum it has become a fascinating topic for social scientists. Aware of this, Professor Tomlinson has brought together eight studies that explore the meaning and effectiveness of Olympic legacies. These open up the topic so that we can see beyond the rhetoric and consider what the consequences of these international jamborees really are.
The inevitable initial questions are what does legacy actually consist of, and is it possible to distinguish between the image that the host city is determined to portray and the reality? These are not that easy to answer. The investment in the infra-structure for the games is matched by the effort into harnessing the games for promotional, or what could even be called propaganda, objectives.
These promotional purposes, though, can have important consequences within their host nation. As Steven Miles argues, in his contribution to this special issue, the Beijing Olympics ‘played a key role in advancing a new kind of consumer-driven citizenship’ in China. The most popular locations at these games were McDonald’s and the pavilions sponsored by major international corporations. So that by welcoming the Western style of conspicuous consumption the people of China were encouraged to make a step towards a new stage in the evolution of Chinese communism.
The acceptance of such sponsorship was taken to new heights in the London 2012 Olympics. AdiZones were created around London by Adidas as lively playgrounds for the youths of deprived areas. Their link to the Olympics neutralised their corporate flavour and showed how commercial objectives can help to create the sorts of physical and social legacies that are now central to being allowed to host an Olympiad.
But it is more focussed legacies that the organisers may aspire to. Some of these legacies may be rather unexpected. For example the volunteers that these major spectacles require can develop skills that become valuable resources for the local service industries, especially tourism. However it is just as likely that the main benefit is to the stature of the International Olympic Committee and particularly to its major corporate sponsors.
But the value of the enhancement of the image of the Olympics should not be underrated. Although Beijing in 2008 and Sochi this year were bedevilled by human rights controversies, they won the right to host the games against strong competition. That competition required the countries to demonstrate that they had plans for their citizens to benefit in the aftermath of the games. There is still the hope that these vast projects will contribute to everything from public health, national spirit, urban transformation to tourism and even social science. So despite the weed-strewn legacy of Athens 2004 and the controversies surrounding subsequent international sporting events there does seem to be a turning point in the gaining of general benefits from these major events. It does seem that the London 2012 Olympics is facilitating the rejuvenation of East London. The spirit that those games generated does seem to have spilled over to subsequent events such as the Commonwealth games in Glasgow and even the Tour de France in Yorkshire.
The Olympics, then, can be more than an international spectacle. They can provide lasting consequences in many different ways. But to do that successfully requires careful planning in advance of what will happen after the crowds go home and the gold medals are put in their display cabinets. This means host cities learning from each other. Indeed, it could well be that the Olympic spirit of international co-operation that is part of its core rhetoric may be achieved most fully behind the scenes as the hosts learn from each other.