Imagine an old country with a sure grasp of its values and history that takes on new challenges and gets big things done. It is proud of its capital city, which opens its doors to the world. Its politicians quarrel, but on some major matters they can rise above their differences in pursuit of a common cause. The people buy in to the consensus, various though they are in outlook and ways of life. That old country might sound familiar. After all, 10 years ago, you lived there.
Looking back to the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games can skew perspective and induce amnesia. It can make you forget that not every fellow Briton saw Super Saturday, 4th August 2012, when Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis and Greg Rutherford won gold medals in the Olympic Stadium in the space of 44 minutes, as symbolising a nation that could embrace its cosmopolitanism as readily as it could applaud the Queen declaring the Games open at Danny Boyle’s warm and witty opening ceremony. As would soon become apparent, different ideas about Britain’s essence and destiny were around at that time too.
But think about what had to be done for London to become host city in the first place, and what it took to convert a backyard chunk of it—bigger than Hyde Park—into an Olympic Park that would not only provide the main setting for the Games themselves but also a lasting whole new piece of the capital.
A credible London bid for 2012 could not have been made without two things: a city-wide governance body able to make a vivid case, and a national government endorsing it and providing financial guarantees.
Britain, one of the most debilitatingly centralised advanced democracies, had restored autonomous powers to the capital in the form of the Greater London Authority, headed by a directly-elected mayor. Victorious as an Independent in May 2000, the hard-left Ken Livingstone was the last person the New Labour government of Tony Blair had wanted to win. Yet thanks to the bridge-building skills of Blairite minister Tessa Jowell and with the British Olympic Association in support, Blair and his cabinet came on board.
Old differences were set aside. Plans were made for the transformation of east London’s Lower Lea Valley. And when the bid was won on 6th July 2005 in Singapore—to celebrations including Livingstone and Princess Anne dancing together at a quayside party—those plans were put into effect against an immoveable deadline.
Britain had a poor reputation for delivering large infrastructure schemes. Researching my book, Olympic Park: When Britain Built Something Big, I unearthed earnest discussions about whether London’s public transport network would cope if Crossrail wasn’t ready in time.
The government stumped up £8bn—the bulk of the overall £9.3bn Olympic budget—for the construction task ahead. This included “undergrounding” power cables that bestrode the valley on giant pylons—a huge engineering project in its own right—and allowed talented people, including Olympic Delivery Authority chief executive David Higgins and regeneration and design specialist Alison Nimmo, to get on with the job.
Unlike Olympics in other countries, Britain’s was marked by political continuity—first from May 2008, when Boris Johnson succeeded Livingstone as London Mayor, and then after the election of the Conservative-led coalition in 2010—and by starting dedicated legacy planning for the park, under the initial leadership of Margaret Ford, well before the Games took place. The immoveable deadline was met and, despite the Great Financial Crisis, the budget was underspent.
Has the Games legacy delivered? Have bid promises been kept? Big regeneration schemes involve destruction and inconvenience, and they produce complex, often subjective, balance sheets of winners and losers. Arguments continue. The expensively converted main stadium, now the home of West Ham United, requires a large public subsidy. The affordability of the park’s housing, though set to increase thanks to London’s current mayor, Sadiq Khan, is questioned.
Yet London’s Games legacy has defeated every other host city’s hands down. The Park’s Velodrome, Aquatics Centre and multi-sport Copper Box are used by the public, the former athletes’ village has normal mortals living there, and the Games-time media centre buildings have become the tech campus Here East. Rising from park ground, an education and culture hub called East Bank to rival South Kensington’s “Albertopolis” is taking shape, with University College London, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Sadler’s Walls, the London College of Fashion and the BBC all moving in.
There is so much to applaud. And yet it feels as though London 2012 and the Britain it represented has fallen victim to both the miserablism of the left and the Brexitism of the right. From concept to execution to still-unfolding legacy, it speaks of a Britain that got it right yet often feels as if no longer exists. And that is a matter for regret.
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