Olympics legacy - London 2012

London 2012 Olympics: the game's afoot and there's all to play for

We revisit this article from our archive to see if the forecast for the 2012 London Olympics is still looking as good in 2008 as it did in the afterglow of the Athens Olympics...

When IOC President Jacques Rogge’s lips framed the magic word ‘London’ on 6 July I reached for my handkerchief and took a long hard look at the two teenagers sharing with me the televised excitement from Singapore. Both are athletes with a better-than-outside chance of competing in London in 2012 and both happen to be coached by me. But what does the success of the Olympic bid really mean for them, their contemporaries and their successors? Tom McNab looks ahead.

Seb Coe and his team have done a terrific job, and the back-slapping is richly deserved, but at this point it is worth analysing some of the potential implications of being a host nation: will those implications be beneficial or not?

Most Olympic bids are drenched in buzzwords, words like ‘partnership’, ‘inclusion’, ‘equality’. Sometimes these words have some reality; too often they have already died of overuse.

Our 2012 Olympic bid settled on the word ‘legacy’, defined in the Collins English Dictionary as ‘something handed down by an ancestor or predecessor’. In essence, therefore, we are looking at what is left behind when the Olympic circus leaves town.

Let’s start with a brief survey of previous Olympics: what were the legacies conferred on Montreal (1976), Moscow (1980), Los Angeles (1984), Seoul (1988), Barcelona (1992), Atlanta (1996), Sydney (2000) and Athens (2004)?

The first myth to be quashed (and this embraces all of the above Games) is that an Olympics invariably increases levels of participation. This has not happened, to my knowledge, to any of the above host nations. But, as I will attempt to explain, London could well be the first in modern times to buck this depressing trend.

As British team coach in Montreal 29 years ago, I remember looking to the far end of the Olympic stadium, to where a massive tower was meant to stand. It was not built. That tower still lies rusting in a Paris warehouse; and the good burghers of Montreal are even now making the final payments for what was the first Olympics to suffer a boycott. But after taking 11 medals (none gold) in Montreal, Canada averaged 16 medals per games until 2004 – so it could be said to have secured a sporting legacy of sorts.

Little purpose is served in attempting to analyse the legacy to the USSR of the 1980 Olympics, since no statistics are available. Los Angeles 1984 is, however, quite a different matter. Peter Ueberroth, the leader of the Los Angeles Olympic team, started with nothing (in his book Made in America he describes arriving for the first day of work at his tiny office, to find it firmly padlocked) but quickly located an essential truth which was to drive all his actions: though past Olympics had invariably made a profit on ticket sales, they had always ended up in the red, mainly as a result of the cost of facilities.

Ueberroth immediately resolved this issue by passing the capital costs to major sponsors such as McDonalds and Coca-Cola, who agreed to bequeathe the facilities to the Los Angeles city authorities. For the main Olympic arena, he deployed the existing football stadium (which had also hosted the 1932 Games), which reverted to its previous use after the Games. As a result, the LA Olympics produced a $214 million profit. Part of this went to local youth programmes, but the bulk of it went to the United States Olympic Committee, to be deployed to the advantage of the American Olympics movement to the present day.

For all its Olympic success, for all that it has led Olympic medals tables in almost every Olympics since 1896, the United States is not essentially an ‘Olympic nation’. By that I mean its lack of any central government involvement in its sports systems leaves it dependent on a rich genetic pool and competitive high school and university environments. It is therefore no surprise that there is no evidence that the 1984 or 1996 Games had any significant impact upon its medals totals; indeed, in the 1988 – 2000 period, it dropped from 113 (Seoul) to 103 (Athens).

The 1988 Seoul Olympics made an even greater profit of $288 million. South Korea’s medal total in Los Angeles had been 19; in Seoul, it moved up to 33 and averaged 28 into Athens 2004. There is therefore little doubt that the Seoul Olympics were successful on almost every count, including trade and tourism for this previously isolated country, though there is no information available on the post-Olympics viability of facilities.

Barcelona, too, was a success at almost every level. Spain secured more medals (22) than it had achieved in all previous Olympics put together. It went on to average 14 in the next two Olympics. Barcelona as a city was transformed and Spain’s trade and tourism boomed.

The 1996 Atlanta Olympics was, by general consent, the weakest Games of recent times. More commercial even than LA in 1984, it was a games to forget and the word ‘legacy’ is surely inappropriate.

In contrast, Sydney 2000 was undoubtedly the most successful Games of the modern era. Australia’s medal total went up from 41 to 58, and stayed beyond its pre-Sydney level at Athens with 49 medals. One intangible element in the Olympic equation is the image of a nation, the way in which it is perceived by the rest of the world. There is no doubt at all that the image of Australia was massively enhanced by the Sydney Games.

The same can probably be said of Athens last year: the hosts’ preparations may have taken it to the wire, but they nevertheless produced a magnificent Olympics. Greece’s average medal count in the previous three Games had been just under eight; it doubled that total in Athens. Where Greece is clearly having major problems is in the post-Games utilisation of Olympic facilities, and the revenue implications will undoubtedly go on for many years.

So, when we look back over a 30-year period, we see that most, if not all, nations appear to lift their subsequent Olympic medals totals beyond previous averages, almost certainly because systems are put in place in the seven years between awarding and holding the Olympics – and these then endure beyond the Games themselves. The notable exceptions are the USSR where rigorous, government-driven systems were already in place; and the USA with no governmental systems at all but rather a virile high school/university structure.

No demand without supply

Facilities are a variable, with strong negatives in Montreal, Athens and Sydney, and an equally strong positive in Los Angeles. Additionally, only Los Angeles appears to have invested its profits in local and Olympic sports programmes.

The only one true certainty, in terms of legacy, is the lack of any increase in participation levels. Closer to home, it is worth noting that UK athletics clubs received no subsequent lift in membership after the Manchester Commonwealth Games (though track cycling in the Manchester area did, of which more later.) So why do I believe this could be London’s true legacy achievement, that Britain can break the mould?

One reason is that we already have our PESSCL (Physical Education School Sport Club Links) programme, an agency which can feed off the enthusiasm for the 2012 Olympics.

This and other government-driven programmes suggest that the mechanisms are already in place to reap the rewards of the London Olympics.

For it is in the seven years between now and London 2012 that PESSCL and other nationally funded programmes can increase club membership. At this point, it is worth mentioning Say’s Law, enunciated by the French economist Jean-Baptiste Say: ‘There can be no demand without supply’. At one level, this particularly relates to track and field athletics, where the delivery of coaching services at club level has seen no radical change in the past half-century. Unless there is substantial change in the quality of club coaching services, there is no prospect of any long-term rise in club membership. But Say’s Law also highlights the link between facilities and participation.

There is no doubt that, even if we discount for the moment the wider impact on the economy and environment of east London, there should be be a positive facility legacy for sport, if only because we start from a poor base (this was one of the London bid team’s telling anti-Paris blows). The Olympic stadium will be downsized to a 25,000-seater athletics facility which will also provide a centre of excellence for the sport, and London will have another 50-metre swimming pool, again a focal training area. The Olympic velodrome will be a magnet for young people wishing to express themselves on a cycle track.

It may be difficult to conceive now, when surveying a sodden field in Broxbourne in the Lee Valley, that in a couple of years it will be transformed into an Olympic slalom canoe course. What is less difficult to imagine is that, at a time when many of our youngsters are looking outside conventional sports towards more ‘extreme’ activities, Broxbourne will be packed with young people eager to engage in slalom canoeing.

In addition to the permanent, built legacy, there are also the ‘flat pack’ facilities, swimming pools and sports halls which will be dismantled, winched from east London and deployed in other parts of the country.

So London 2012 will, in the next few years, produce a substantial increase in our stock of facilities. This capital plan will have to be implemented quickly if it is to impact on British performances in 2012, but it will also have to be done with care, with a concern for sustainability. That being said, we can surely afford it: we currently spend just £22 per citizen per year on sport – one sixth of the per capita sport spend in France.

Investment only part of the story

Sebastian Coe has made it clear that it is essential that we do well on home turf and at this point it is therefore worth taking a look at our chances in 2012. The first thing to say is that seven years is not a long time in sport. In some ways, sport is like our railway system or our health service (NHS), where we have witnessed under-investment for half a century. So it is not simply a matter of pressing a button to improve it.

The railway system is primarily a capital issue, in that line and stock have need of investment. The NHS, on the other hand, though also requiring capital investment, poses additional problems of structure and culture. The organisational culture, in particular, has proven much more difficult for governments to change than the building issues.

Thus it is with sport. Some sports (rowing, cycling and sailing provide good examples) have already shown that they can compete at world level. It is worth looking at each sport, if only to provide lessons for our other sports towards 2012.

Prior to Lottery funding in 1995, rowing, under Jurgen Grobler, was already a successful sport. Lottery money has enhanced programmes which were already strong, if inadequately funded.

Cycling is a horse of entirely different colour. British track cycling had no profile before the construction of the velodrome for the Manchester Commonwealth Games. Under its performance director, Mike Keen, it mobilised with surprising speed. Working from a small genetic pool, it brought its best to Manchester, and working under world-class coaches and with good support in nontechnical areas, it has produced world-class performers.

It could be said that rowing and cycling have much in common, in that they have a small number of disciplines and are strongly physiological in nature. Not so with my final example, sailing. Though it has a small number of disciplines, it is an exceedingly complex sport. Yet British sailing leads the world, driven by the same quality of professional thinking as cycling and rowing.

Track and field in decline

Central to the way our nation (and indeed the world) will view Olympic success in 2012 will lie our performance in track and field athletics. Here the omens are far from good. In last year’s World Junior Championships, we came away without a single medal, while the results in this year’s senior World Championships were little better. Look at the number of points secured last year in the world junior rankings, and you see that it is around one- tenth of the points secured eight years ago when the new governing body, UK Athletics (UKA), was formed. The pool of athletes from which our potential 2012 medallists will be drawn is already well known to us and will be drawn from this very group on the junior rankings.

Yet, surprisingly, this decline takes place against a backdrop of largely static performances at world level. If you exclude the African-led distance events and developing women’s events like pole vault and steeplechase, athletics is probably unique among sports in that performers from the past (eg Mary Rand with her 6.76m long jump from 1964) could come back and challenge for Olympic medals. And at the British level, a whole host of athletes from 30 years ago would make the present British team with ease. This would be impossible in sports like swimming and rowing.

It is only fair to say that many of Britain’s athletics problems pre-date the creation of UKA and relate to an under-investment shared with other sports. Against this, we now have indoor facilities which are huge improvements on what we had even a decade ago. We have outstanding sports medicine and sports science support, and massive direct financial support to athletes.

The missing link is coaching, for coaching at club level is little different from – and in many ways worse than – the system I encountered 40 years ago when I first became a national coach. At the top level, there is a patina of paid coaches – and then a black hole: it is a bizarre fact that local volunteers are expected to use their own time and money to deliver the world-class athletes whose results ultimately determine whether the governing body retains its funding.

Athletics was probably unique in its funding proposals for its ‘Start’ and ‘Potential’ athletes, in that it budgeted for the fees of support staff – eg physiotherapists and nutritionists – but not for its coaches, even for their basic expenses. This meant that those peripheral to performance were paid but those central to it were ignored. This has led to huge gaps opening up between UKA and its leading coaches. So also has the breaking of the umbilical cord linking professional coaches with the education and development of their colleagues. Thus in eight years, not a single coaching book of any substance has been published by the athletics governing body.

So what can be done? In the short term, it is essential that we do not continue to have performance by postcode, by having potentially world-class athletes indefinitely dependent on the first person with whom they make contact within their sport. This will mean linking such novice coaches with others of substantial experience; it may also mean taking temporarily unpopular steps such as advising athletes to move to other coaches and clubs than the ones they started with.

This is the short term. There has been all manner of talk about bringing in ‘super’ coaches from abroad, though it is far from clear who these would be. Our aim must be to professionalise athletics coaching, to create a new generation of well-trained coaches. Time is short, but it can be done.

Other Olympic benefits

Are their other potential legacies 2012 can deliver to us? I can identify three. First, Tessa Jowell in her role as minster for culture, media and sport, has said that since being host in 2012 will permit us to compete in all sports, regardless of our standards, that we should do so. This means that sports like handball, volleyball and water polo will have to be brought up to speed: good news for them and other minority sports.

Second, the Paralympics where we are already a world leader. We finished second (94 medals) behind China (141 medals) in Athens in 2004. I believe that we can go to the top of the medals table in 2012 and in the process transform not only paralympic sport in our country but also deeply rooted attitudes to the disabled.

The final legacy lies in the volunteer movement. We need 80,000 Olympic volunteers; already 60,000 have applied. Our aim should be to start deploying as many as possible of these 60,000 in sport prior to the 2012 Olympics, giving them priority as Olympic volunteers. This will have a massive impact on British sport, bringing to it considerable levels of expertise outside the narrow channels of technical knowledge.

So it is truly legacy, legacy, legacy. The success of the 2012 bid has already begun to transform British sport and some of the legacy will, in effect, be delivered before the opening ceremony.

Tom McNab is a former UK national athletics coach. He is now a freelance coach and writer. One of the teenaged charges he refers to above is Greg Rutherford, ranked no1 in the world at long jump in the under-20 age group

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