Sporting Legacy part two: The Olympic Games

Following on from part one in the series, which looked at the lasting legacy of the FIFA World Cup, part two will now explore the phenomenon of the Summer Olympics and its lasting effect.

“Creating sustainable legacies is a fundamental commitment of the Olympic movement. Every city that hosts the Olympic Games becomes a temporary steward of the movement. Each host city creates a unique set of environmental social and economic legacies that can change a community, a region and a nation forever” – Jacques Rogge, IOC president.

Much like the FIFA World Cup, the Olympic Games has the power to deliver lasting benefits which can considerably change a community, its image and its infrastructure. As one of the world’s largest sporting events, the Games can be a tremendous catalyst for change in a host city with the potential to create far more than just good memories beyond the final medals being awarded. Every time an Olympic Games rolls into town, the positive Olympic messages and values are promoted around the world, and even gives undeveloped countries the chance to compete in the global event. The beauty of the Games ranges from the glory of Usain Bolt in the iconic 100m sprint, to the previously unknown fan favourite in the swimming. Who can forget Eric Moussambani, better known as Eric the Eel, at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, setting a new personal best and an Equatorial Quinea national record in the 100m freestyle? Famously winning his heat because his two competitors false-started, Eric the Eel learned to swim in a lake and only took up the sport just 8 months prior to the Games – he had never seen a 50m Olympic size swimming pool before he arrived at the event.

The Olympic Juggernaut

Much like the FIFA World Cup, and other major sporting events, often new facilities need to be built, which can and should be used extensively for sport once the Games have finished – delivering a lasting legacy. Organisers do, however, need to ensure that the venues are functional, sustainable and adequately scoped for legacy use. In addition to new and upgraded venues and facilities, the interest generated by hosting the Olympic Games presents the host city with a unique opportunity to increase the popularity and uptake of sport across the entire host country.

There are many perceived benefits for host cities, such as an interest in economic activity and production. In the case of Sydney, the 2000 Olympic Games created over 100,000 new jobs and boosted the number of tourists by approximately 1.6 million per year. An Oxford Economics study commissioned by the Lloyds banking group estimates that the London 2012 Games  will generate GBP 16.5 billion for the British economy from 2005 to 2017, factoring in pre-Games construction and other early Games-related economic activity. However, much like the FIFA World Cup, quite often the cost of hosting spirals out of control and even cripples the economy. The Sydney Games is a prime example of this, with their budget tripling to about A$6bn before a medal was won. The end result of the games was a massive USD $2.1 billion loss.

Staging the Olympic Games can be a defining moment in a city’s, and a country’s, history, providing a unique opportunity to initiate long-lasting, positive changes. There are definitely examples of positive legacies that have been left in host cities, which is a testament to the power of the Games – both as a sporting event and as a catalyst for development – but additionally there are examples where the legacy is non-existent.  In the next section I will examine a selection of Games, starting with the most recent in London, 2012.

London 2012

Tower Bridge London Olympics 2012

Since the Games finished in the UK, the Government has unveiled an updated Legacy Plan. Key points include:

  • funding for elite sport until Rio 2016;
  • investment to turn the Olympic site into theQueen Elizabeth Olympic Park;
  • 20 major sporting events to UK by 2019, with more bids in progress;
  • £1bn investment over the next five years in the Youth Sport Strategy, linking schools with sports clubs and encouraging sporting habits for life;
  • introduction of the School Games programme to boost schools sport and county sport festivals;
  • continued funding for International Inspiration, the UK’s international sports development programme, to 2014.

Clearly, the lasting legacy is an important part of what the Games was targeting. Having been to the Olympic Park a few times since the end of the Games, I have to say they have done a great job with the facilities there – the swimming pool is open to the public, the Velodrome (where so many medals were won) can now be cycling on and has hosted numerous events, such as the UCI Cycling World Cup, and the park itself is a busy hub of bustling visitors, ideally placed next to the huge Westfield shopping centre. Additionally, the costly but amazing Olympic Stadium is to become an impressive football stadium – not ideal, but at least the venue is being used for sport.

More worryingly is the recent Sport England’s Active People survey that showed that the number of people participating in sport in the UK has dropped over the last 12 months. The fall in numbers, particularly in swimming and female participation, is an indication that, perhaps, the London legacy is failing in that aspect. However, the Games has certainly inspired a new generation of cycling in the UK, whilst other sports such as tennis, athletics and rugby have improved.

On the Sport England survey, shadow sports minister, Clive Efford, said, “It’s clear we need a thorough review of how we’re driving participation.” Closing the gap of women playing sport compared to men was a key area of focus, but the latest figures show disappointing results. Sport England’s fantastic new campaign, This Girl Can, is designed to combat this gender gap, shift attitudes and improve participation in sport and exercise for women.

London 2012 was and is widely regarded as a huge success but, given the latest figures, more can still be done. London certainly benefitted, but has the legacy made a positive impact on the rest of the UK? Arguably not.

Athens 2004

The Athens Olympics in 2004 was seen as the homecoming of the Games. Now, over ten years later, the impressive sports venues are abandoned, unused and crumbling. A sad state of affairs for a project that went over-budget at a cost of approximately £9.4bn.

The biggest mistake was perhaps in the building of the facilities: the venues built were permanent, rather than collapsible (perhaps a solution for future hosts). When the financial crisis hit shortly after the Games, the venues swiftly became unsustainable. As modern day Greece feels the strain of the economic crisis, major question marks surely go back to whether Greece were far too ambitious in taking on such a prestigious event with such a weak economy. Whilst the Games can’t be blamed for Greece’s financial issues, the cost of hosting and missed opportunities post-Games is a stark message to other host nations.

So whilst the glory of the Games may have returned to Greece for the short spell whilst it was ongoing, the lasting legacy is clearly a disaster for Athens. Disused, abandoned and costly venues merely served as a financial drain, rather than an inspiration for youngsters to take up sport and a tourist attraction.

In this Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014 photo the abandoned …

The abandoned canoe/kayak venue is seen above at the former Helliniko Olympic Complex.

Atlanta 1996

In my opinion, Atlanta got it right when hosting the Games. When the Games ended they had no crippling debts due to sponsorship money, and the Olympic Stadium was designed with its future home becoming the Atlanta Braves baseball team in mind. The facilities built have all been used for positive change, and are a good example for other nations.

Barcelona 1992

Barcelona are perhaps the benchmark for all future Games. Hosting is credited with completely rebranding the city into one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe. As part of the regeneration project, the Olympic Village also included two miles of beach being installed, attracting flocks of people and restaurants.

That was one small part of the regeneration however. As well as the Village and beach, a new port was built and a number of venues were constructed that are now immensely popular attractions. In short, the Games completely revolutionised the city’s image.

Rafael Nadal

Perhaps, for Vivi Nation, the most important legacy the Barcelona Olympic Games left behind was the impact it had on sport – one we hope will eventually have the same effect on British sport! Whilst not directly responsible, the Games have inspired a generation of talent that has resulted in a golden era for Spanish sport. Since the Games, Rafael Nadal became the number 1 tennis player, Carlos Sastre won the Tour de France in cycling, the national football team are arguably the best we have ever seen and have won the World Cup and European Championships, and Spanish basketball continues to grow as more Spaniards move to the NBA. If the Games didn’t directly inspire these athletes, then they certainly played a part in providing the infrastructure that has enabled them to become the best in their sport. Aside from the national team in football, Barcelona FC are now the superstars of World football and, of course, home to perhaps the best player we have ever seen: Lionel Messi.

Spanish sportswriter, Juan Jose Paradinas, speaks in 2012: “The Barcelona Olympics unleashed a torrent of money from both the government and private sources to build sports facilities all over the country and support sports which had not previously had support in Spain. By the end of the decade, we saw the results. Now Spanish sports make money. Real Madrid may be the most profitable football [soccer] club in the world.”

So whilst the London Olympics was incredibly expensive (107% over budget at $13 billion, one study says), I, for one, would be forever grateful if it helps produce a World Cup winning England football team, or a new generation of Ashes winning cricket players!

Olympics and participation in sport

London’s vision is to reach young people all around the world. To connect them with the inspirational power of the Games. So they are inspired to choose sport.” – Lord Sebastian Coe.

Whilst the Barcelona Games helped inspire a golden era in Spanish sport, numerous studies show that the Games fail in achieving their targets when it comes to participation in sport. The potential of the Olympic Games is enormous, perhaps more so than anything else given its values, but it is failing more often than not when it comes to encouraging take-up in sport.

Tracking change: leisure participation and policy in Australia, 1985-2002‘ was published in 2003 and analysed several years of Australia’s national leisure participation survey. The results found that since the Sydney Games, 7 Olympic sports had seen slight increases, however 9 had seen decline.

A lasting Legacy for London?, published by the London Assembly, also analysed past Olympics’ legacies and for Athens, in particular, they found that a year before the Games began, 6% more people participated in sport than the previous year. Worryingly by 2009 this had fallen by 13%, below the levels before tournament began.

Key to all Olympics should be how they Games will inspire, educate and provide the basis for children to take up a range of sports – promoting a healthy lifestyle. While some sports excel in this task, as a whole, Olympic sports can definitely still improve – the latest Sport England figures summarise this.


So having looked at a few of the more recent Olympic Games, the big question remains – is hosting it worthwhile? At one end of the spectrum is Athens, whilst at the other is Barcelona – a Games that all host nations should aspire to.

Whether or not the Games evidently increased participation in sport is a debate that is ongoing. It is clear that the sporting legacy of Athens failed, but for Olympics such as London, participation in sport has certainly increased in some sports, such as cycling, but faltered in others.

What became clear to me when researching this article was the importance of getting the facilities right. Too many Olympics venues, and it’s the same for the FIFA World Cup, get built and are then not used, abandoned or turned into something else – meaning a massive waste of time and money. The best Olympics need to regenerate the city to inspire children to take up sport, as well as provide them with the facilities to do so. Barcelona is the perfect example of what can be, Athens the perfect example of the poisoned chalice that can be. When it comes to host city selection, the Olympics committee needs to take responsibility when deciding if a city can successfully host the event, if it is logical for that city to host the event, and if the lasting benefits make hosting the event worthwhile.


Chris Smith
Founder of Vivi Nation, sports enthusiast, occasional triathlete, keen cyclist and optimistic Liverpool FC fan.

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