After The Gold Rush

And so here we are, a week into the Olympics, and an interesting time it has been too. In the sports arenas there have  been golds and silvers and bronzes. There has been human endeavour of the highest kind, and the limits of some sports have been redrawn.

But elsewhere, things have been more interesting for what has not happened.

In the run-up to our bid for the 2012 Games, and fairly frequently ever since, the people of London have been hearing the word ‘legacy.’ The Olympics, we were told, would have a lasting effect on our lives. In the shorter term – and we’ve been hearing this more and more often since the recent economic woes really began to bite – we’ve been promised an economic boost to the Capital’s fortunes. An extra million visitors a day. A bonanza.

This, so far anyway, has not happened.

In fact, much that we expected has not happened. The Underground is not overwhelmed, the streets are not unbearably thronged. I haven’t seen any of the scenes of deserted streets and squares; the places I’ve been in London this week – Westminster and around and about Marble Arch – are still busy, but no more so than on any sunny day in the Summer. But there seems no doubt at all that trade is lighter than expected. In fact, trade at restaurants, hotels, theatres and other places is reported as 30% down. Which is a bit of a shocker.

Or is it? As Simon Jenkins says in this piece, numerous studies have shown that far from a boom, the Games always leave a slump in their host cities. The Legacy is already being spoken of as a vague, misty, rose-tinted future thing rather than something in a vibrant immediate Present. Which is not what we were sold.

Part of it is being laid at the door of the success of the Get Ahead Of The Games campaign. We were told to stay out of town, to work from home, stay off the Tube, stay off the roads. That we took this rather patronising advice and are now cast as part of the problem is somewhat irritating. Particularly as quite a chunk of our Council Tax has gone towards funding the Games.

I found myself slightly angered, though not entirely surprised, when the Olympics Minister, Hugh Robertson, told complaining traders that ‘they should have seen it coming’ and that there was ample time to plan. Well, yes, there was, and everyone has planned for an apocalypse of visitors, because that was what we were promised. If, after the Olympics, someone says, “Well, no, we didn’t mean that, you just misunderstood,” I may become somewhat grim.

None of the studies Simon Jenkins cites in his piece were ever mentioned in the long run-up to the Games, for obvious reasons. I suspect the short-term benefit was never uppermost in politicians’ minds anyway. I suspect they were more focused on the long-term investment which might result from demonstrating that we could put on a safe, secure and successful Olympics. In other words, we are actually demonstrating to the business world that we are competent. The average cabbie, the corner shop owner, the tour guide, may never see any benefit at all – indeed may see a loss of revenue – but at some point in the future someone might open a new car factory here. Not to be sniffed at, certainly, but not what we were promised and not the way we were promised it.

In some ways, this Summer has been a huge exercise in misdirection. Euro 2012, the Diamond Jubilee, the Olympics. There has been, to my mind at any rate, something of the bread-and-circuses about it, a bigging-up of Britain to hide the economic nightmare we face. The emotional and economic slump we face when the Games are over, after weeks of non-stop excitement, could be quite scary. The fact that the media have been getting increasingly frantic about our initial lack of gold medals may be an index of how scary it will be. But no matter how many golds we win, no matter how high up the medal table we climb, that kind of thing has a short half-life. Come September or October, we’ll have to look at ourselves again, and we’ll have to admit that nothing has changed, that the promises we were given were worthless. That will hurt.

Of course, the Olympic Family doesn’t really care about all this. In three weeks the caravanserai will load up its camels and set its face towards Rio four years hence. In many ways, for all that I admire the sporting excellence the Olympics brings, it reminds me most of an old-style Royal Progress, when the monarchs of England set out to tour their lands and a night’s stop-over with all their hangers-on could bankrupt the unfortunate castle-owner they decided to visit.

Similarly, the media will move on. There will always be something else to report on. The blanket coverage of the Games on the BBC will go into the archives and be forgotten, to be temporarily dusted down at the end of the year when Bradley Wiggins is crowned BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

Everyone will move on. We will not.

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2 thoughts on “After The Gold Rush

  1. This is why I was trying to warn you several years ago, when I joked about how Dallas dodged a bullet. The only locals who stand to make any money off the Olympics are the property owners whose land was purchased for the construction of the arenas. We went through that here when our mayor at the time started hyping Dallas’s bid: suddenly, every scrap of land on the south side of Dallas that might have been up for sale was snatched up, with the sole purpose of demanding even more when the Olympic Committee came through to set up locales. Today, a decade after we lost the bid, most of that land is still sitting undeveloped, because nobody is willing to pay the inflated prices paid for it during the dotcom boom.

    And if you want scary, also consider the costs of cleanup and maintenance of all of the new Olympic amenities after everyone goes home. Yahoo recently ran a pictorial of the Olympic facilities for the Beijing games in 2008, and most are rotting in the sun because they’re almost unusable for anything else. The Bird’s Nest arena still gets some use, but it’s still a drain on local resources to clean and maintain it. Most of the other event facilities, particularly water features and bike tracks, are simply abandoned. Sixteen years after the 1996 Olympics, the same is true of Atlanta’s facilities, and some individuals argue that Atlanta’s continued economic travails are aggravated by all of the crap put in for the ’96 Games that was somehow supposed to improve the city. Oh, it improved the city, if you define city as “developer greedheads who got the hell out of town as soon as they were finished.”

    If it helps, I sympathize with you, and I think you’re absolutely right about how everyone’s going to get hit with the reality in a few months. That’s what happened in Los Angeles in 1984 and in Atlanta in 1996. Get used to elected officials continuing to revise history on the economic benefits, too, because that’s also par for the course. We didn’t get the Olympics at all, and our former mayor Ron Kirk is still trying to claim that his efforts benefited Dallas. He usually shuts up, though, when everyone here points out that he resigned in a snit when we rated dead last in the available bids in order to take a dive in his campaign for the US Senate, and then went back to lobbying.

  2. Right now there’s a kind of euphoria, but I suspect that won’t last much beyond October as we come to realise just how big a con we’ve fallen for. Cameron and his cronies will put a spin on some of it and call other bits ‘disappointing’ and they’ll move on, and that will be it. It’s a wonder we’re not all stark raving mad.

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