When the Games are over: What can Birmingham learn from the legacy of London 2012?

Tuesday 16 August 2022

Written by Caio Mello | 11 Aug 2022
The 2022 Commonwealth Games, which ended on Monday (8 August), marks the 10th anniversary of another international sporting event hosted in the UK: the 2012 Summer Olympics. As Birmingham prepares to return to normal, and hopefully build on the legacy of the Games, what lessons can be learned from the London experience a decade earlier?

The 2022 Commonwealth Games, which ended on Monday 8 August, marks the 10th anniversary of another international sporting event hosted in the UK: the 2012 Summer Olympics. As Birmingham prepares to return to normal, and hopefully build on the legacy of the Games, what lessons can be learned from the London experience a decade earlier?

Over the last few years, hosting major sporting events has become impracticable for many cities, with the number of bids for the Olympics reducing significantly. While for the 2004 Summer Games eleven cities competed to host, in 2024, from the five initial candidates, only Paris and Los Angeles maintained their applications until the end. Facing such challenges to find hosts, the IOC decided on this occasion to award Paris the 2024 Olympic Games and Los Angeles the subsequent Games in 2028.

Giving up on bidding to host these events follows the past examples of post-Olympics economical struggle of cities like Athens and Rio, as well as the failure of key legacy promises, such as London’s plan of increasing participation of young people in sporting activities. The benefits of having the event as a development catalyst, due to the unique opportunity of quickly raising huge public funds, are often overshadowed by the political negligence of the needs of local communities. An example is the regeneration - or gentrification - plan for East-London and the promise of ‘affordable’ housing being followed by prices doubling in the last 10 years in places like Waltham Forest.

Another component that cannot be ignored in the equation is the political interest behind hosting these events. A tweet(Opens in new window) from Boris Johnson in 2019 defending the UK as host of the 2030 FIFA World Cup illustrates how political figures appropriate the magical atmosphere of these events to gain support for their political agenda. ‘I want it to show our national confidence as we get Brexit done’, wrote Johnson, shedding light on the importance of sporting events to gather people together - as a team - around a common objective, which is particularly useful on controversial topics.

For cities aiming to host the Games, there are a diversity of motivations at play. For Beijing, the event was an opportunity to communicate the years of economic development achieved in the decades before 2008. London has dedicated a significant part of its legacy plan to targeting global audiences. This is evidenced by the promise to demonstrate the UK as a ‘welcoming place to live in, visit and for business’ and the International Inspiration Programme aimed to ‘inspire’ people around the world to choose sport. Ahead of Brexit, the construction of an image of welcome was strongly undermined, and the investments in ‘inspiring’ people in different countries received less attention than, for example, the destiny of the Olympic Stadium after the Games, followed by the controversy over whether it should be handed over to a football club or remain as an athletics venue. The subsequent two Summer Olympics have been marked by crisis, with Rio’s great debts and Tokyo having to manage a global event in unprecedented circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

What cannot be ignored, though, is the capacity of these kinds of events to promote joy and a feeling of belonging to citizens in host cities. Studies(Opens in new window) have shown the positive effects of the London Olympics in the life satisfaction and happiness of Londoners. The special atmosphere of the Games was compared to the effect of a drug by Suzanne Moore in A Utopian Moment of Beauty and Becoming. What has also been proved in the same study, however, is that these effects do not last long. The challenges are then in providing the city's residents with a legacy that remains once the euphoria cools down. 

Nevertheless, the success of a long lasting legacy relies on well informed public policy planning - which seems to be the Achilles' heel of host cities. London, for example, highlighted the importance of using the Olympics to inspire young people to play sports as participation was decreasing in the years before the event, according to Jeremy Hunt. Studies(Opens in new window), however, have shown that both assumptions - that the number of young people playing sports was dropping and that the Olympics would promote more participation - were unfounded.

While England’s second place in Birmingham’s medal table and Team GB’s fourth place in Tokyo are reasons for the country to be proud of their athletes, for cities to keep hosting these events, challenges regarding the planning and communication of ‘legacy’ must be addressed. It is still too early to evaluate Birmingham but it is safe to say that major improvements were made in its updated legacy plan released this summer in comparison to London’s publication. The document, that according to the event’s website is a result of the lessons learned from London’s experience, describes in detail where investments were made across its five main pillars: bringing people together, improving health and well-being, helping the region to grow and succeed, being a catalyst for change, and putting the West Midlands on the global stage.

Hopefully, the most important legacy these events will leave behind is the knowledge produced as a result of previous experiences, especially with regard to efficiently communicating plans and deliverables. This will ensure the future possibility of cities to not only be proud of hosting major sporting events but also successfully deliver a concrete and lasting legacy.

Caio Mello is Doctoral Researcher in the Digital Humanities Research Hub at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.