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The circus left town. Where was the bread?

The circus left town. Where was the bread?

On the 10th anniversary of the 2012 Olympic’s opening ceremony, Paul Bickley reflects on whether the games lived up to the ‘legacy’ promised. 27/07/20

Today (27 July) marks the 10–year anniversary of the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. It was a marvel of mythopoeia, a fire most Brits could gather round to warm their hands and hearts.  

The wonder of the opening night shouldn’t distract us from reflecting on the ‘legacy’ of those games – since ‘legacy’ was indeed the main justification for the roughly £9 billion bill. These ‘mega–events’, which take years to organise, billions of dollars to run, and last a few short weeks, are the canvas on which politicians attempt to paint a picture of a nation [throwing off an unhappy past] [thriving economically] [celebrating diversity] [hurtling into the future brimming with self–confidence]. Fill in your blank, Qatar. 

The question is, is the picture a convincing likeness? Once the colour and verve of the event itself recedes, is there any substance to all the style? Decaying stadia and unused facilities often tell the opposite story to the one intended: all circus and no bread. There is little evidence that mega–events in themselves provide much public benefit. Meanwhile, the sport–loving public are generally looking at what is happening on the pitch not at the gilded hospitality boxes, assured by the vague suggestion of economic and social benefit. 

The London games themselves were well executed (though we tend to forget the low points, like G4S’s failure to deliver on their security contract). As a sporting and civic national occasion, it was a wonderful – even joyful – two weeks. In terms of infrastructure, then at least the London Games offered some inheritance of useable facilities and the development of the Olympic Park in East London. But this comes at an ongoing cost – the chaotic bidding process for the London Stadium eventually left it in public hands, and only rented for home games by West Ham United (it is said at a rate that doesn’t even cover costs). The stadium’s considerable losses are subsidised by London taxpayers. A promised 9,000 homes on the Olympic Park never arrived and never will; of the 1,200 that have, only 200 are classed as affordable.  

And the famous ‘Singapore promise’ to inspire a generation to greater engagement in sport and physical activity has amounted to not a lot – participation rates remain stubbornly stable, if not slightly declining. That’s not to say the Olympics were a ‘bad thing’; just that the games themselves could never reverse deep trends in society which encourage us to be less and less active. Why would the spectacle of Mo Farah’s 10,000m final, glorious though the victory was, help physically inactive older women in deprived northern towns overcome barriers to engaging even in low levels of exercise? Sport participation levels correlate strongly with wealth. Conversely, obesity rates in the UK correlate with deprivation. The only mystery is why anyone bought the line those two weeks of elite sport, no matter how compelling, could counteract the hard realities of poverty and barriers to participation. 

Why is it that countries are so desperate to host such mega–events, in spite of their consistent failure to deliver their anticipated benefit? In our 2012 report, Give Us Our Ball Back, we argued that sport is misunderstood and misused. Its affective power is mistaken for effective power. People ‘love’ sport – and many decision makers ‘love’ sport too. Excited by the prospect of a large festival of sport, that they imagine that, as if by some sporting magic, it will do all sorts of things that it can’t. Sport remains stubbornly ‘autotelic’ – about itself, and not about other things. As the cultural critic Christopher Lasch once argued, this is a degradation of sport. Profit, patriotism, public health, even virtue; sport may give rise to these things in abundance – Lasch argued – but only capriciously. If we approach the game with that in mind, making it a means to an end, we risk losing “its peculiar capacity to transport both participant and spectator beyond everyday experience”. 

What made the difference in East London, such as it is, was not sport, but significant levels of public investment and ongoing subsidy. Even here, there are serious questions about the equity of the outcomes. The Commonwealth Games begin this week, and no doubt they will be a wonderful festival of sport and a good thing overall for Birmingham, but we should temper our ‘love for the game’ with a healthy scepticism of the inflated promises of health and wealth that accompany such events. 

And there are, of course, less honourable ‘uses’ of sport than as a means of channelling public investment. Remember when Russia invaded Ukraine? No, not 2022, but 2014. Barely had the closing ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics ended (the tournament itself tainted by accusations of a Russian state–sponsored doping programme) when the host country annexed Crimea. Four years later the world trouped back to Russia for the 2018 football World Cup, the rights of which to host were awarded corruptly by Sepp Blatter’s disgraceful FIFA kleptocracy. This sports–washing is done in full view. No matter how much we love a game of football, or golf, or an F1 race, we should not be blind to the fact that sport can be a poor ally – sometimes even an enemy – in the cause of social justice. 

Back to the 2012 opening ceremony. For me, the most impressive moment was Akram Khan’s dance, accompanied by Emeli Sandé’s rendition of Abide With Me. In stark contrast to the rest of Danny Boyle’s confident, colourful and humorous exploration of Britishness, and to the International Olympic Committee’s quasi–religious fruitcakery, Boyle had given Khan a one word brief: mortality. When I watched the sequence that night, I cried like a stereotypical northerner at a rugby league final. It was a sober moment – and a ‘prophetic’ one. There are things that are more important than sport. For sport to be what it should be, it should be relegated – or perhaps elevated – from the realm of policy, and returned firmly in the realm of play.


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Image by sh ahn from Pixabay 

Paul Bickley

Paul Bickley

Paul is Head of Political Engagement at Theos. His background is in Parliament and public affairs, and he holds an MLitt from the University of St Andrews’ School of Divinity.

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Posted 27 July 2022

Olympics, Sport


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