In the wake of the news that 2020’s Tokyo Olympics have been postponed for a year, Tom Hall investigates the legacy of 2012’s London Games. What has the government done to keep its message alive, and promote the UK’s brand?
With so many ‘White Elephant’ sites still lying dormant after major events came and went, the 2012 Olympic Games was among the first to champion legacy as part of its initial proposition.
Indeed, among the heirlooms of the 2012 Games was a commitment to put events front and centre. Peter Tudor, director of visitor services, London Legacy Development Corporation, took Access on a tour of the rejuvenated Park, detailing the site’s achievements to date, and those to look forward to.
After the phenomenal success of Britain’s athletes in 2012, it’s easy to forget the scepticism that foreshadowed the Games, when everything from the logo to the spiralling costs were under intense scrutiny. There were also concerns about the long-term viability of the Olympic Park, and how it would serve the country after the last competitor had left the Athletes Village.
The beginnings of a wave of optimism we first registered after the spectacular inaugural event, says Tudor: “Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony burst the national cynicism, and was a great advert for the brilliance of the UK event industry. For local people, the fence had gone up for construction and stayed up during the Olympics and Paralympics as our athletes enjoyed phenomenal success. But, our job at London Legacy Development Corporation was to handle what happened after the fence came down. We knew we didn’t want to build something like Docklands that the local people had no connection to.”
The transformation after the Games saw a further £272m injected into a Games that cost an estimated £9.3bn. The project would involve transforming the site’s venues for legacy use and ensuring the Park became a vibrant, sustainable area for Londoners. The Legacy Corporation ran parallel with LOCOG, inheriting the Park after the Games. “We had Local Authority-style powers to really plan what happens from the start, influencing venue designs, and examining how you bring together communities and new residents while attracting international events. For some cities finding a meaningful legacy has been a challenge – look at Rio (which hosted the Games in 2016) – but thanks to all that work before London 2012, the Park is going from strength to strength.”
In eight short years, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park has already enjoyed ample success: The London Aquatics Centre now welcomes 1 million visitors per year, the Copper Box Arena boasts 450,000 attendees per year, Lee Valley VeloPark gets 900,000 visitors and the London Stadium – thanks to its occupancy by West Ham FC – gets 1.4 million per year, with another 500k from periphery events. Meanwhile, the Hockey and Tennis Centre is primed for a boost when Pro League hits the venue in May/June this year.
“Our challenge was to have more international and national events coming to London,” says Tudor, as we pass the elegant, Kubrick-esque London Aquatics Centre. “We have the World Diving Series in March closely followed by the British Swimming Championships, but in the main the Aquatics Centre is busy hosting swimming lessons and it’s used as a regular leisure centre. Indeed, the price of admission is that of a normal Council run pool, which is an achievement in itself.
“At the Copper Box Arena we’ve hosted everything from International Netball to Call of Duty live, and in May the Street League Skateboarding World Championships comes to the venue, with skateboarding set to debut at Tokyo’s Olympics.
“Our Park Champion volunteers, meanwhile, continue to do all sorts to help the area, from gardening, and looking after visitors, to volunteering on events, and welcoming and guiding visitors. A legacy from the Gamesmakers of London 2012”
The Athletes’ Village was another success story. It was fully occupied after The Games, with 3,000 homes. Meanwhile the site of the 2012 temporary basketball arena is now a new resident plot known as Chobham Manor, which is almost fully built and includes 13% affordable housing. The West Park has taken on a similar ethos, with the first flats being built there as part of a major project.
The East Bank site, meanwhile, is among the area’s most impressive accomplishments. It will bring an additional 1.5 million visitors to the Park and surrounding area each year and more than 2,500 jobs will be created in East Bank, and an estimated £1.5bn generation for the local economy. This is thanks to Sadler’s Wells East which will open as a 550-seat theatre, UAL’s London College of Fashion, which will accommodate 6,500 students and V&A East, which will display its world-famous collections at two sites with a new museum at Stratford Waterfront and the V&A Collection and Research at Here East.
Meanwhile, a state-of-the-art BBC music studios will provide a hub from which to celebrate music of all genres and UCL will create a new campus, UCL East, providing innovation in areas such as robotics, smart cities, culture and conservation, for around 4,000 students. The area’s new and improved roads, railways, and upcoming Crossrail service will also boost these institutions.
All this would not have been economically viable without the ‘event-factor’, says Tudor: “The Olympics and its legacy are what bought the impetus for this major investment. It was otherwise a very arduous and costly area to regenerate. It was contaminated, had a lot of pylons, safety considerations and waterways that needed crossings. It would’ve been too costly to do this as a normal regeneration project.”
And, yet, the cultural and economic benefits are being realised. “The Major League Baseball weekend alone gave the UK £47m in economic impact, then there’s the office blocks, which include the Financial Conduct Authority, and bring in 25,000 workers and a £1.3bn benefit to the area. Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone said he wasn’t interested in two weeks of sport, he was interested in what it would do for the area.”
From the outset, London’s proposition was unique, says Tudor: “Different Olympics have different parks, and we ended up with a lovely 560 acre park. For the upcoming Tokyo 2020 (24 July – 9 August) the Games are much more spread out and they’re even re-using some venues from their 1968 Games. London, in contrast, only re-used one venue from its 1948 Games: Wembley Arena, which in those days was a swimming pool, but in 2012 was used for badminton.”
Making sure your event in the Park is greenlighted involves much co-ordination. Each venue has its own operator, and for the Park your first port of call is often Sara-Ellen Williams, who has been the Park’s head of events for seven years, and originally was head of casting for the ceremonies. “She has some great stories from her time organising the Opening Ceremony,” says Tudor. “With her team she manages the calendar and makes sure everything fits together – how events can run in parallel across the Park, and working with the venue management teams on how the wider issues of licensing and construction will be affected. It’s very easy to just say ‘yes do your event here’, but there’s more to it. There’s a cumulative impact across the Park, and it’s about keeping residents happy and ensuring the quality of the destination.
“When the Major League Baseball is on in the Stadium, for example, we also have Pro League Hockey in the North of the park, and a big community event… and it’s also the opening weekend of the UEFA European Championships, so there’s much to consider across the city.”
Access’ tour ends at the top of the Anish Kapoor-designed ArcelorMittal Orbit, which doubles as an event venue in its own right. Up here we get a full panorama of the Olympic site, which eight years on, has housed as many memories as the Games itself. Meanwhile, the vast numbers of cranes and construction work going on around us is testament that much more is to come.