Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
London really tried to use the 2012 Games to improve people’s lives. A new report shows the skeptics were right all along.
Looking back from Britain’s current chaotic state, the 2012 Summer Olympics seems like a golden era. Bringing the world’s attention to a run-down part on the city’s east side, the London Games succeeded in promoting a vision of the city and its country that was efficient, self-confident, and diverse.
Certainly it didn’t entirely succeed in creating venues that were sustainable longterm, but unlike too many hosts before it, London really did try. The games were a successful international branding exercise for East London and provided a large glut of short-term employment. But how well did they do in delivering long-term improvements to the relatively deprived boroughs surrounding the park? A new report provides a pretty stark answer: For East Londoners, the games mostly failed.
Released by the London Assembly’s Regeneration Committee, the report is pretty damning from the outset:
The data shows… that while the Games provided an initial focus for new investment activity, it was short-lived and resulted in mainly physical and economic gains. The gap in many quality of life indicators between the six host boroughs and the rest of London (known as ‘convergence’) is not being closed. The gap in terms of sporting or physical activity rates has got worse too.
The report doesn’t present post-games East London as some bleak whistling wasteland. Looking at the U.K. government’s 2010 plan for the Olympic and Paralympic legacy, it nonetheless finds that the predicted improvements to local living conditions have overwhelmingly not materialized.
The report measures these goals by assessing convergence: that is, the extent to which the six relatively deprived boroughs that hosted Olympic venues have caught up with London as a whole. In particular, the report studies a range of indicators from education and housing to health and life expectancy.
There are some bright spots in the findings. All educational targets for the six boroughs have been achieved already, or will be by 2020. The gap in performance on exams and at key educational stages has narrowed, with educational and developmental levels for students at ages 5 and 11 now so close to city-wide averages that the gap, once quite wide, will soon be as narrow the eye of a needle. Whether the games were a factor in this improvement is nonetheless moot, given the overall educational improvements across all lower income areas of London.
Elsewhere, however, there are signs of improvement that still fall far short of expectations. Attempts to narrow gaps in life expectancy and reduce the number of people with no qualifications have all had some success, but still fallen short. Other key areas, such as unemployment, income levels, and life expectancy, suggest what the report refers to as a “yo-yo effect” with annual fluctuations but little apparent shift in the direction of permanent improvement.
And in some areas, things are actually worse. The gap between median earnings in the six boroughs and the rest of the city has actually widened. Meanwhile, the proportion of these boroughs’ residents that don’t engage in sport or activity has grown, as has the relative preponderance of child obesity.
So how can we account for these shortcomings? Could it be that some key aspect of the legacy plan was changed over the course of time, shifting the outcome? Or is it simply that changes underway in East London—both good and bad—may have been temporarily accelerated by hosting the games but not notably altered thereafter?
The latter seems likely. Zoom out from the specific case of London’s 2012 Games and the evidence suggests that major sporting events never really deliver on their grand initial promises to boost local economies. Research by British government’s What Works Centre For Local Economic Growth looked at 36 impact evaluations for sporting event host cities across OECD countries. It found that:
Overall measurable effects of projects on a local economy tend not to be large and are more often zero. Any wage and income effects are usually small and limited to the immediate locality or particular types of workers.
It’s not that these events generated no effect at all. In fact, they often created a boost in exports and tourism, albeit a mainly short-term one. Venue construction boosted local property values—a boon for owners, but often a disaster for local low-income renters, and that’s been the case for East Londoners displaced by rising rents since 2012. Overall, however, an event’s effect on such areas as long-term indirect employment was often less dramatic than predicted. Thus the boosterism and promises that accompany bids for sporting events is often just hot air, suggests Tom Forth, head of data at urban data analysts The Data City:
If London had been honest when assessing the bid it would have been measuring other things, such London's local brand and whole city connectivity. I don't think, however there's any evidence that hosting a big sporting event has a positive, very local effect on things like living quality and education attainment. You're not measuring the right thing—it's like painting a car and then measuring to see if it goes faster.
If we accept this hypothesis, the message is stark. Sporting events can deliver on such goals as better transit, sporting facilities, and short-term employment. When hosts start to trumpet the social transformation of their cities, promising an end to poverty and a boom in employment, there’s now even more reason to be skeptical. London’s recent update may be frustrating, but it shouldn’t strike anyone as a surprise.