JEFF J MITCHELL/Associated Press
JEFF J MITCHELL/Associated Press
LONDON – London 2102.
It was only a typo, stenciled on an Olympics tennis umpire’s chair, but it raised an interesting question. What will be the legacy of this year’s games – economically, socially, culturally?
In a 2,000-year-old city that has been home to many, many stories, will the games, decades from now, merit their own chapter – or merely a sentence or two? Once the gold-fueled nationalism fades and the bill comes due, will they be seen as a success?
If you live in London’s gritty East End, where much of the $14 billion in Olympics-related infrastructure improvements have been made, the answer could very well be “yes.”
The 560-acre Olympic Park replaced a rusting, toxic no-man’s land with state-of-the-art venues, some constructed by world-class architects. After the games end, the site will be closed to undergo another metamorphosis.
When it reopens in 2013, many temporary Olympic structures will be gone, replaced by fields, playgrounds, waterways, cycling lanes and picnic areas, as well as scaled-down athletic and cultural venues and new mixed-income housing.
“Initially, I was skeptical about the effect it would have on the local community, but over the years, it has become apparent that there’s been a lot of attention paid to the legacy of the Olympics,” said Dan Tsu, founder of Lyrix Organix, a group of rappers and hip-hop artists who work with underprivileged youths in Stratford and Hackney, the neighborhoods adjacent to Olympic Park.
Tsu said both have been plagued by crime, unemployment and neglect. Those doubtless will improve, but the neighborhoods also will have to adjust to gentrification and higher real estate prices.
“It is difficult for any community to deal with something that uproots them. There is a very strong sense of community here,” he said. “But I’ve realized that the area needed regeneration and investment.”
Elsewhere, the impact of the games will be more diffuse, if it is felt at all.
Britain hoped the Olympics would lead to a surge in sports participation that would allow it to shed its distinction as the fattest nation in Europe, but whether that will happen remains to be seen.
Fighting a recession and slashing debt, Britain already has cut the budget for Sport England, the community sports organization, by a third. It has scrapped a plan to get 1 million more people playing sports by the end of this year.
So the games may not have shrunk Britain’s waistline. But they do seem to have bolstered the national mood.
Famously reserved Londoners have found themselves besieged by cheerful, purple-clad Olympic staff members helping direct tourists. Even the subway, or Tube, normally a silent netherworld of grimaces and thousand-mile stares, has become the setting of friendly medal-tables banter between perfect strangers.
One longtime London commuter, Oliver Ortiz, was having trouble digesting the experience.
“Wow,” he said days later, smiling. “Someone’s actually talking to me on the Tube.”
Britons who put their noses up at other countries’ overt displays of nationalism – think football-field-size flags, fighter-jet flyovers and celebrity-rendered anthems in the United States – suddenly have found themselves caught up in a surge of pride at their athletes’ phenomenal showing. Britain has not had such a haul of Olympic medals since 1908.
Gone is the handwringing about whether the Olympics would be a fiasco. Talk of unemployment, belt-tightening and national decline has been pushed aside. But will it last?
Not a chance.
“It’ll be grim and dim by the time September comes around,” said Maximilian Glodde, a 23-year-old who was sharing his lunch break with Ortiz in north London’s sun-drenched Talacre Gardens.
Already, bad news is knocking at the door.
In its quarterly inflation report last week, Britain’s central bank scaled back its forecast for 2012, saying the economy will flatline during the year, down from the already measly 0.8 percent growth forecast three months ago.
“Unlike the Olympians who have thrilled us over the past fortnight, our economy has not yet reached full fitness,” said Mervyn King, the bank’s governor.
And economists warn not to look to the Olympics as a savior. In fact, the long-term costs can prove a serious burden. Just ask Athens and some other hosts of Olympics past.
Greece blew past initial estimates and spent more than $11 billion on the 2004 Summer Games, plus more money to rush infrastructure projects to completion at inflated costs. Many economists say the expense has contributed to the country’s financial crisis. And today, more than half of Athens’ Olympic sites are barely used or empty.
The Beijing Olympics cost even more – about $60 billion. But they added more to the city, including an airport, subway and light rail, which transformed the Chinese capital from an unattractive, Soviet-influenced city into a world-class metropolis.
The government plowed under crumbling neighborhoods and moved people into newly built satellite towns, all to project an image of a modern nation that had arrived as a world power.
Success came at a high price, including upkeep for seldom-used Olympic venues such as the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium, but it is a price that economically booming China has been able to afford.
Even more successful games, such as the wildly popular Sydney Olympics in 2000, did not live up to the hype. A short-term construction boom faded, and an increase in tourism never materialized.
“The games themselves can’t deliver any sort of long-term economic change,” said Richard Cashman, director of the Australian Centre for Olympic Studies at the University of Technology Sydney. “People would like them to, but they don’t.”
The London Games already have cost nearly triple the initial estimate, and the final tally is likely to rise significantly once added security, staffing and pension payments are factored in.
Mark Zupan, dean of the business school at the University of Rochester, said the total easily could come to $45 billion, only a tiny portion of which will ever be recouped.
He noted that Britain is using public money to pay for a much higher percentage of the cost than American state and federal governments spent on Olympics in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Salt Lake City. British taxpayers will bear the burden for years.
“The analogy would be a wedding or a christening or a bar mitzvah. There is an element of pride, of showcasing your city to the world, that can’t be denied and is fairly unique,” he said. “But even if you take that into account, this is one hell of an expensive wedding. When you look at sheer economic impact, it is hard to justify the expenditure.”
Perhaps the best clue as to how these Olympics will be seen in decades to come is to look to the past. London hosted the games twice before, in 1908 and 1948, though the scale of the undertaking was nothing like it is today. The 1948 Games, for instance, cost about $20 million in today’s terms.
Since then, Britain has been through postwar austerity, 1960s cultural liberation, Thatcherism, Blairism, the rise of the Internet and, most recently, the end of economic good times.
The immediacy of those games has faded as new stories have risen in their place, all part of the never-ending experience of one of the world’s greatest cities.
“What do we really remember in London of the 1908 and 1948 Olympics?” asked Jonathan Glancey, an architectural historian and writer. “Very little. Even the Wembley Stadium that hosted so many of the 1948 events has been demolished.”
Added Simon Jenkins, an Olympics curmudgeon and one of Britain’s most famous columnists: “Everyone knows there is no Olympic legacy, but, as with Santa Claus, we dare not tell the children.”
Associated Press writers Kristen Gelineau in Sydney, Australia, and Charles Hutzler and Yu Bing in Beijing contributed to this report.