London 2012, 10 years on: wrestling with a sporting legacy built on false assumptions | Olympic Games 2012

And what a time it was, and what a time. What a deeply – looking back now, almost exactly 10 years on – unutterably strange time. If the London 2012 Olympics had a moment of optimum energy, a thermal peak, it would be 9.46pm on Saturday 4 August in the swooping eves of the Olympic Stadium.

At 9.02pm Jessica Ennis had crossed the line to take gold in the heptathlon, sending a first surge of heat and noise barrelling around the stands. At 9.24pm Greg Rutherford was confirmed as gold medallist in the men’s long jump, adding another geyser burst to what was by now a state of unceasing uproar.

Finally, with the air pitched to a feverish rolling boil, Mo Farah came storming down the vulcanised back straight in the men’s 10,000 metres, sparking waves of resonance, energy, flares, people in the seats whirling and leaping, fanned to a state of unplanned emotional priapism.

In the middle of this something startling but also, somehow, completely normal happened. Two rows of seats at the top of the main stand had been filled with nurses and Royal Navy sailors dressed for the occasion in pristine tunics and cinematic white frilly suits.

As Farah crossed the line the nurses and sailors spontaneously embraced, caught in a moment of full-on VE-Day abandon, as though the flag-draped fever dream of Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony – 5,000 spitfire pilots breakdancing to Elgar; Paddington Bear singing Let It Be inside a giant cheddar cheese – had unexpectedly come to life. And in that moment it seemed that everything was good and fine and well and would always be; that this was the start not the end of something.

At which point wind chimes tinkle, the screen dissolves, and it is necessary to peer back down the time tunnel and wonder how that moment in time relates to this; or at least how the reality of then relates to the reality of now. As usual it is time to wrestle over “legacy”.

London 2012 was unarguably a wonderful event, a £9bn magnesium flare in an occasionally murky decade. Life is, in the end, just a series of moments. London gave us that one. But as ever it comes with its own heavily spun, jarringly vague set of self-justifications. Does London 2012 have a legacy? If so, is it a good one? Does “legacy” even exist outside the platitudinous official presentations of those who would wish to sell these billion-dollar megagames to you in the first place?

Jessica Ennis wins gold for Britain in the women’s heptathlon and celebrates after crossing the line in the final event, the 800m. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

It is no secret that “legacy” is a construct of the age of Big Corporate Sport, a sales pitch designed to package in acceptable form the vast public expense required to stage these events. Legacy is built into the model, another strand of vote-gathering self-promotion. And yet even the word itself has a weird ring. Legacies are capricious things. A legacy passes from the powerful to their most obedient dependents. Why legacy? Why not hard contractual dues? Why not targets that must be hit? Why not payback, rather than crumbs from the table?

But no. Legacy it is, a quality that at its most cynical starts to look like a substitute for policy. This tends to express itself in two strands. First, the idea of “legacy” as a way of creating physical infrastructure. Oliver Wainwright has already written an expertly detailed dissection of London 2012’s relationship to this, listing its benefits – some related employment; a new private housing estate – and also the sleight of hand that saw pre-existing infrastructure developments wrapped up in the London 2012 plan and trumpeted ever since as a gift from the Games.

The second aspect of “legacy”, the sporting side, is the presumed effect of a two-week TV show beano on the physical health of the nation, legacy as fitness and wellbeing and participation.

Part of the problem in getting a clear sight of this thing is that the claims made on sport’s behalf are routinely absurd. In July 2005 Tony Blair was already telling the International Olympic Committee: “Our vision is to see millions more young people across the world participating in sport and improving their lives. London has the power to make that happen. It is a city with a voice that talks to young people.”

Britain’s then prime minister Tony Blair walks past a large London 2012 banner, as he enters a press conference in a hotel in Singapore in July 2005
Britain’s then prime minister, Tony Blair, walks past a large London 2012 banner, as he enters a press conference in a hotel in Singapore in July 2005. Photograph: How Hwee Young/EPA

Oh yeah? That kind of voice? And how, specifically, would that work?

Sebastian Coe flew 30 schoolchildren to Singapore to support the bid, a comically literal-minded riff on the Inspire-A-Generation schlock that was being carted around the nation like fluff on a Brexit bus. And through those years this was the line, the promise that the whole shebang would be a shot of serotonin for the nation’s youth, that this would be anything but a fun though strictly localised bonfire of public money.

As late as February 2014 the coalition government was still publishing its own set of long-term London 2012 goals to “deliver lasting change”, which are conveniently tied to the current date.

So looking back we learned that by 2022 Britain will be one of the leading Olympic nations (an undeniable tick). The UK will also be one of the best places in the world to stage events (half a tick: see Euro 2020 and firework-buttocks riots).

In wider terms Britain will, as of this year, be among the most physically active countries in the developed world, will have a health service that uses physical activity to prevent and treat illness, and an infrastructure whereby walking and cycling flourish and every man, woman and child has “high-quality sporting opportunities on well-maintained and accessible sports facilities”.

The stadium erupts as Mo Farah crosses the finishing line and wins the men’s 5,000m at London 2012.
The stadium erupts as Mo Farah crosses the finishing line and wins the men’s 5,000m at London 2012. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

So how’s that working out then? It is, sadly, all too easy to debunk this kind of thing now that 2022 has actually arrived. Look back at the charts and national obesity levels continued to rise even as the Games were staged. Childhood obesity has gone through the roof. As early as 2015 Sport England figures showed participation levels dipping below their pre-Games levels. A decade on from London 2012 British people are less not more likely to participate in sport, and more prone to health inequalities along social, wealth, race and geographical lines.

The basic fakery of expecting organised sport to help solve these problems is present in the way school sport was treated in those years. Blair may have spoken about the voice of London ordering young people to start playing more badminton, but in reality his first 10 years in power saw school playing fields and recreational land sold off at a depressing clip.

As education secretary under the regime that followed, Michael Gove parroted the same eyewash about enduring legacies but in 2010 scrapped £162m of ringfenced school sports funding, replacing it with other streams over time, but also dissolving one of the few links between schools and local sports clubs.

But then the real issue here isn’t the broken promises of individual politicians but the risible set of false assumptions that underpin the basic idea of legacy. For example, the false assumption that there is a link between staging a two-week super-event and members of the public taking part in sport. The false (and rather desperate) assumption that there is a link between spending billions on overblown ziggurats and creating a public culture of being active.

The false, and indeed laughable, idea, is that a key reason people are unhealthy or inactive is the lack of a marginally improved regional judo centre, or the absence of TV pictures of someone waving a medal. Both of which should undoubtedly be promoted. But not at the expense of more dealing with things like diet, lifestyle, economic opportunity, poor housing, a lack of space and facilities, the basic opportunities to walk, cycle or simply be outside a little more.

Beach volleyball during the first evening session at Horse Guards Parade in 2012
Beach volleyball during the first evening session at Horse Guards Parade in 2012. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

And yet this set of assumptions is still accepted by those who make policy, and whose interests are served by continuing to pitch the industry that way. Only last year the BBC documentary Gold Rush trotted out this line almost unchallenged, accepting the repeated assumption that any sporting programme that “delivers” gold medals is by definition a success, no matter how intense the focus on that pared-down tip of the pyramid.

In reality the only social value in a gold medal is where that medal expresses a broader physical culture, where it is derived from watering the soil, providing public access, as opposed to a discrete, hot-housed TV product. Without those wider benefits that sliver of gold is simply the toy in the nation’s Happy Meal.

There is something more harmful here than simply puff and spin, the danger that sport in the legacy era becomes just another aspirational industry that favours the pre-privileged.

At Tokyo 2020 35% of British medal winners were privately educated at some stage in their secondary schooling. Take out boxing and BMX, which were entirely state school, and almost half of Team GB’s medal winners came from the 7% of the population who attend private schools.

That inequality is on the rise, up from 32% at Rio 2016. It also reflects British sport generally. A 2019 Sutton Trust report found that most British sports are split disproportionately along these lines. Almost half of national schools competitions are won by independent schools. Forty-three percent of men and 35% of women playing international cricket for England went to private school, and 37% of male British rugby union internationals.

Netherlands v Argentina in the 2012 women’s hockey final
Netherlands v Argentina in the 2012 women’s hockey final. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

The report fingered local authority cuts to sporting facilities, the selling off of playing fields, a lack of public access. But even here the notion of legacy is wheeled out, with the hope that staging large sporting events – this summer’s Commonwealth Games, for example – might somehow reverse this trend. Meanwhile over at the England and Wales Cricket Board, the latest strategy to combat exclusion is called (wait for it) Inspiring Generations, words that might have been ripped from the London 2012 playbook and simply Pritt-Sticked to a new set of glossy brochures.

As for reports, well, we have reports. We have a legacy of reports. Only last year the Committee on a National Plan for Sport and Recreation published one decrying the absence of (hang on) a national plan for sport and recreation, nine years on from the Games of Blair and Coe.

Meanwhile the most obvious legacy of that time is the rocket-propelled career progression of those involved in its administration. Coe, who became a kind of Olympic Gandalf during and before London 2012, went on to sell his sports comms business for a healthy sum a few months later, and has since become chairman of the British Olympic Association and president of World Athletics.

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To some extent London 2012 also gave us the career of Boris Johnson, who was boundingly ever-present at the head of that parade, aligning himself with the sense of plastic patriotism, big project vision, fun, empty boosterism.

Ten years on it all feels like a long time ago. Britain is a chilly kind of place right now. The future has turned out to be divided and fractured, less all-star Let It Be singalong, more George Michael’s difficult new material.

We’ll always have Mo and Jess and Saturday night, although neither the nursing profession or the Royal Navy have had a particularly happy 10 years since. As for “legacy”, London 2012 was never likely to leave much, if only because the word itself is part of the show: fun, persuasive, but largely ephemeral.