It was the largest planning application the UK had ever seen. In 2007, a 15-volume, 10,000-page document that set out the Olympic Delivery Authority’s master plan for a new east London. Ten years to the day it was published, Peter Tudor of the London Legacy Development Corporation is talking to me from the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park – 2.5 square kilometres of Stratford now reborn as a maze of world-class sporting venues and landscaped greenery.
‘Walking through the park and seeing it still being used is the best thing imaginable,’ says Tudor, the park’s director of visitor services. ‘It really has become a destination – a place to get out and get active.’
This sporting ideal was not easily achieved. After the euphoria that followed London being awarded the Games in 2004 came the hard work – could the country deliver on its promise? ‘Every host nation had had something go wrong,’ says Debbie Lye, chief executive of Spirit of 2012, a funding charity charged with continuing the legacy of the Games. ‘There’s always that sense that there’s a banana skin around the corner.’
In London’s case it was a particularly slippery one. The global financial crash of 2007 hit the country hard and people questioned whether we could afford the Games. ‘The turning point was the torch relay. This sense of excitement swept the country,’ says Lye, who experienced the exhilaration first-hand when she carried the torch. ‘The relay proved this was about the whole country, not just London. By the time Danny Boyle’s wonderful opening ceremony had finished it felt like everyone was on our side.'
Enter the Games Makers
The Games were a triumph for Team GB. Across the Olympics and Paralympics the team took a record 185 medals. Paralympic swimmer Susie Rodgers was among them, winning three bronzes. ‘I was very pleased to come away with the medals, but equally, just to be a part of something that was so special,’ she says. ‘It felt like the nation was just completely united for that period of time around the Games.’
For Rodgers the key to that unity went beyond success in the pools and on the tracks, courts and pitches. She believes the 70,000 ‘Games Makers’ – volunteers who staffed venues, directed the lost and patched up the poorly – helped create a sense of inclusion that went beyond elite athletes. ‘It showed everyone could be involved,’ she says. ‘If I’m not competing as an athlete, I’d want to be a Games Maker.’
The scheme continues to have an impact. ‘We have a programme called the “Park Champions” which is a continuation of the Games Makers programme,’ says Tudor. ‘We even retained that charming bright pink colour they all had to wear. So a lot of our Park Champions are former Games Makers – they welcome people to the park, they work on events with the big foam hands to make sure everyone knows where they’re going. This summer the park is hosting the IAAF and IPC 2017 World Championships so they’ll be working hard at that as well.’
The Paralympics reach new heights
While pulling off a successful Olympics was a huge relief, it was during the 2012 Paralympics – declared by IPC president Philip Craven as the ‘greatest ever’ – that London set new standards. With 4,302 athletes, they were the largest Paralympics to date, but more importantly they reached a wider audience, setting records for ticket sales and television viewing figures.
‘There wasn’t one secret to success, there were a lot of factors which shouldn’t be secret at all,’ says Tim Hollingsworth, chief executive of the British Paralympic Association and the man charged with delivering a successful Games in 2012.
‘Most importantly there was a fundamental belief at the heart of the committee that they were organising both an Olympics and a Paralympics. One event, two Games. It’s hard to escape the view that some previous organising committees thought they were organising an Olympics and then had to put on a Paralympics afterwards. London established that that shouldn’t be the case.’
Another key decision, according to Hollingsworth, was to split the broadcasting rights. While the Olympics were shown on public broadcaster the BBC, the Paralympics were on Channel 4, a partially advertisement-funded channel. ‘They marketed the Games so well with their “Meet The Superhumans” campaign that it helped change perceptions,’ says Hollingsworth. ‘That along with the success of Team GB at the Olympics meant everyone wanted to get a ticket.’
Paralympics GB equestrian Sophie Christiansen got to witness the enthusiasm close up, winning three gold medals in front of record crowds. ‘The London Games were the pinnacle of the Paralympics,’ she says. ‘It was amazing how much interest there was in disability sport. I didn’t realise how big an impact London would have until we saw the ticket sales and heard people sitting on the tube talking about the Games. I got the opportunity to compete in front of 10,000 people in Greenwich – something unheard of in our sport.’
Peter Tudor watched the Paralympic and Olympic triumphs from the sidelines. ‘We were delighted to see the Games be a success, but our job was to worry about what comes next,’ he says. ‘We were waiting for the party to finish so we could get on with the job of creating a legacy.’
Tudor and his team wasted no time. The day after the closing ceremony they began taking down temporary venues and landscaping the park for the public. ‘We did a lot of work with the local community, saying “this is your park now”,’ says Tudor. ‘Within a year we had opened half of the north of the park, and within 18 months the south of the park.’
The key to the park’s lasting success, according to Tudor, was the legacy team working alongside those responsible for delivering the Games. ‘You need somebody looking at what is next. You need 17,000 seats in the swimming pool for the Games; you know you’ll never need them once the Games are finished. So the building was designed for legacy, the seats were put on for the Games but designed to be removed to create the community pool that we’ve got now with 60,000 people swimming in there every month.’
Hollingsworth says it is too early to assess the full impact of 2012, believing the effects will be felt for generations. ‘I don’t like the word “legacy”,’ says Hollingsworth. ‘That implies you’ve hit your high point and need to maintain it. We felt after London it should be about momentum, carrying on this journey of growth.’
Enter Debbie Lye and the Spirit of 2012 team who have made sure that the momentum of the Games has continued across the entire country.
Spirit of 2012 was founded by Peter Ainsworth, chair of the Big Lottery Fund who, according to Lye, ‘made a resolution after the 2012 Paralympics closing ceremony, that this moment must not be allowed to die.’ Ainsworth allocated £47 million to the new organisation to ensure the Games had a lasting impact. To date Spirit of 2012 has impacted 1.5 million people in more than 100 locations across the UK.
One of the schemes Lye is most proud of is Inclusive Futures, which recruited, trained and gave leadership skills to disabled and non-disabled volunteers aged 14 to 19. ‘The strapline for London 2012 was “Inspire a Generation”. This project was conceived with that in mind,’ she says. ‘When people talk about inclusive projects, they often mean a project for disabled people, but this is genuine integration. They trained 1,700 of these young leaders and volunteers, and 57 percent were disabled.’
Inclusive Futures has already had an impact. Disabled volunteers make up on average one to two percent of volunteers at sports events; at the UK School Games the use of Inclusive Futures volunteers meant that number was 12 percent.
‘You can change the world if you start small and focus on something,’ says Lye. ‘Not everyone can be an elite athlete. Inclusive Futures puts disabled and non-disabled young people alongside each other doing everyday activities. The person in the wheelchair isn’t the person being helped into the venue; it’s the person helping other people into the venue.’
Lessons for Tokyo
Everyone interviewed for this story cannot wait for the 2020 Games in Tokyo. Christiansen is considering competing, which would make Tokyo her fifth Paralympics. All of them also agree 2020 represents a great opportunity for the Japanese capital.
‘Every edition of the Games is different, and I think that’s the best part about it,’ says Rodgers. ‘But the one thing Japan should do similarly to London is keep the momentum going. Use it as an opportunity to get people to try different sports, build their sporting ability, and facilities within the country.’
‘It was an extraordinary summer here,’ says Tudor, ‘but reserve some energy for getting everything ready for legacy, and make the extraordinariness last.’ Lye agrees: ‘I think you’ve got to identify early on what you want the world to look like in 2021. It’s hard for the people charged with delivering a successful Games in 2020 to do that. That’s not their job, but somebody must do it. There will be a feeling of positivity and joy and excitement. You get an immense wave of goodwill to ride, so get ready to surf that wave.’