It was all so innocent then. Back in 2012, London was a city filled with Olympic dreams. There was frivolity. There was a measure of national unity. There were many pints. No one had yet heard the word “Brexit.” And the London mayor, a clownish lad by the name of Boris Johnson, was several years away from leading a crisis-ridden British political system down the sewer. He was too busy getting stuck on a zip line. As everyone laughed, they did not realize that 10 years later, the joke would be on them.
Olympic true believers often dismiss their critics by asserting that it takes years before Olympic legacies come to fruition. Well, this week marks the 10th anniversary of the London 2012 Olympics, and the “legacy” is rotten.
The Olympics are infamous for jump-starting displacement and gentrification, but London organizers pledged that 2012 would be different. Sebastian Coe, the British Olympian turned chair of the London Organizing Committee, promised that the Games would rejuvenate East London and “create between 30,000 and 40,000 new homes in the area.” He vowed that much of this housing stock would be “‘affordable housing’ available to key workers such as nurses or teachers.”
Flash forward to today. Only 13,000 homes have been constructed in the former Olympic zone, and only 11 percent of those are affordable to working-class Londoners on average incomes. At Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, fewer than 1,200 homes have been built. Of these, fewer than 200 are available at the lowest levels of rent. Nick Sharman, a former member of the London Legacy Development Corporation, told the BBC, “Instead of being the diverse community that [was] promised, a model of social inclusion, we’re getting the exact reverse.”
Olympic sins are typically visited on everyday working people in the host city. Julian Cheyne, who was displaced from his home on the Clays Lane Estate, told us, “London 2012 is probably the best example of how ‘legacy’ is simply a marketing ploy by the IOC to provide politicians with a slogan to sell an Olympic bid. London 2012 has produced none of the benefits it claimed.” From the beginning, he told us, the signs were ominous. “The first time London 2012 came to talk to the residents of Clays Lane, at the end of November, 2003 they lied,” he said. “They produced a graphic, which claimed to show the estate would be demolished even if the Olympics didn’t come to London. A quick freedom-of-information request demolished this claim. The plan didn’t even exist.”
The Olympics are a classic example of “celebration capitalism,” whereby the public pays the costs while private entities scoop up the profits. Nowhere is this more glaringly obvious than the Olympic Village, where athletes resided during the London Games. The privately financed Village was supposed to be the centerpiece of the Olympics’ urban rejuvenation plan. But when the 2008 financial crisis struck, private developers bailed. The British government was forced to step in, and the Village was “fully nationalized,” which is to say, placed on the backs of taxpayers.
Then, a year before the Games commenced, the British government sold the Village to the Qatari ruling family’s property company at a whopping taxpayer loss of £275 million (upward of $330 million in today’s dollars). In short, the Olympics laundered public money for private profit. Boris Johnson and his ilk proved themselves to be pros at getting quids through backdoor quid-pro-quo deals that shunted money toward developers. This was an enormous betrayal and an egregious backslide on pledges that Olympic honchos made to secure the Olympics in the first place.
But the false promises don’t stop there. London 2012 Olympic organizers vowed that staging the Games would “make the UK a world-leading sporting nation” while inspiring a surge of people embracing exercise activities. However, The Lancet found that no such uptick occurred. The National Audit Office reported that “the proportion of adults participating in sport at least once a week declined in the three years following the Games” and that “the Olympic and Paralympic Legacy Cabinet Committee was disbanded in 2015 and government attention to legacy waned.”
The London 2012 sports legacy failure is an open secret in the British sports world. This month, a survey of sports leaders in Britain revealed that only 13 percent believed that London legacy promises had come to fruition, while a strong majority—some 61 percent of respondents—asserted that the Games had failed to deliver on their sporting promises.
The London 2012 Olympics are the latest evidence that the Olympics are not so much broken as they are fixed—fixed in favor of the rich and well-connected. We are in the midst of a five-ring doom loop, and cities bidding on the 2030 Winter Olympics—we’re looking at you, Vancouver, Sapporo, and Salt Lake City—might take notice. At the London 2012 opening ceremony, Sir Paul McCartney attempted to sing “Hey Jude.” But the background vocals were off-key and mistimed, turning what should’ve been a touching moment into a discordant embarrassment. Few then knew how appropriate that was. Far from closing the Olympic opening ceremony, this performance is actually the pitch-perfect song to open a period of ruin.