Every Londoner remembers where they were when the then International Olympic Committee (IOC) president, Jacques Rogge, announced that “London” would host the 2012 Olympic Games. By just four votes over second-placed Paris, IOC members had sent the Games back to the British capital after a 64-year wait
For Lord Coe, chairman of the London bid, it was a moment to cherish but it also represented the start of a seven-year countdown. Few events, if any, make more of a public impact than an Olympic and Paralympic Games, and he was well aware that the world would be watching as the city raced to complete construction projects and geared up for the greatest show on earth. “When we set off on this journey most people felt we had a pretty ordinary track record in the delivery of big projects,” he concedes. “But it recalibrated our ability and brought the public and private sector together like never before.”
The impact of the Games rippled far beyond the Olympic Park in east London. “The value of sport – not just as a medals table or as a concept about winning and losing – but actually using it for nation-building and community cohesion and as a social worker is like nothing else,” reflects Coe. “I could not see another vehicle in my lifetime that had the ability to transform the lives of young people, to transport them into a world where possibility became reality, to change the landscape that they lived in.”
Coe, who is now president of the International Association of Athletics Federations, started his career on the track. As a middle-distance runner in the 1980s he racked up world records and gold medals aplenty, firmly establishing himself as one of Britain’s greatest ever athletes. However, when it came to staging the 2012 Games, he believed that the objective of sporting glory was only a small part of a hugely complex tapestry, one underpinned by an overall vision to inspire the next generation.
“When I became chair of the London bid, I knew that if I allowed the debate to coalesce around shopping opportunities or hotel occupancy rates or menu ranges between New York, Madrid, London or Paris then we would lose,” he admits. “It had to be something bigger and bolder, more challenging. We had to have a vision that would bring everyone to the table and everyone understood.
“When I first started work on the bid, I asked the most important and penetrating questions that can be asked: ‘why and how?’ But often they become reversed and everyone gets caught up in the ‘how’. I don’t dismiss it, but in the early months we didn’t focus enough on the ‘why’. Why were we doing what we were doing? It was the first question I asked everyone.”
He goes on to say that, in hindsight, the vision was the most crucial aspect of the whole mammoth undertaking. “It became the road map and North Star,” he explains. “No journey is a straight line trajectory. You don’t set off with a preordained direction or outcome. The vision was what we delivered to on a day-by-day basis and then, when we got to the Games, on an hour-by-hour basis,” he says.
“It was our route through crisis management, and instinctively helped us understand our direction and kept everyone together. Without it I’m not sure that the transformation and coalition would have hung together as well as it did.” They were able to maintain this course “despite numerous changes in political direction – we went through three prime ministers, five different secretaries of state, two mayors and three mayoral elections during the seven years between winning the bid and the lighting of the flame.”
Today, London’s Olympic Park has evolved into a vibrant community, one where Games venues mix with new businesses, schools, a retail development employing 10,000 people, 11,000 new homes and the largest new green park in any European city. Yet previously it was one of the most run-down corners of the city.
“There are nine tube stops between Westminster and the Olympic Park in east London,” Coe points out. “If you get off on one of those stops along the route, and you live in one of those communities, for every one of those stops your life expectancy is likely to be a year less than it was on the stop before. That parcel of land and the communities who lived around it represented 50% unemployment and few, if any, young people there went to university. And so talk about the transformation of east London into an Olympic Games is actually to miss the point about what the Olympic project was really about, which was transforming the lives of young people – both in terms of infrastructure and in their aspirations and ambitions.”
However, no look back on London 2012 is complete without reference to the hugely successful Paralympic Games. Coe believes that they were a game-changer in many ways. “I don’t think my nation will ever be the same again and I don’t think we will ever see disability or impairment in the same light,” he says. “And that is the beauty of sport – it gets to places that most other orthodox activities, and sometimes even politicians, dare not venture. I think it gave us permission to redefine the word ‘disability’. For me, this was a piece of social engineering that went way beyond any diktat or legislation from the centre, because people absorbed it, understood what they saw and have gone about making changes in those organisations and their own lives.”
Three and a half years on from the Games, the public impact continues to reverberate across London and the UK as a whole. In addition to the physical transformation of that part of the city, there has been a legacy to the British economy of some £15 billion. “This has mainly been made by British businesses who have been seen successfully delivering a successful part of a successful games, grabbing more market space in a crowded and competitive global arena,” explains Coe.
But the impact and success of the Olympics is far more than a good-looking balance sheet, concludes Coe. “What was I most proud about? It was our ability as a nation to show ourselves as a modern, multicultural, diverse, creative and competent nation,” he says. “One that is proud and protective of its history and heritage and overwhelmingly welcoming.”
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