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London 2012 and the Post-Olympics City

A Hollow Legacy?


Edited by Phil Cohen and Paul Watt


London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017

Hardback. 460 pp. ISBN 978-1137489463. £65


Reviewed by Hugh Clout

University College London





When London was chosen to host the 2012 Olympic Games bold claims were made about the impact that the event would have in improving the area surrounding the Olympic site and in enhancing the quality of life of its residents. It was even suggested that ‘the most enduring legacy of the Olympics will be the regeneration of an entire community for the direct benefit of everyone who lives there’ [10]. The Games were widely judged to be a success as an international mega-event for showcasing London, and the environment of the lower Lea valley was transformed by the installation of a major stadium, other sporting venues, and the Olympic Village that housed competitors. Derelict land was reclaimed, the river cleaned up and an important number of short-term jobs created, a share of which were taken by local people. But this work servicing the Games lasted only as long as the events themselves. The local employment situation largely returned to its previous structure, with a predominance of low-paid jobs and few local prospects for school leavers. In this very welcome book, Phil Cohen and Paul Watt present a series of well-informed essays that question to what extent socio-economic change was effected by the Games and what sections of society may have benefited. At their respective bases at the University of East London and Birkbeck College, University of London, both have long experience of researching the human problems of East London. They worked with a team of fifteen contributors to assemble this volume that comprises sixteen chapters arranged in four sections.

The editors begin by summarising the objectives of their book and ask whether the Games will be remembered for effecting genuine transformation or merely implementing changes that were neither comprehensive nor long lasting. Previous evaluations of the ‘Olympic effect’ are rightly criticised for juxtaposing an array of local, national and international trends and then assuming that there was a clear cause and effect relationship anchored on the mega-event. Cohen and Watt insist that ‘grandiose-sounding claims for regenerating an entire community… are at considerable variance to east London residents’ lived reality as they find themselves struggling in a bleak post-crash landscape characterised by austerity urbanism’ [11]. Constituent essays in Part I explore two dimensions of post-Olympic London linked to the processes of globalisation, namely the ‘financialisation’ of public assets and the ‘securitisation’ of public amenity. Gavin Poynter reveals the ‘tensions arising [since 2012] from the roles given to public agencies and private investors in inward investment, as exemplified in new commercial and residential developments’ in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and along the lower Lea corridor between Stratford and Canary Wharf [13]. Peter Fussey and Jon Coafee then examine the ‘form, impact and legacy of security practices put in place for the Games’, that have become embedded in the changing expression of public and private space in the post-Olympic area [13].

Part II is devoted to ‘how the Olympic legacy is sociologically worked out on the ground in East London’, and with seven essays is the most substantial section of the volume [13]. Paul Watt and Penny Bernstock examine the contrast between private and social rental housing in the Olympic area, setting their discussion in the wider context of rising rents and prices, overcrowding, homelessness and the displacement of homeless people as waves of gentrification wash over East London. Phil Cohen charts ‘how the Olympic Legacy narrative is being enacted through development plans for the Olympic Park and how residents moving into the East Village (the converted athletes’ village) are making sense of this new part of the city’ [14] Perceptions held by middle-class ‘residents’ and disadvantaged social ‘tenants’ display marked differences. Debbie Humphry then provides a photo essay that complements the East Village research. The two following chapters focus on Hackney Wick, ‘an area which is now closely associated with artists and is experiencing considerable change in the post-Olympic period’ [15]. Attention is focused first on the dialogue between non-elected officials from the London Legacy Development Corporation and self-appointed local groups, and then on the priority given to attracting a ‘new’ community into Hackney Wick rather than ‘nourishing what is there’ [16]. This is far from the socially inclusive approach to planning that was preached when London was chosen to host the 2012 Games. In a richly documented essay, Jack Fawbert explores the role of the West Ham United football club in the social life of East London and the controversial decision to leave its old ground in favour of the expensively converted Olympic Stadium. Fawbert explains: ‘The fan base is very largely composed of white ex-East Enders who are now part of the ‘Cockney Diaspora’ living in suburban Essex; this fan base is very different from the black and Asian communities who are now demographically and culturally prominent in twenty-first century East London’ [16]. He then traces the history of West Ham United’s move from its Boleyn football ground to the Olympic stadium and focuses on shifting attitudes of ‘Hammers’’ supporters to that move. In the final essay of this section, Anthony Gunter recalls various regeneration initiatives, including the 2012 Olympic project, that were targeted with tackling youth exclusion in East London. He reviews the impact of the post-Olympic austerity climate with stringent cuts to public sector expenditure and then demonstrates how these cuts have adversely affected young people.

Part III contains three quite varied essays that examine the social legacy of the 2012 Games and identify hard lessons from that experience that may be projected on to the planning of future Olympic events. Mike Weed questions whether the 2012 Games genuinely ‘inspired a generation’ to participate in sport and thereby improve their physical and mental health. David Howe and Shane Kerr then examine issues of health through the prism of the Paralympic Games. Ian Brittain and Leonardo Jose Mataruna-Dos-Santos rework evidence on the social legacy of the 2012 Games to shape a framework to assist evaluating the impact of the 2016 Games on Rio de Janeiro. They highlight the need to create long-term job opportunities from the mega-event and the desirability of incorporating local culture in structuring the Games and its legacy programme. Moving to Part IV, Phil Cohen and Paul Watt present an excerpt from the ‘Mega-Events and Human Rights Violations in Rio de Janeiro’ document, drawn up by the World Cup and Olympics Popular Committee of Rio de Janeiro (2015), formed of a ‘group of academics and activists concerned to articulate the concerns of the favela communities which have been the prime target of the Olympic regeneration process’ [18]. The chapter proceeds to ‘document the numerous human rights violations that have been inflicted on the favelistas by the police, the city authorities, the construction companies and the State. It goes on to present a manifesto of legacy demands in relation to housing, the environment, transport, public services and cultural amenity which, taken together, represent a plan of action for creating a post-Olympic city based on principles of social justice’ [18]. Finally, Grace Gonzalez-Basurto draws on interviews with stakeholders in London and Tokyo to explore how ‘Japanese politicians have invested in the 2020 Games as a policy tool to boost the country’s economic growth and renovate the national brand after the 11 March 2011 earthquake disaster’ [19]. 

In the concluding essay, the editors draw together fundamental questions about the nature of socio-economic and environmental change following the London Olympics. This mega-event had promised to trigger a major regeneration project that would be different from what had happened previously. The mistakes of earlier large projects would be avoided; top-down planning would be replaced by effective communication to encourage participation by the local population. What actually transpired in and after the event proved to be far removed from the promise. Cohen and Watt critically explore notions of ‘transference’, ‘translation’, ‘transformation’ and ‘erasure’ to demonstrate that only part of the Olympic dream became reality, mainly with respect to environmental improvement [446]. They insist that attempts to improve socio-economic conditions for the local population as a whole merely have a hollow ring about them. This shortcoming prompts them to advocate that future academic research on the variable impact of mega-events should be embedded in ‘an explicit ideological critique of the manifold gulf between Olympics legacy dreams and realities’ [449].

London 2012 and the Post-Olympics City : A Hollow Legacy? presents a rich variety of evidence of recent change in the ‘host’ (now ‘growth’) boroughs of Greenwich, Hackney, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest, to which the borough of Barking and Dagenham was added. This area of East London is highly diverse geographically and some readers may need guidance to locate site-specific material. A two-page cartographic spread showing fundamental features such as main roads, railways, administrative boundaries, the Olympic area and other named locations would have been a very welcome addition. The text is complemented by twenty statistical tables and sixty illustrations, most of which are well reproduced black and white photographs. The same cannot be said for the handful of maps that employ varying shades of grey into which lettering disappears. A particularly sad example relates to East Village tenures (page 158) where seven elements in the key and on the map are shown in indecipherable grey tones. Presumably, this illustration was reproduced (and over-reduced) from a coloured original. But these are minor quibbles. London 2012 is full of important information and critical analysis with plenty of ideas for future work. Its bibliographies will be indispensable for students and researchers. The book will be of great value to planners, sociologists, urban geographers and all with a deep concern for London and for ‘Post-Olympic Studies’.


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