TOPIC GUIDE: London Olympics

"The greatest show on Earth is worth it"

PUBLISHED: 31 Jan 2012

AUTHOR: Tim Black

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When the news was announced [Ref: BBC News] on 6 July 2005 that London was to host the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games, the response, as people thronged Trafalgar square in celebration, was near universal excitement. Then prime minister Tony Blair called it a ‘momentous day’, his opposite number Michael Howard declared himself ‘absolutely delighted’ and the Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy simply said it was ‘fantastic’. The New Statesman summed up the public mood: ‘For once, the sceptics and cynics should step back and allow the country to savour success.’ [Ref: New Statesman]. But the ‘sceptics’ and the ‘cynics’ did not step back for long. ‘The real question’, [Ref: Economist] asked the Economist within days of London’s victory, ‘is whether hosting the Olympics will actually be good for Londoners. Past experience and current plans suggest that London 2012… might not be.’ Since then, the criticism levelled at London 2012, centred in the main on its cost and what it will really do to benefit the capital, has only grown in volume.

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

A waste of money?
So, is the greatest show on earth worth the expense? There is no doubting that the amount of public money budgeted for 2012 is significant. Originally costed at £1.8billion in 2003, by 2005 this figure had been revised upwards to £3.4billion [Ref: BBC News]. Then, in 2007, the budget was revised again, this time up to £9.3billion [Ref: Guardian]. Added to this is the fact that the ever increasing outlay on London 2012 comes at a time when the government is cutting back on public spending elsewhere.  ‘Closures of swimming pools, ordinary sports facilities and libraries’, wrote Libby Purves, ‘are hard to disentangle from the billions of pounds spent on elite games’ [Ref: The Times]. Furthermore, the experience of past host countries does not auger well, critics argue. Once the Olympics is over, host cities are left with unused stadia and facilities, that is, so-called white elephants: ‘I’ve looked at Athens where there is this beautiful Olympic site, stunning architecture in a fabulous setting’, argued writer and prominent London 2012 critic Iain Sinclair, ‘and it’s falling apart, nobody is using it, there are feral dogs and grass growing through everything’. Yet those championing 2012 have consistently defended the expenditure on the basis that 2012 is not merely about sport, nor even the sports stadia. Rather, it is about the Olympic legacy - the new homes, the new jobs, the higher rates of sports participation. As then Olympic Delivery Authority Chief David Higgins put it in 2006, London 2012 can be viewed as a ‘sporting overlay for the biggest regeneration project in Europe’ [Ref: London 2012].

A force for regeneration?
To a greater extent than all previous Olympics, London 2012 has been characterised by its organisers’ focus on using the games to realise a whole host of social and economic objectives. As then London mayor Ken Livingstone put it in 2005, London 2012 ‘would not only be a celebration of sport but a force for regeneration’. In 2008, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport outlined the social and economic objectives. London 2012 would principally: ‘make the UK a world-leading sporting nation’; ‘transform the heart of east London’; and ‘inspire a new generation of young people to take part in volunteering, cultural and physical activity’. Head of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) Lord Sebastian Coe has argued that, contrary to critics’ claims, 75 per cent of the 9.3 billion budget was not being spent on the sport itself, but on the Olympics as a means to regenerate an area, to attract investment, to build homes and to create jobs [Ref: Independent]. Yet the Olympics legacy has also accrued an army of critics. ‘Every Olympian knows’, wrote one columnist, ‘that legacy is grass growing over defunct velodromes, cracked concourses and ghost villages’ [Ref: Guardian]. Others have picked holes in the specifics of the Olympics legacy. Leader of Newham Council (one of the Olympic boroughs) Sir Robin Wales has argued that plans to regenerate East London look likely to come to nothing because of spending cuts [Ref: Guardian],  and that locals will not benefit from the new housing [Ref: Guardian]. None of this surprised Andrew Gilligan who argued in the Spectator that, ‘building a big swimming pool is a silly way to create homes and jobs’ [Ref: Spectator]. As for trying to raise participation levels, particularly among young people, the government has actually been forced to abandon its target of increasing the number of people participating in sport by 1million [Ref: FT]. Still others have criticised the very idea of having a legacy at all, such as Professor Gavin Poynter from the University of East London. He argues that politicians should not be using sport to achieve political objectives [Ref: spiked]. We need, he argues, to separate sport from that which is being done in its name.

The spirit of the Olympics
Is it possible to simply savour the Olympics for its own sake, regardless of the debates over cost and legacy? Certainly, as this Guardian editorial from the summer of 2011 shows, the Olympics is meant to be something exceptional: ‘a fortnight of a kind never before seen in the capital’ [Ref: Guardian]. And besides, as James Woudhuysen points out on spiked: ‘Even £10 billion or more is not a lot for Britain to blow on a month-long Games for the whole planet: it amounts to well under half the annual budget of the Ministry of Defence’ [Ref: spiked]  Too often, some of its champions suggest, the attempt to attribute a monetary or social value to the Olympics misses its real value in and of itself, as ‘the greatest sporting spectacle on Earth’. The Olympics, after all, is a celebration of physical achievement, a display of citius, altius, fortius [Ref: London 2012]. That is what people find inspiring. And that is why so many people applied for tickets. And besides, ‘[n]o matter how hard politicians may try’, notes Owen Gibson, ‘it is hard to get the population whipped up over contentious promises of inward investment and boosted tourism’ [Ref: Guardian]. What does whip people up, however, is sporting achievement, the sight of someone breaking a record in a final, or displaying unimaginable levels of endurance. As Oliver Holt at the Daily Mirror asserts: ‘The time for carping about costs, faults and problems is over. This is the time for dreaming’ [Ref: Daily Mirror] Yet for critics, such as the Daily Mail’s Robert Hardman, there is little to be dreamt about. No amount of talk of sport, and the intrinsic value of sport, persuades him. ‘We have been treated like imbeciles’, Hardman argues, ‘by those who believe they have a divine right to squander other people’s money in the name of sport’ [Ref: Daily Mail].


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

Let the games begin

Tessa Jowell and Iain Sinclair Guardian 22 July 2011


Jeremy Hunt: ‘The London Olympics is Britain’s moment and we are going for it’

Robert Winnett and James Kirkup Telegraph 30 December 2011

In this age of anxiety, we’ll need the 2012 Olympic spirit

Jackie Ashley Guardian 25 December 2011

Why the Olympics is the greatest show on earth

Oliver Holt Mirror 16 March 2011


I won’t cheer this billion-pound private party

Libby Purves The Times 2 January 2012

What’s another billion or three!

Robert Hardman Daily Mail 7 December 2011

The Olympics: festival of trouble and strife

Dave Hill Guardian 15 November 2011

A gold medal for idiocy

Andrew Gilligan Spectator 30 July 2011

How Londoners can survive the Olympics

Simon Jenkins London Evening Standard 26 July 2011


London 2012: Ready, steady,oh

Economist 27 August 2011

The high cost of sporting glory

Stefan Szymanski New Statesman 5 July 2010

The Olympics Scam

Iain Sinclair London Review of Books 19 June 2008

London 2012:  Where’s the Olympic spirit?

James Woudhuysen spiked 2 April 2008


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

London’s Fog of Olympic Ambivalence

Alan Cowell New York Times 2 January 2012

Concerns over 2012 sporting legacy

BBC Radio 4 Today 26 December 2011

Costing the games

BBC Radio 4 File on 4 30 November 2011

What we’ve got to change before the Olympics Games

Scott Bryan Huffington Post 29 November 2011

Olympics: forget the legacy and enjoy the spectacle

Tim Black spiked 22 November 2011

London’s Olympic legacy must fulfil the promises made

Dave Hill Guardian 21 October 2011

Going for economic gold

The Times 27 July 2011

The greatest sideshow on Earth

Economist 22 July 2010

The great Olympics jobs lie

Daily Mail 8 March 2009

The 2004 legacy that London must avoid

Robert Mendick Evening Standard 6 February 2009

Attempting to define indefinable for 2012 Olympics

Philip Hensher Seattle Post 25 August 2008

Why the 2012 London Olympics offer us a real sporting chance

Ed Curran Belfast Telegraph 25 August 2008

Running costs

Harry Phibbs Guardian 21 June 2008

London’s big budget allows us to build lasting legacy

Sebastian Coe Telegraph 16 March 2007

My Vision for an Olympic triumph

Gordon Brown Daily Mail 15 March 2007

A revitalising victory

New Statesman 11 July 2005

London must unite around sporting ideal

Sue Mott Telegraph 9 July 2005

And the winner is

Economist 7 July 2005


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.


Concerns over 2012 sporting legacy

BBC Radio 4 Today 26 December 2011

Costing the games

BBC Radio 4 File on 4 30 November 2011


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