Memory games

  • John Gold, Professor of Urban Historical Geography at Oxford Brookes and a leading authority on the history of the Olympic Games, gives an overview of London 2012 and what this mega-event will mean for the people of the UK this year and for decades to come:

    John Gold, Professor of Urban Historical Geography at Oxford Brookes

    Successful Olympic Games bring huge benefits to the host city. Barcelona in 1992 used the Games to transform itself from a regional industrial city into a global player. Its successors often seem to do the same.

    For 2012, East London has already seen a huge boost in investment from construction of the Games venues and the city itself can expect a substantial tourist spend during the Olympic year as well as an afterglow that could well last for years to come, even if it is hard to measure.

    One of the most tangible effects of the London Olympics should be a perceptible boost to GDP. Historically the Olympics do bring money and investment into the country, with maybe 1 or 1.5 per cent rise in GDP during the Games year. A great deal of money has already been spent to bring that about in Great Britain.

    It's puzzling as to why politicians and others are currently silent about this much-trumpeted benefit - something that was very important for gaining the Games and selling the Games in the first place. The most likely explanation is that it is an inconvenient truth in the current political climate. Certainly it is not necessarily helpful if you're trying to sell austerity to have to say that the economy is likely to grow this year because of the Olympics. Rather, politicians prefer to say nothing and will then take the praise if growth occurs.

    Financial benefits should ripple out to other parts of the country. However, as a general rule the further away communities are from London, the less they will feel the positive impact.

    30 or 40 years from now, we'll still be watching replays of sporting action from the 2012 Games

    John Gold

    A shared experience

    The Olympics Games are about many things but, in the longer term, they become an important part of social memory. Regardless of what type of visual media we have in our homes in 30 or 40 years from now, we'll still be watching replays of sporting action from the 2012 Games.

    My parents' generation talked fondly of the events of the previous London Olympics in 1948 and had previous souvenirs popped away in drawers. That was 64 years ago and the Games are unlikely to return to London again until well into the second half of the twenty-first century at the earliest. In other words, for many people the Olympics will not return to Great Britain again in their lifetimes.

    There has been a very long period when it seemed that the Olympics were a distant event that simply demanded huge amounts of money. But the reality is nearly with us. This is a nation that is passionately keen on sport. I would confidently expect that this will turn out to be an event that the British will enjoy and will leave fond memories.

    Failure or success - a question of perspective

    Memory is an important part of the experience of the Olympics. Those who attended the Games at Sydney in 2000 often speak highly of the event - a comforting idea given that Sydney was taken as a role model for London 2012. However, the memories that people now hold are not always predictable. My experience of previous Olympics is that the host city and nation seldom have any regrets about staging the Games.

    This applies even to Olympics that are criticised for being disasters. I recall talking to planners and members of the general public who participated in the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal.

    Most things went wrong. The plans for the stadia were hugely over-ambitious. The main stadium's leaning tower was not completed until after the Games. The retractable roof could never be made to work properly. Quebec's provincial government had to take over construction of the Olympic Park when it became clear building work would not otherwise be finished in time for the opening ceremony.

    Debts racked up to a billion dollars which were not written off - the city authorities had to pay them back in full which they did not manage to do until December 2006. Not surprisingly the city's Olympic Stadium, nicknamed 'The Big O' because of the doughnut-shaped roof, later became known as 'The Big Owe'.

    Yet the Games remain fondly recalled by Montrealers. They enjoyed the Games themselves and felt that their city had previously been regarded as unfashionable, industrial and declining. The Games had helped to make it a city on the world map.

    In particular, I remember speaking to the site architect. He recounted the succession of Games from the 1970s and early 1980s: 'Munich, Moscow, Los Angeles - that's the sort of company we like to keep. Now let's see Toronto do better than that!'

    London 2012 will generate its own set of memories. No doubt, the business of exploring them will give observers something important to do for many years to come.