Regular readers of my blog will know that my favourite L word is Legacy – event legacy, to be precise. Events aren’t just about what happens in the moment, they expire, and it’s a challenge to see not just how long you can make it last (though given that I’m the queen of stretching birthdays out for two weeks, my love for event legacy is unsurprising), but how much of a positive impact the ripples can have on their surroundings, and for how long.
Olympic Games are notoriously poor at producing good legacies, which is why the IOC has become a huge fan of the event industry’s favourite buzz word – these mega-events take seven years of pre-production (and that’s just from the moment of winning the bid, there are at least three years prior to that devoted to pitching and bidding and schmoozing), only to expire within four weeks of competition. By that point, a city is often left with brand new Olympic-quality facilities which it sometimes has no idea what to do with. It’s not just the competition venues, it’s the athlete housing and media capabilities. So things have to change.
Legacies haven’t always looked like they do today, with tree-lined parks which are home to affordable housing for local people, and world-class facilities which will train the stars of the future whilst providing entertainment and a place for residents to keep fit. Occasionally, a legacy is accidental or, at least, something which could’ve been completely different.
On my recent trip to Berlin, I visited the Olympiastadion, the venue which hosted the 2006 football World Cup final, but which is also infamous for holding the 1936 Olympics. Where, hindsight keenly showed us, Hitler oversaw the building of what would become an enormous rally ground. What he probably didn’t predict is that, almost 80 years later on a windy Tuesday in October, the park would be full of people wandering around clutching personal electronic devices and being guided around the park via GPS in a variety of languages. This, dear readers, is a legacy many events may only dream of.
For it is not – yet, one might argue – the fate of any other Olympic Games. London’s legacy is foetal by comparison, but those in charge should learn from Berlin. The Olympiastadion has pulled off an incredible feat, arguably thanks to input from the Brits themselves. When Berlin was divided post-WW2, the stadium was part of the British sector, and was duly preserved. Between foreign occupation, the Cold War and a divided state, the park could easily have fallen into ruin. Instead, it has not only survived, but thrived.
My family and I chose to take the fairly new multimedia guided tours, which was €3 per person on top of the park entry fee. Don’t tell those who run the stadium, but they could be charging twice that – many other tour operators do. We were each given a smartphone-type device (they’re GPS enabled – you can click on each part of the tour as you get to it, but the map guides you around and is set to autoplay when you reach the relevant section) and headphones (which, my Dad remarked, have the added bonus of keeping your ears warm) before departing on our tour. There are two versions – 65 minutes or 100 minutes, and we chose the latter.
We were given a wealth of information on our tour, beginning with the stadium’s original history as a horse racing venue. You’re then sped up to it’s predominant current use as a football stadium, where the events pro in me drooled at the brilliantly-designed lighting system which creates no shadows on the pitch. Then the real reason I’d insisted on a visit began, and we were taken around the park, with the opportunity to see the list of gold medal winners from the 1936 games, the site which bore the Olympic flame, and many other things.
As I walked around the park, there was an incredible example of legacy at every turn: alongside the rally ground, which is still used as a polo field (polo was an Olympic sport in 1936, and one which Team GB won a medal in!), there is a small field with practice cross country fences (this part of the park wasn’t explained, but I could see that it wasn’t big enough to have been the actual course – a rider was using it, though!). Across a small road, there were also at least two outdoor sand schools, both of which were in use, presumably by either visiting riders or those who keep horses nearby.
Further walking led to a small outdoor pool where swimming practice was taking place – yes, outdoors in October! There’s a reason the team in question – a local water polo club – are incredibly successful… Also training on the day were various levels of age group football players, making use of smaller pitches within the park. When I reached the final stop on the tour – the original Olympic swimming and diving pools – my guide informed me that the pool is available for members of the public to use in summer months, almost 80 years post-Games! Many Olympic pools since have fallen out of use less than eight years post-Games, never mind eight decades later.
The tour involves a lot of walking, and the park is very different to the images we are shown of how the delivery agencies hope for London’s Olympic park to look (it’s very austere, lacking in decorative flora and fauna – although, this makes it very low-maintenance – but I think that’s a subtle awareness from the German’s that their park is unique, that it is also an eerie reminder of Nazism, as well as a place of sporting significance), but it is an incredible experience. Many people remember only the negatives in Germany’s history, but the present is very much positive, with a venue which was built to last seeing sustained use. It’s certainly a place which I would be proud to see my tax dollars funding in the present day.
As I crossed from the pool to the stadium, multimedia device in hand, to meet up with my family, I wondered how many people could be wandering around London’s Olympic park eight decades from now, what they might be clutching and how their experience could be. I hope that there is something good to see, that the facilities are open for business, that we have built it and people will come.