David Owen: The Greenwich legacy story – and why it might be worth reading from Rio to Nanjing

Friday, 14 December 2012
David Owen newGreenwich, I always thought, was supposed to be the venue with no legacy.

The Borough's magnificent park, I understood, was supposed to be left unaltered, as if the London 2012 equestrian competitions had never taken place there.

So it came as a bit of a surprise to be told about a report entitled, "A 2012 Legacy for Royal Greenwich".

Still more to find that it runs to 59 pages.

Part of the explanation, though only a small part, is that the Borough actually had three Olympic competition venues: the O2 (or "North Greenwich Arena", in Olympic guise) and Royal Artillery Barracks, as well as the famous park.

I was also left with the feeling that everything conceivable had been crammed in, with some inclusions having little if anything to do with Olympic legacy.

Crossrail, for example, might well be, as the report says, "London's first new railway for over 20 years".

I can even remember it being claimed, years ago, that it might be vital to a London Olympic bid's chances of success.

But, given that it is now only, in the report's words, "scheduled to become operational in 2018", I think it is stretching things to claim it as part of anyone's London 2012 legacy.

Greenwich Park London 2012Controversy surrounded turning Greenwich Park, which is part of the Greenwich World Heritage Site, into a temporary sporting venue for London 2012

Having made those points, I must say I found the document a real eye-opener.

It is the Borough's own report and it would be interesting to know how effective local residents feel its efforts have been.

Nonetheless, I was left with a clear impression of a local administration that woke up very early to the possibilities of what the Olympic experience could be used to achieve on its territory and was able to piece together a number of worthwhile initiatives – using joined-up Government and contributions from all sorts of outside partners - as a result.

I can see how the controversy over turning the park into a temporary sports venue might have given Councillors a special motivation to ensure that Greenwich's Olympic legacy was as worthwhile as possible.

Greenwich Park London 2012 equestrianGreenwich was the centre of worldwide attention when it successfully hosted the equestrian during London 2012

But this seems an impressively-assembled gift-horse and it would be churlish to look it too closely in the mouth.

Some examples:

I was impressed by the multi-faceted approach adopted in the bid to transform Hornfair Park, a run-down space in a deprived part of the Borough.

As outlined in the report, it has been redeveloped into a so-called "sports hub", including a BMX track using soil donated from the Olympic Park site.

This track was used in May for the inaugural London Youth Games BMX event.

Funding from the London Marathon Trust enabled new changing facilities to be built adjacent to sports pitches, while tennis courts were redeveloped with the help of the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA).

A 1930s lido has also received much-needed investment.

Sportathlon - a mass participation event for primary-school kids that was established as long ago as 2006 - looks to be another worthwhile idea that has become part of the local fabric.

I was also impressed by the way Greenwich seems to have planned well in advance to exploit its weeks in the global spotlight to provide a long-term boost to tourism, making the most of its nautical heritage via initiatives involving tall ships and the cruise ship industry, as well as by endeavouring to promote the Borough as "a destination in its own right".

Given the proximity and scale of the London 2012 project, some might feel that the £28 million ($45 million/€35 million) of contracts directly linked to the Games secured by Greenwich companies was a disappointingly low total.

Even here, though, the Borough did its best to make the most of its rare Olympic opportunity by forging ties with Cisco Systems, the networking equipment giant that was a London 2012 sponsor, and with expansion-minded businesses from China, host of the 2008 Games.

On the jobs front, the Borough appears to have made huge efforts to help residents equip themselves to take advantage of Olympic and other employment opportunities.

Hornfair Park BMX trackHornfair Park was transformed into a BMX track last year as part of Greenwich Council's Playground to Podium legacy programme

Once again, this involved considerable forward planning.

Given the extent of these efforts, the number of people helped into anything resembling permanent employment looks soberingly low to me.

Then again, the United Kingdom economy has been in poor shape for some years now and even if the overall number of long-term job berths is rather small, the potential effect on the lives of those who have benefited is far greater than having a better neighbourhood football pitch to play on or a nearby statue of the goddess Nike to stare at.

The report covers a lot more ground and goes into considerable detail.

Though obviously local in nature, I would judge it well worth a read by administrators in any locality with ambitions to host a big international sports event in the next few years.

Not everything Greenwich tried will be transferable; but the document should serve as a useful case study and might well spark other ideas.

It is available here.

David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2010 World Cup and London 2012. Owen's Twitter feed can be accessed here.
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