“Bidding for and hosting events like the Olympics are a way to reset how your country is perceived”

Sir Hugh Robertson, Minister for Sport and the Olympics during London 2012, discusses how a successful mega-event can impact a country’s legacy for decades 

Recently the International Olympics Committee (IOC) released its Olympic Agenda 2020; 40 proposals that included changes to the bidding process by inviting potential candidate cities to present a project that fits their sporting, economic, and long-term needs; reducing costs for bidding; and an overall move from a sport-based to an event-based programme.

The proposals will undoubtedly prove a hot topic of debate during Host Cities, a two-day event in Dubai that will discuss the latest trends and future of events. A strong advocate for the IOC’s recommendations is Sir Hugh Robertson, who asserts that these new philosophies are a welcome reflection of how the definition of a ‘host city’ is beginning to shift.

In his time as Minister for Sport and the Olympics during London 2012, the former MP supervised a hugely successful London 2012 Olympics that saw Michael Phelps crowned the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time; the introduction of women’s boxing; and an opening ceremony that featured a cameo from the Queen herself.

Post-event, hosting the Olympics had significant benefits for the UK in sectors ranging from economy to tourism. These benefits were created, Robertson states, by London’s success in two main areas: delivery, and legacy.

If the Games becomes the preserve of a small number of very wealthy cities, then it has failed its mission

Sir Hugh Robertson

“The backdrop to London 2012 was an era when events were getting larger and larger, where delivery times had got stretched and budgets had overrun,” he says.

“But London 2012 set a new benchmark. The event was delivered ahead of time, all the construction was finished a year out from the start of the opening ceremony, and it was delivered half a million pounds under budget.”

As well as efficient delivery, legacy is another aspect Robertson emphasises as being particularly successful, quoting the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) comment that London 2012 provided a ‘blueprint’ for future games in terms of legacy.

“We took the view that we were going to define [legacy] very clearly, and build it into everything we did right from the start. So the legacy company wasn’t set up right at the end; it was present in the nascent years of the project.”

The London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) ­– made up of master planners, traffic flow analysts, building planners and architects – ensured that the operations companies that built and ran the 17-day event always kept permanence at the forefront of their minds, and where this wasn’t possible, built temporary structures that could be taken down.

“If your builders and operators are thinking, ‘what are we going to use this for afterwards?’ it affects the way they design and run operations during the Games,” he says.

“Although there was some criticism over selling off a stadium to West Ham United, there is nothing in London that has tumbleweed blowing through it, and I don’t think that has ever happened before. Very few modern Olympic Games have made use of all the stadia.”

Figures have proved that the legacy drive has worked, to a large extent. The Copper Box Arena, which hosted sports such as handball during the Games, reopened to put on events like premiership basketball or pop concerts, and has seen over 60,000 visitors since July 2013.

london 2012
Ray Davies of the Kinks sings 'Waterloo Sunset', a love letter to London, at the closing ceremony in the city's 2012 Olympics

The London Aquatics Centre, meanwhile, has received over 1 million visitors since opening in April last year, and teaches around 2,000 schoolchildren how to swim every week.

“We felt very strongly when we were doing London 2012 that part of our role was to scale down the Olympics so they didn’t become these huge, costly and slightly status-driven events.”

Robertson emphasises that the main aim is for the Olympics to go to cities in all parts of the world, some of which might have never hosted an event of that size before.

“If the Games becomes the preserve of a small number of very wealthy cities, then it has failed its mission.”

As for advice for governments thinking about bidding, Robertson comments that there is one element of the Games that is always overlooked – that of perception.

“If you had asked me as the minister in charge of London 2012 what I thought it would do for London, I would’ve run you through the usual list of legacy, business and tourism, regeneration, benefits to communities.”

“But I would have missed the most important benefit: which was that this two and a half week period reset the way the world looked at us. Before 2012, people looked at London and saw a slightly old-fashioned city where the food wasn’t that great, the weather wasn’t good and the people weren’t that friendly. Instead they found a modern and vibrant capital city where things worked perfectly, people were amazingly friendly and open, and where the world’s broadcasters, and sponsors came to do business.”