Britain: the Olympics in a time of austerity

| April 12, 2012 | 0 Comments
The sun sets over Olympic Stadium in London.

The sun sets over Olympic Stadium in London.

On July 6, 2005, at Raffles City in Singapore, the International Olympic Committee announced that London had won the bid for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The competition had been strong, including bids from Madrid, Moscow, New York and Paris. There was jubilation in London and across the United Kingdom. One of the world’s most dynamic, creative and international cities would stage the world’s most complex sporting event — and was looking forward to it.
Three years later, the world had changed again. We were in the midst of the worst global financial crisis since the 1930s. That, and its enduring aftermath, faced us all with deficits, sovereign debt and the imperatives of austerity, challenges London’s Olympics had not expected.
But spending cuts are not the only instrument of austerity. Times of economic hardship demand that governments invest public money effectively. The Olympics made exactly such a demand as a once-in-a-generation chance to demonstrate why Britain is a great place to invest, study and do business; and to build for the present, while investing in the future, in sustainable technologies, infrastructure, business and tourism.
World-class British expertise and innovative British businesses are at the core of delivering the UK’s biggest peacetime logistical operation, on time and on budget. The complex pieces of this massive project are being finalized as I write — including venue construction, transport, policing and security.
Take, for instance, Olympic Park, constructed on reclaimed waste and industrial land in Stratford, East London. This is the largest park built in Britain in 100 years. Sustainability has been incorporated directly into the design process. When complete, two million tons of soil, much previously contaminated, will have been treated and re-used, 98 per cent of demolition material recycled, waterways hidden for generations uncovered and new wildlife habitats created. Olympic Park is not just a venue, it’s an ecosystem.
And it spreads beyond the park. More than £8 billion (C$12.6 billion) of public funding has been invested to regenerate East London and the city’s five poorest boroughs, making Olympic Park one of the largest urban developments in Europe and creating 2,800 new homes, of which half will be affordable housing.
A central idea is to tread softly. New venues and buildings incorporate low-carbon and sustainable construction techniques. Wherever possible — for the football events, for example — existing stadia will be used. And the park’s usefulness will not end with the Games. It’s designed to provide long-term economic and social benefits to the community, well into the future. In short, Olympic Park is intended as a catalyst for change, a blueprint for sustainable living that, hopefully, will inspire similar approaches elsewhere.
But investment in London’s economic future does not begin or end with the park. London’s transportation networks, above and below ground, which carry the city’s millions of commuters and visitors, are being improved, not only to serve the needs of the Games but the future demands of the economy. The 2012 Transport Plan details these improvements. They include upgrades to existing rail stations, construction of new ones and investment in new light rail lines to increase capacity. Given the sustainability focus of London 2012, Olympic Park has also been fully integrated into London’s cycling and pedestrian networks, providing a sustainable transportation legacy. As today’s citizens search for better ways to commute to work, leisure and social facilities, innovation in transportation infrastructure creates a city that is better connected and more attractive to new residents and investment.
This work is already generating social and economic dividends. By the time the Games are over, 30,000 people will have worked on the park, thousands more on £6 billion ($9.4 billion) in supplier contracts and countless others will have worked or volunteered to support the Games during 2012. And the UK businesses that provide high-quality jobs are developing knowledge and expertise by working on Olympic projects, honing a competitive edge for the future.
In five short months, the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies will demonstrate to billions of people a London, and a Britain, that is home to one of the most culturally diverse, inclusive and modern societies in the world. By effectively managing the planning and construction aspects of the Games, we have been able to invest extra money in the ceremonies, within the defined public-sector financial envelope. We know this type of investment can be a significant economic benefit. For example, the number of international visitors to Barcelona doubled in the decade following the 1992 Olympics; and a report by Oxford Economics predicted a boost of more than £2 billion ($3.1 billion Cdn) for tourism in Britain from 2013-17.
But the Games are about much more than economics. They are an international festival of sport, fellowship and excellence. Britain’s international city looks forward to welcoming the world.
The London Games run from July 27 through August 12.

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