Losing from the start

Published in The Guardian (August 3rd, 2011)

The whitewater rapids have run dry, the beach volleyball court has sprouted weeds and the aquatic centre contains little more than graffiti. Seven years ago, these were the showpieces of the world’s greatest games when the Olympics returned to Athens. Today, they serve as reminders that the travelling circus tends to leave a tawdry legacy.

For nearly three decades there has not been an Olympic Games that could show a net profit, despite shrouding budgets in mystery. The last one to do so was Los Angeles in 1984 – and the cost of our looming extravaganza has ballooned from £2.4bn to nearly £10bn.

Cheerleaders for Britain’s bid say our games will be different. So did their predecessors. Away from the hype and hoopla of London 2012, studies show major sporting events cost a fortune but fail to provide a genuine economic boost; they deter tourists and do next to nothing for the numbers of people playing sport. Even the “feelgood factor” is statistically insignificant, unless it is a major football competition.

One thing that can make a difference is the site itself, although even here most games end up losers in the long-run. Infrastructure is built to suit the demands of the International Olympic Committee, not the needs of the host city. Perhaps the one exception was Barcelona, where planning was part of a long-term strategy to return the city to the people after years of dictatorship.

It would be good to think our games will prove an exception. Instead, organisers are blowing their big chance. For there is a scheme that offers something special, the chance to create a unique, world-renowned centre of science and technology. Unfortunately, this innovative venture from one of Britain’s most respected bodies is being sacrificed for a deal with a foreign potentate.

The Wellcome Trust, Britain’s biggest charity, which uses a massive investment portfolio to fund scientific study, has made an audacious £1bn bid to buy the Olympic Park. It wants to create a global hub for research and innovation, focused on health, technology and sports science. And given its track record, which includes pioneering research units, support for Nobel prize-winning scientists and the only AAA credit-rating in Britain outside of government, it should be listened to.

The trust has been in covert talks to bring in two universities – Loughborough and University College London – together with venture capital and technology giants. The plans, which include a museum, social housing and the creation of 7,000 jobs, envisage the melding of scientific study with the spirit of Silicon Valley. It would invest huge sums in cutting-edge facilities at a time when pharamaceutical companies are closing down research laboratories in Britain.

You might think such a proposal would be grabbed by organisers, with thanks that here is something with potential to transform east London and provide long-term benefits for Britain. But that would be too obvious. Instead, they are focusing on short-term profits by looking to sell the lucrative athletes’ village to the Qatari royal family in conjunction with a private firm of property developers. Perhaps the jobsworths on the Olympic Park Legacy Company don’t want to put themselves out of work by handing their entire site to one body. Or perhaps they are just stupendously shortsighted.

Either way, hiving off the housing area means Wellcome will withdraw its offer, and Britain will lose a world-beating centre of life science. We are snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. What a terrible start for our Olympics.

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