By Sally Ehrmann
With COVID-19 continuing to spread across the world, the legacy of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics could be the first canceled games due to a pandemic rather than war. If that happens, many wonder whether the estimated $29 billion price tag will have been worth it.
But looking at past successful games shows that economics may not be the only way to measure the success of hosting the Olympics. Eight years after London’s 2012 Summer Olympic Games, for example, the city still reaps benefits from a complete transformation of a formerly blighted neighborhood.
“You can look to a qualitative or quantitative legacy. Quantitative, you can capture all that. Job creation, money generated,” said Charles Runcie, a former sports journalist with the BBC. “Then, you must count the qualitative stuff, the feel-good factor. Are more events coming here? Has the city benefited overall?”
In the past 15 years, the city of London has transformed an industrial wasteland on the East Side into one of the city’s most happening neighborhoods. What now feels like a sanctuary from the loud, bustling downtown of London has changed dramatically in the years since London won the Olympic bid in 2005.
“There was a pressure for London to grow,” said Michael Owens, an adjunct professor at ACCENT College London and an urban planner. “It was a challenge to speak to the economic future of the city. Downtown was spreading eastward, but there was a tension between the market and the government. The government wanted to specifically develop the polluted East London. But, the market liked West London.”
Owens cites years of pollution and waste dumping that turned Stratford, now the home of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, into a “post-industrial dystopian landscape.”
Unemployment was also high. According to the Office for National Statistics, the UK’s unemployment rate sat at 4.8% in 2005. But in Newham, the borough that includes Stratford, the unemployment rate was 8.5%.
“This was a part of the city where you wouldn’t get off the train unless you absolutely had to,” said Eve Milner, a London tour guide.
However, the prospect of the Olympic Games helped to speed up the regeneration process of the land. Owens, who was part of the bidding process, said London’s government was committed to improving Stratford regardless if the city won the bid or not.
According to a 2017 study from Oxford Economics, East London is the fastest-growing area of the city, thanks to the Olympics. The report showed a significant increase in the population of Newham, which now has over 340,000 residents. The report forecasted a 7% rise in population growth by 2030. Regeneration led to 110,000 new jobs in the area since 2012.
“The legacy of the 2012 Olympics is not just about the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park,” said Mayor Sadiq Khan in a press release. “It is about delivering regeneration for an area of London that we want to last for decades to come.
“It shows what can be achieved by bringing together a world-class public realm, access to culture and proper coordination between affordable housing, social infrastructure and transport, and should be a good example of providing good growth across our city. Businesses, universities and cultural institutions are flocking here and the center of gravity in London is moving East.”
One of the most significant decisions after the games was turning the athletes’ housing into apartments to rent or buy. Victoria Cook, a brand communications manager at Get Living, a rental management company that runs East Village apartments, said developers set out on construction projects to make the athletes’ dwellings fit for everyday living after the games.
East Village London, the former athletes’ village, holds around 6,000 residents and offers retail space. In total, just under 40% of homes from the athletes’ village are set aside as affordable housing, according to Cook.
“Rather than just making [housing] for the athletes and the parks for the Olympics, they made it set up so it works for the long-term,” Cook said. “When you think about it, it really makes sense to build for the long-term, not short-term. Any kind of projects, whether it’s Tokyo Olympics or Commonwealth Games, think of the long-term impacts and development.”
During the preparations for the 2012 London Olympics, the word “legacy” was used constantly to discuss the impacts of hosting. Initially, Milner said, some Londoners called the games the “bloody Olympics” to express their frustrations with growing costs. However, in the end, BBC reports that about two-thirds of Londoners thought the Olympics were worth the money.
“The Olympics improved public transportation across the capital generally, the salvation of 500 acres of blighted and polluted land in the inner city and the River Lea,” Milner said. “Thousands of job opportunities for local residents, international-standard sporting facilities for public use, a sustainable ‘new’ neighborhood for inner London with primary health care facilities, schools, retail and a variety of housing.”
While the London Olympics brought new buildings and features to Stratford, it also brought an influx of new residents and gentrification. According to a 2019 CBRE report, housing prices in Newham grew 49% in the last five years. The average house price is now £372,000 (roughly $433,428).
“Obviously, the downside is the marching gentrification of what used to be an extremely deprived working-class neighborhood,” Milner said. “Everybody asks where the former residents are living and working now. The sad answer is that they have been pushed out, and affordable housing promises are always broken by cynical property developers.”
Owens said in the end, there are probably “equally good and bad” stories following the development of Stratford and the 2012 Olympic Games. Still, he said the development was a “brilliant” case-study in urban planning.
Canceling the Tokyo Olympic Games would lead to considerable short-term economic pain. SMBC Nikko Securities Inc. estimates that if Japan or the International Olympic Committee were to cancel the games, it would reduce Japan’s annual gross domestic product growth by 1.4%.
However, Tokyo has nearly completed its renovations and building projects. The city took elements of London’s successes by building a new stadium on top of a former timber storage space in addition to its many projects to improve transportation systems for parts of the city.
The legacy of the Tokyo Games is still to be determined. An announcement on the status of the games is expected by the end of May.