So it appears that West Ham are going to be recommended as the preferred bidder for the Olympic Stadium. Although this decision has been reached amidst accusation and acrimony, there has been no real evidence-based public debate on the nature of the mythical athletics legacy that a track retained at the stadium is assumed to generate. But, this problem extends far beyond the Olympic Stadium to the wider public discussion of the nature of Olympic and, often forgotten, Paralympic legacies. The problem is that when politicians and Olympic and Paralympic advocates discuss (or, more accurately, make the case for) legacies, they are only ever talking about planned positive legacies. Yet evidence from previous Games shows us that focusing on planned positive legacies provides only a partial and, more importantly, a distorted picture.
NEGATIVE legacies might be likened to side effects of medicines. For example, strategies that seek to use elite athletes to inspire sport participation might have the negative side effect of putting the non-sporty off sport even further because of a “competence gap” (created because elite athletes’ achievements and attitudes appear so far removed from the non-sporty that it suggests that sport is not for them). In this example, the NEGATIVE legacy is not unexpected, it is a foreseeable side effect of a planned positive legacy. Consequently, it could be planned for, and strategies put in place to reduce or counteract its effect. But such strategies can only be developed if the potential for such NEGATIVE legacies is openly acknowledged.
UNPLANNED legacies are not simply the result of unexpected events (such as the Atlanta bombing). More often they are UNPLANNED effects of hosting the Games, or of planned legacy initiatives. UNPLANNED legacies may be positive or negative, but because they are UNPLANNED they are rarely acknowledged or measured, thus resulting in an incomplete legacy picture.
NEGATIVE legacies and UNPLANNED legacies are an important part of the Olympic and Paralympic legacy picture, and they should be part of legacy discussions. However, more often than not they are glossed over or ignored as politicians and Olympic and Paralympic advocates seek to demonstrate the positive outcomes of planned legacy initiatives. But if they are acknowledged, NEGATIVE and UNPLANNED legacies can be addressed and accounted for. As such, it’s time for a full and open debate on Olympic and Paralympic Legacies!