Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis and Usain Bolt return to Stratford’s Olympic Park next weekend to compete in the “anniversary games”, hoping to rekindle some of the magic from London 2012.
Their gold-medal exploits and those of other Olympians last summer, coupled with the well-polished organisation and feel-good atmosphere, seemed to answer once and for all the question that had bugged organisers in the run-up to the games: would it all be worth it?
Yet, as London prepares to mark the first anniversary this Saturday of the games opening, the question is resurfacing. A government report last week claimed that £9.9bn in trade and investment had flowed from Britain’s hosting of the Olympics, exceeding the £8.7bn cost to the public purse.
“We are harnessing the Olympic momentum and delivering the lasting business legacy of the games that will help make Britain a winner in the global race,” said David Cameron, prime minister.
There has been a concerted effort in the past year to make the most of the post-Olympic glow, through trade missions and marketing campaigns.
UK Trade and Investment has totted up £5.9bn of deals sealed mainly at an 18-day business summit during the games, plus £2.5bn of inward investment and £1.5bn won by companies for work in countries, such as Brazil and Russia, hosting forthcoming Olympics and other big sporting events .
However, these figures have been called into question by many economists and academics, who say it is impossible to know for sure how much of the business would have occurred even without the games.
“It’s clearly a stylised interpretation of some possible economic impact,” said Tony Travers of the London School of Economics.
Critics also point to missed opportunities. Companies complained for months about not being able to promote their Olympic work because of a protocol signed by the London organising committee to protect its sponsors. These restrictions were relaxed only in February.
The government’s claims of a significant economic boost are supported – at least in part – by a report from Grant Thornton, the professional services group, on the longer-term impact. It estimated the Olympics would be worth between £28bn and £41bn in gross value added to the UK from 2004 to 2020.
However, the study suggested that most of the benefit had already passed and the remainder would quickly taper off after 2015. Even one of the report’s advisers questioned its calculation of future gains.
“At the last minute, there appeared a significant additional economic impact for the 2013-20 period, with no explanation as to how this was arrived at,” said Professor Stefan Szymanski, a sports economist.
The department for culture, media and sport, which commissioned the Grant Thornton research, said the estimate was made late in the research process so that it was “as up to date as possible when published and based on the latest data”.
The Grant Thornton study also pointed to an awkward conclusion about where any economic benefit had taken place; London and the southeast have dominated, with few signs of the national impact promised by organisers.
Vince Cable, the business secretary, admitted that any estimate of the Olympics’ economic legacy would be open to challenge, but he said the government exercise was worth doing.
“It is the best we can do – it is not necessarily something that would pass muster in the best academic journals but a test of credibility has been applied to it,” he said.
For Mr Travers, the real benefits were reputational, “delivering the Olympics on time, a showcase for British architecture and project management, and managing the legacy better than any other cities or countries before”.
Despite the concentration of economic benefits around the capital, he noted that the public resentment from other regions that some had predicted before the games did not materialise.
“In a sense, people say it was the ‘British’ Olympic games. People were able to enjoy the Olympics, the successful logistics and that it was being done well, rather than complain that these were good for London and not good for the rest of the UK.”
Much of the long-term economic legacy will depend on the outcome of regeneration efforts around the Olympic Park in east London. Boris Johnson, the capital’s mayor, will this week trumpet success in securing a commercial future for the stadium and other venues.
Others point to broader benefits, such as surveys suggesting a positive change in attitudes to volunteering after the role of the purple-jacketed Games Makers in last summer’s success. There have been similar findings on attitudes to people with disabilities since the Paralympics. “The games are delivering a strong social legacy,” said Mr Cameron, during a visit to the Olympic Park on Friday.
For the prime minister, this week’s anniversary could be his last chance to extract political value from the games. The prime minister is tipping the Olympic bottle upside down and shaking it.
Mr Szymanski said the clearest economic cause-and-effect remained the rush of gold medals that resulted from Britain’s heavy pre-games investment in elite sport. This helped create the jubilant mood for which the summer of 2012 will be remembered.
“People had a wonderful time, people loved it,” he said. “And not many people resent the money spent.”
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