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The Olympic games now bask in our rosy memory bank of British triumphs (and averted disasters); but there was a negative inheritance too

Greenwich Park may have been permanently damaged, whatever the appearances that it has been restored to what it was

By on Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Great Britain's Nicolas Woodbridge competes in London 2012's Modern Pentathlon at Greenwich Park

Great Britain's Nicolas Woodbridge competes in London 2012's Modern Pentathlon at Greenwich Park

A year on from the 2012 Olympics, nearly everyone has been celebrating the extraordinary success, both of the games themselves, and also of what was gruesomely called “Team GB”. The main thing about the games was that they changed our expectancy about ourselves. The site was completed ahead of time and on-budget (well, up to a point). Not only that, we ended up in the medals table in a creditable fourth place (and well above Australia).

This was not what the moaning minnies had predicted. I ought to know, because I was one of them, big time. I always derive a certain satisfaction from being able, when I turn out to be right, to say I told you so: So when one gets things wrong, one ought to admit it. Well, though I wasn’t wrong about everything, I got it spectacularly wrong about one main anxiety many people shared: our vulnerability to terrorism, caused not least by the shambles over our security as the games approached, and as we fell back more and more on the military to protect us. I wrote a piece entitled (wait for it) “Winning the Olympic Games was a great national disaster. We have reduced ourselves to a state of militaristic paranoia; the terrorists have already won”.

That reference to militaristic paranoia was a reference to the fact that the amphibious assault ship HMS Ocean had arrived at Greenwich, where she remained until after the end of the Paralympics, acting as a helicopter landing platform and “logistics hub”, and that RAF Typhoon jets were stationed at RAF Northolt: this led me to ask how exactly those RAF Typhoon jets were going to be used. What we were told was that their purpose was to enforce the no-fly zone which had been imposed over London for the duration of the games. But, I asked (I still think not unreasonably) “suppose an aircraft, hi-jacked or not, simply ignores the no-fly zone, ignores the Typhoon jets which will arrive alongside gesticulating wildly, and just flies on over London in the direction of the Olympic zone? Will the Typhoon jets just shoot it down? Over the most densely populated area in Europe? If not, what will they do? Are we all mad?”

I got it, as it happened, wildly wrong about security. Everything passed off peacefully; all was well. But my anxieties were widely shared, and entirely rational: anxieties not merely about security but about the general shambles which seemed to be developing. London 2012, we were told, would attract the attention of the world: well, it did, but at first in no very complmentary way. Remember the failure of G4S to provide enough security guards?

But it all worked out; the military stepped in, cheerfully and efficiently, providing the games with one of their great PR hits. Everything was fine in the end. The Public and Commercial Services Union, representing thousands of border control staff, decided to call a 24-hour strike on the peak arrival day for visitors to the Games. Andrew Rawnsley commented, in the Observer, “Welcome, world, to Britain, a host nation in which a blitheringly incompetent private company and a bovinely led public sector union compete for gold in making a fool of [their] country”. But all somehow went well: there was no endless waiting around at Heathrow, the competitors arrived and were efficiently whisked over to the Olympic village.

There were, however, some serious doubts about the games which have not yet been allayed, beginning with their cost. According to David Cameron there was going to be a profit: the UK, he said, “will make £13bn” from the Games. Where that figure came from was not explained: and it was, of course fantastical. The nation hosting the games almost always ends up well in the red after cost over-runs, the security bill and working days lost to Games disruption. And so it was in our case.

Most people, it seems, think that all those billions were well worth spending, for the general boost to morale that emerged and is still well in place. Well, fine, and I don’t underestimate the priceless gift to national morale the whole thing generated. But I am still left with some niggles about it all. It was supposed to make our young people more interested in getting involved in sporting endeavour. Has it actually done that? There seems to be little evidence of it. What exactly is the “inheritance” the games have left?

Some of it is disastrous. One outrageous part of the legacy has been the damage done to Greenwich Park by its conversion for use as the site for the equestrian games. There was a tremendous campaign against the use of Greenwich Park at the time. The historian, David Starkey, wrote prophetically to The Times newspaper that “Greenwich faces its gravest threat since the 19th century. Then it was proposed to drive a railway through the park; now, and scarcely less vandalistically, to make it the site of the 2012 Olympics equestrian events.

“To do so will require the lopping and pruning of trees, the removal and replacement of thousands of tons of topsoil, countless journeys by heavy lorries and soil-moving equipment, compaction of the soil by the feet of 75,000 spectators and the closure of sections of the park to the public for up to five years.

“And for what? To provide a pretty TV backdrop for a few hours of an elitist minority sport – for which, incidentally, ample facilities in an equally beautiful setting already exist as near as Windsor. It will cost a fortune. And there will be no legacy whatever, apart from the likelihood of irreparable damage to the archaeology of the site and the long-term scarring of the landscape.”

Well, much of that has come true. Six months after the games, the Telegraph was reporting that “the most popular part of the park, Queen’s Field, which was turned into a showjumping stadium during the summer, is now a mud bath surrounded by an unsightly fence. An adjacent park also used for the equestrian events, which is a nature conservation area, ‘may never be the same again’, campaigners say, and there are fears that the roots of ancient trees have also been damaged.” There were fears, too, over what archaelogical damage has almost certainly been done.

The Park is mostly now open, after 12 months, it seems, and Locog (the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games, remember?) are claiming that it is now back in its original condition. But of course, they would, wouldn’t they? Time will tell: but the archaeologists, for a start, have their doubts, and I fear that the verdict of history will not justify the use of Greenwich Park “to provide a pretty TV backdrop for a few hours” of showjumping.

Look, the games were a success. What could have been a shambles somehow came off: but what it all left behind was not a wholly benign inheritance. Despite the undoubted success of the games themselves, there was considerable anger the time, which remains in the memory, over the arrogance of Locog, with its dedicated traffic lanes for Olympic bigwigs, and its censorship of any advertising that seemed (however absurdly) to breach their copyright: they actually forced a butcher, who had arranged sausages in the shape of the Olympic rings, to take them down immediately or face prosecution: you can probably remember many similarly outrageous stories.

Locog’s moment of overwheening power has gone; but the bitter taste it left is still there: especially for many who fought to save Greenwich Park, and know that Locog’s bright new turf masks the rape of an historic site.