Business Today

Beyond the finish line

N. Madhavan        Print Edition: May 13, 2012

The 1976 Montreal Olympics are best known for Nadia Comaneci's 'perfect 10' scores in seven gymnastics events. No female gymnast before her had scored the maximum even once at the Olympics.

What is less known is that it took Montreal 30 years to repay the debts incurred hosting the Games. The Olympic stadium, initially called 'The Big O' because of its name and doughnut shape, came to be known as 'The Big Owe' because of the debt associated with it.

Montreal is not alone in carrying a financial burden after the games; 21 of the 22 venues built for the Sydney Olympics are lying unused. A year after the 2004 Athens Olympics, the Greek government had to spend $124 million to maintain the idle facilities.

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These are just the sort of disasters the organisers of the 2012 London Olympics hope to avoid. Rather than a series of white elephants, the organisers want the Games to have a lasting legacy.

For starters, they hope the event will transform London's East End, a neglected area notorious for its poverty and crime since the days of the Industrial Revolution. The organisers also want to use the Games to help British companies go global as well as to attract more foreign investment into the UK.

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The United Kingdom's bidding team for the 2012 Olympics highlighted these objectives in a presentation to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) at Singapore's Raffles City Convention Centre on July 6, 2005.

The IOC members were impressed and London edged out rival bids from Paris, New York, Madrid and Moscow. This will be the third time the city is hosting the games - it was also the venue for the 1908 and 1948 Olympics. No other city has had that distinction.

Olympic park in London
A bird's eye view of the Olympic park in London's East End
"The difference in our approach was that we looked at what will be left behind in London when the torch goes out," explains Sir Alan Collins, Managing Director of the Olympic Legacy Programme, UK Trade & Investment (UKTI). As the British High Commissioner to Singapore in 2005, he was involved in the bid strategy. By building the idea of a legacy into the planning process, the UK government has been able to approach the games very differently.

That approach led to the Olympic Park being located in London's East End. The pound 6.77 billion that will be invested in construction, infrastructure and transportation for the Games will bring about a rapid regeneration of the borough, transforming it into one of the largest urban parks created in Europe in the last 150 years.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has boasted that 75 pennies of every pound spent on the Olympic Park will go into renewing the East End. The 246-hectare park will have 8.35 km of well-dredged waterways, with potential for a variety of leisure activities.

And from being poorly connected, the East End will become among the best connected parts of the capital with huge sums being spent to modernise the area's transport systems. The area also has a new landmark today in the 114-metre Orbit, the UK'S tallest sculpture, built by ArcelorMittal.

The Olympic village, which will accommodate 23,000 athletes and officials during the Games, will have 2,818 new homes for Londoners. In addition, five new neighbourhoods are coming up around the park, creating 11,000 more flats and townhouses along with modern healthcare, education and community facilities. The media centre, which will host 20,000 journalists, will become a 900,000 square foot business centre.

"For the first time in Olympic history, the venues have been designed as much around what happens after the games as during the event," says Sir Alan.

Only those facilities deemed necessary for the area were created permanently. Even the main stadium, aquatics centre and velodrome have been designed in a manner that will allow for their capacity to be reduced and used more effectively after the Games.

A permanent facility for basketball was found unnecessary so the organisers put up a temporary one, among the largest ever built. It has a seating capacity of 12,000, and uses 1,000 tonnes of steel wrapped in 20,000 square metres of polyvinyl chloride. After the games it will be dismantled and used elsewhere. In fact, talks are on with the Brazilian government to sell some structures to it for the 2016 Olympic Games.

The government is expecting the Games to give the UK'S stalling economy the boost it so badly needs. After all, the Olympics in Barcelona and Sydney boosted Spain's and Australia's GDP growth by 2.9 and 2.1 percentage points, respectively.

International visitors are expected to spend 619 million pound during the three-week period. According to Visa Europe, one of the sponsors, the Games will deliver a sustained economic stimulus worth Pound 5.1 billion by 2015. But economists are divided; many say the boost will be limited and will end when visitors move out.

The Games offer a good business networking opportunity for the UK with sponsors, corporates and other host cities. So, on July 26th, the eve of the Games, the government will host an investment conference chaired by Prime Minister Cameron in London with over 200 global and financial leaders.

UKTI has set up a British Business Embassy at Lancaster House in London. Over 3,500 meetings between British companies and potential overseas buyers/investors have been initiated by the embassy.

The UK is also trying to use the Olympic project to create business opportunities for local companies in other countries. Nearly 98 per cent of the Olympic park and other projects was handled by UK-based companies.

"We need to ensure that the companies that built the Olympic Park go on to bigger things in future," says Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport.

UKTI has set up a programme to share best practices with future host cities of major sporting events, including the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia and 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

"The business potential from various major games in the next 10 years is as much as $1.5 trillion," says Sir Alan.

The government's approach has its critics too. The original public spending for the Games was pegged at Pound 3 billion. The 2008 financial crisis saw the private sector deserting the project, forcing the government to foot the entire bill and tripling the budget to over pound 9 billion.

Critics fear that security costs will burn a hole in the Games' budget with plans to station an aircraft carrier in the Thames Estuary, set up anti-aircraft batteries and base Special Forces in and around London. Some even accuse the government of downplaying the budget and estimate that it could well be in excess of pound 20 billion.

But Sir Alan is unfazed.

"After the Great Exhibition in 1851, this is the best opportunity for the UK to showcase its skills."

Held in London between May 1 and October 15, 1851, the exhibition was used by Britain to remind the world of its status as an industrial giant. Ironically, it failed to prevent the decline of the British Empire.

If the legacy part of the 2012 London Olympics plays out well, it will be time for another round of conquests - this time by UK-based companies in overseas markets.

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