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London’s Olympic Park stands the test of time

Posted: 26th January 2022

Matt Mahony

Policy & Public Affairs Manager

Construction Industry Council

The metaphorical frog gets a rough time of it. The humble amphibian gets chided for being stuck in a well and failing to comprehend the sea. It gets boiled to death without noticing. It gets stung by a scorpion for its generosity, because, well, ‘that’s what scorpions do’.

In this instance, the scorpion is the Olympic Games and the frog - as it usually is in metaphors - is you or I, the general public. Extend any goodwill towards hosting the Olympics and you will be stung with unmanageable public costs for your shiny new venues and infrastructure which themselves are doomed to become unloved and unusable as soon as the circus leaves town.

It is perhaps unfair on the games which often bring so much to the host city, however, to look around the Olympic sites in Athens, Beijing and Barcelona – not to mention the many Winter Olympics venues - is to see many illustrations of a built environment that has long since fallen into decay, sometimes within months of the games taking place.

Yet ten years on, London’s Olympic Park has stood the test of time.

The 2012 games successfully accelerated the shift of gravity in London to the East, transforming a heavily polluted post-industrial wasteland into what is now a hive of development.

Despite concerns about the London Legacy Development Corporation’s (LLDC) top-down approach to development and persistent issues around affordability, the consensus among the local community is that the Olympic- led developments have had a strongly beneficial effect. ‘Stratford International’ might never have happened – plans for the station to be served by Eurostar trains never came to fruition – but the legacy planning has been rewarded by qualified success.

An area that was once largely derelict now hosts the likes of BT Sport, Sports Interactive and UCL and will soon be welcoming new sites for Sadler’s Wells, BBC music and the V&A. By 2026, 5600 homes will have been built on the park itself although the numbers of luxury flats and low levels of affordable housing in the LLDC’s area – running at around a quarter of dwellings - have done little to allay fears that the area has turned into a speculators’ hotspot.

Ten years down the line, the new permanent structures on the Olympic site have remained in regular if not always profitable use which is also worth celebrating. As a publicly funded initiative coming at a time of economic crisis, the environmental, social and economic pillars of sustainability were baked into the games, with LLDC shouldering much of the construction risk after the games ended. The pragmatism of the organisers and fruitful preoccupation with ‘legacy’ enabled the area to keep only what it needed in the aftermath of the games.

There is little doubt that the games left a positive architectural legacy through the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Too much ‘culture by committee’ and we could have been left with something akin to the Millennium Dome – Cool Britannia’s Be Here Now. As it was, the need for functional, clearly defined buildings on a budget enabled the ‘starchitecture’ of the award-winning Velodrome and Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre, now more elegant than ever with the ‘wings’ of extra seats removed. The playful versatility of Copper Box has enabled it to successfully host international sporting events, rock concerts and local community activities.

Even the Arcelor Mittal Orbital, a botched viewing platform-sculpture hybrid, at least adds a sense of otherness and occasion its location.

There have been some obvious pitfalls and profligacy, one of which being the heavily subsidised conversion of the showpiece Olympics Stadium into the home ground of West Ham United FC. The age-old problem of combining an athletics stadium with a football pitch – a result of a 2007 Olympic board decision to snub retrofitting the stadium football in the manner of the Manchester City stadium – has proven an expensive one.

The stadium has still fared better than some showpiece rivals. The Barcelona Olympic Stadium at Montjuic Park for example was a costly failure. The local football team Espanyol moved in after the 1992 games yet by 2009 had vacated the stadium to move to a place of their own, built only for football.

Bayern Munich left their Olympic stadium in 2005 after many successful years, but the Stadio Delle Alpi, built for the 1990 FIFA World Cup was torn down having stood for less than 20 years. Bought from the Turin City authorities, it was soon replaced by a trackless 40,000-seater venue. One of the main complaints at the Delle Alpi was poor visibility due to the distance football fans had to sit from the pitch with some supporters located 50 metres from the action. This was a result of the athletics track, although ultimately the stadium never hosted a major athletics event. Despite the team’s success on the pitch, average attendances dwindled to below half of the stadium’s full capacity.

The London stadium has struggled to replicate the footballing atmosphere of West Ham’s previous ground at Upton Park but remains both functional and accessible due to Stratford’s excellent travel links. The deal has proven expensive to the taxpayer with the 700 or so million pounds spent on the stadium coming mostly from the public purse with West Ham paying the LLDC around £2.5 million a year in rent – less than the average yearly wage of a Premier League footballer - plus an initial £15 million fee yet keeping all of the footballing ticket revenue. Deals to ensure that rock concerts and athletics championships would be held at the Olympic Stadium have kept the venue in regular use outside the football season.

A sustainable legacy

It is notable that the games organisers made a genuine commitment to sustainability. In order to safeguard the chain of custody of the timber used on site, the 2012 Olympic Park in London became the first project to achieve dual Project Certification from PEFC and FSC.

The construction work on site embraced a host of environmental initiatives relating to plastics use and lowering the levels of VOCs and pthalates, and it is telling that we haven’t moved on all that far from such initiatives almost fifteen years later, post-Grenfell, with industry drivers such the Code for Sustainable Homes no longer operational and the Department for Energy and Climate Change disbanded in the last decade.

The environmental initiatives didn’t all come off though and some of them look rather insufficient in the face of today’s clamour to reduce embodied carbon. Optimism that the organisers of Rio 2016 would purchase the Basketball Arena and ship it to Brazil proved unfounded. The 12,000 seat Arena – covering an area of 11,500 square metres – was partly recycled instead and remains the largest single temporary structure ever used at an Olympics.

With the inspirational opening ceremonies and the sporting highlights of London 2012 having little long-term impact on national unity or levels of sporting participation, perhaps the construction industry was responsible for the most enduring elements of the 2012 Olympic legacy.

Alongside the physical transition and renewal of the heavily contaminated site alongside the River Lea, the greatest gift of those organising the London Olympics was their pragmatism in terms of using temporary structures and modular construction.

The Basketball Arena was a prime example, but the Riverbank Arena and Eton Manor were among the temporary venues on site and a number of other structures – including the transformation of Horse Guards Parade into a 15,000 seat beach volleyball arena - helped avoid a legacy of unwanted buildings and enabled events to be staged at iconic and accessible locations.

This had a positive impact on subsequent games with Rio de Janeiro using just nine permanent venues in contrast to previous hosts before London. According to ‘Inside The Games’, Athens built and upgraded 36 venues for the 2004 games, costing £10 billion, with most of those buildings now in disrepair. Beijing may have hosted one of the most lavish and spectacular Games in 2008, but it built a large number of venues at great cost and has since struggled to make full use of many of them.

2022 signals a new era for the Olympic Park, with the gaps in the park’s landscape filling up rapidly and major new cultural developments on the ‘Stratford Waterfront’ now well underway including a planned 7000 square metre V&A East Museum. Cost concerns remain as do worries that the bohemian area of Hackney Wick - home to the densest concentration of artist studios in Europe - has lost its unique character due to gentrification and a series of anodyne recent developments. But after more than 15 years of construction, perhaps it reflects well on the Olympic Legacy and the choices made that this pocket of East London is now under more threat from overdevelopment than dereliction.

Matt Mahony

Policy & Public Affairs Manager

Construction Industry Council

Matt is the CIC Policy and Public Affairs Executive. His responsibilities include fostering political engagement and carrying out policy work on areas such as Climate Change and Building Safety.

He brings a wealth of previous experience in policy areas such as environmental strategy, construction and responsible sourcing and has worked within the civil service at MHCLG and DEFRA.