JThis summer marks the 10th anniversary of the London 2012 Olympic Games. It is customary here to suggest that the decade has simply passed, that the years have passed in the blink of an eye. In reality, it already feels like an event from a completely different timeline.
It is not the Games themselves, which will remain a marvelous thing, tenderly guarded. It’s more the staging. Looking back, there’s something shocking about the uniformly cheerful and powerful response to the opening ceremony, with its bag of nostalgia and self-mythologizing. Kenneth Branagh pretending to be Brunel. Musical youth playing croquet. Roger Moore inside a phone booth surfing internet porn. Fiona Bruce and Dizzee Rascal reciting the expedition forecast over a giant cheddar cheese.
It was strange at the time that these images of the past, a sort of acid dream of John Betjeman, were seen as a confident new reimagining of Britishness; that the future was now wide open, that we would all speed towards that horizon on a Union Jack Vespa.
And a decade on this show feels like a jumble sale of end-of-empire odds and ends, with a nation throwing the last of the Regency dining chairs on the fire for entertainment – check this list VIP guests – from Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban and Robert Mugabe.
It turns out the immediate future wouldn’t be 50,000 breakdancing nurses at Elgar, but something closer to George Michael’s tough new material. The future would be Games that went well over budget, whose legacy is not top-notch facilities or an end to the obesity and participation crisis.
Zoom out a bit and the most tangible legacy of 2012 is the acceleration of the career of Boris Johnson, the kind of politician who would steal Judi Dench’s Olympic skiffle board and subcontract it to a Bosnian criminal network if it suited to his personal advancement. Welcome, 10 years later, to the bargain-basement present, a place where the wallpaper has long since begun to peel.
The reason for these depressing observations is that the legacy of these Games made headlines again this week. UK Athletics have been offered a eye-watering sum by West Ham to give up their right to hold events at the London Stadium, a move that makes practical sense. Although not to Seb Coe, who suggested it would be ‘weird’ to move athletics events to Birmingham and that London must retain its ‘world-class presence’, which a cynic might interpret as retaining a leaf vine that was never a feasible idea.
How to understand this mess? One way is to return to an unresolved complaint. The thing is, London already had a run-down, world-class facility. It remains a London Games scandal that £9billion was spent without regenerating the Crystal Palace National Stadium, an omission that tells us a lot about how such a wealthy nation is so poor in its physical culture.
This is much more than a London problem. It speaks directly to how resources and access have been wasted across the country, and how, if there was a will, that could be changed. Take a trip to Crystal Palace now and the National Stadium is still a wonderful place, an entire sports village sitting there fully formed, frozen in a beautiful state of disrepair, all the crumbling boulevards and moldy ramps, an embarrassment of space and of light and scrolling view -lines.
There’s the surprisingly airy inner center, a structure you think you should call “Brutalist” because that’s what people always say about prefab buildings. But it’s not harsh. It’s delicate, with its fine lines of concrete, its stiff glass panels, the canopy of this endless ceiling.
Downstairs is a pit where people play volleyball on sand donated by the 2012 Games, the sporting legacy being like giving the gardener the last slice of a two-week-old wedding cake. The stadium itself is a huge open space, with a flying slab roof and a classic orange rice pudding leather running surface. On a Thursday afternoon, some guys were there having fun in front of 20,000 ghosts.
The real point is that this place is not a relic, but an idea that needs to be restarted. The plaque for its official inauguration by Prince Philip describes it as a “National Leisure Centre”, and the deep history of this place is in these words, the notion of sport as a force for collectivism and shared pleasure.
Crystal Palace was one of five national sports centers designed in the 1950s – Lilleshall, Bisham Abbey and Plas y Brenin survive – as a gift to the nation’s health. They were places where elite facilities were accessible to all, designed to foster not just excellence, but a culture of activity and participation.
The 1950s were that kind of time, with post-war enthusiasm for adult education, social mobility, public provision. Whereas in the decades that followed, we sold our health and leisure individually. Try entering any national sports venue now and ask to try the parallel bars. You will be tasered by a private security company called Quanglion. At the Crystal Palace, private entities called things like Supahealth and PeeplJym are still trying to make this beast work, like Star Wars scavengers scavenging the sand for half-buried Imperial cruiser parts. Its real value is that of a living and crumbling case for massive policy change in health and sport.
The National Stadium should be renovated and maintained, but for its original purpose of open public use. And beyond that, every UK town and region should have one. A chain of national recreation centers should be the goal of every investment. It can be done. Iceland opted to keep its creaky national stadium and use its revenue from Fifa and UEFA to build all-weather community pitches across the country.
If this sounds like an Olympic-scale fetish of the past, it’s worth remembering that the past also offers some very good insights. Not so much Gary Barlow singing Let It Be in a cab made out of spam; but the message buried in the crumbling facade of Crystal Palace, of sport as a shared gem, of a time when the future looked like a place we could all visit together.