16th Mar 2016 5:00pm-7:00pm

Grand Parade

Legacy, Heritage and the Olympic Games: before the circus arrives and when it leaves town.

Professor Garry Whannel (University of Bedfordshire)

The Olympic Games has become a global mega events with immense reach – the Olympic logo is, worldwide, the most recogniseable corporate identifier. The modern Olympic Games has been staged in cities around the world every four years since 1896, and the Winter Olympics every four years since 1924. Yet, when the five ring circus leaves town, the traces often fade remarkably rapidly. In sites around the world, it is clear that cities are often uncertain what to do with the facilities.

The modern Olympic Games developed its own myths of origin – in which Baron Pierre De Coubertin is the great originator. Inspired by his concern at the lack of physical fitness among French youth, his understanding of sport in the English Public Schools (derived from Thomas Arnold, refracted through Thomas Hughes’ book Tom Brown’s Schooldays), and his knowledge of the Ancient Greek Olympics, de Coubertin revived the event in the late 19th century. The Olympic movement proved adept at inventing its own tradition – in which the Olympic hymn, the flag, the anthem, the oaths, the torch relay and opening and closing ceremonies were added to the set of rituals. Once added of course such rituals rapidly acquire a timeless patina, as if they have always been present in a timeless and permanent display.

In studying these phenomena there is a need to distinguish between two related features – “heritage” and “legacy”. In bidding to stage an Olympic Games, cities need to develop a good narrative, accounting for their desire to stage the Games in terms of a passion, a sporting background, or a public need. Often this involves a narrativisation of the past – developing an account of the sporting background that makes the bidding city appealing. The story of the multi sport festival, held regularly in Much Wenlock from the mid 19th century, became more thoroughly researched and documented to serve the needs of British Olympic bids in the 1980s and 1990s. A heritage does not exist but has to be inscribed.

Yet, there is a countervailing tendency for new mega events to avoid utilising the past, which can amount to erasure. The 1924/25 British Empire Exhibition shunned the option of the 1908 White City site and established itself at Wembley Park, also used for the 1948 Olympic Games. In 1951, the Festival of Britain rejected both Wembley and White City and based its major attractions in Battersea Park and on the South Bank in central London. The Millennium Dome, rejecting all other available options, was built to celebrate the year 2000 on a derelict industrial site in North Greenwich. The 2012 Games avoided Wembley and Shepherds Bush (adjacent to the 1908 site) in favour of Stratford. The coalition of city boosters, town planners, architects, builders and ambitious politicians do not generally want to root themselves in heritage, but rather leave a fresh mark.

The enormous costs of staging the Games have led to a rising importance in Olympic discourse of the term “legacy”. It has become a political necessity to talk up legacy, adopted both by the IOC and the cities bidding to stage a games. Yet, when the Games are over, the Organising Committee ceases its work. It is rarely clear who will manage legacy and more important who will pay for it. When the circus leaves town it leaves its traces but the big top is never quite the same.

Dr. Garry Whannel was Professor of Media Cultures at the University of Bedfordshire between 1999-2015), and has been research and writing on sport and the media since 1979. His most recent publications include Understanding the Olympics (2011 and 2016) with John Horne; Understanding Sport (2012) with John Horne, Alan Tomlinson and Kath Woodward; and The Trojan Horse: The Growth of Commercial Sponsorship (with Deborah Philips, 2013). Other books include Culture, Politics and Sport (2008), Media Sport Stars, Masculinities and Moralities, (2001), Fields in Vision: Television Sport and Cultural Transformation (1992), and Blowing the Whistle (1993) He has written on game shows, celebrity, and the Royal Family. He developed the concept of vortextuality to analyse major news events – the Beckham wedding, the Death of Princess Diana and the Michael Jackson trial. Current research interests include political comedy, representations of science and scientists.