Wind back for a moment to 2005, and the decision to grant London last year’s Olympic Games. Almost before Becks had had time to sweep his hair back into place, one of the key themes emanating from organisers of the successful bid was that this would be an event not just about the sport but also about the longer-term legacy that these Games would provide.
Unlike previous Olympics, which left host cities with white elephant stadiums and sometimes negligible wider impacts, it was claimed the organisation of the London Olympics would focus not just on delivering a top-class sporting showcase, but on doing so in a way that was both sustainable and able to offer wider social and economic benefits.
Like the Games itself, this notion of legacy took its knocks along the way. Soaring costs led to doubts about whether local boroughs would ever see true value from their events, while the protracted debacle in naming West Ham Football Club as preferred long-term tenants of the Olympic Stadium also undermined confidence.
As we pass the one-year anniversary of the opening of the Games, my first taste of what legacy might mean came as I visited the remodelled Olympic Park for the Open East Festival.
Running alongside the Anniversary Games events, and curated by the Barbican, Open East promised a mixture of music, art, food, theatre and more that would allow us to celebrate once again the great richness of our city. Perhaps those living in host boroughs have felt the lift of legacy already, but for me I had seen little of this, and it felt rather hopeful that such an event – however enjoyable – could truly signify these supposed lasting impacts.
Still, as I noticed the queues of families waiting to bounce onto Jeremy Deller’s inflatable Stonehenge, browsed the quirky wares at the Art Car Boot Fair, or sat contentedly sipping beer among the happy hordes at the Ten Mile Beer Festival, I couldn’t help but be impressed at a smart, well-run and diverse event.
However it wasn’t until I started watching Mali Foli, a journey through Malian music which featured the soulful Amadou & Mariam and the swirling, vibrant Fatoumata Diawara among others, that I felt I might be getting closer to the true meaning of legacy.
At one point, I looked away from the stage and into the faces of the crowd around me. People of both sexes, as well as of all ages and ethnicities looked on, united by broad smiles that strung across the tent like pegs on a washing line. It was a deliciously diverse cross-section, and I felt in that instant the same sense of fun, of fairness and of togetherness that made being in this city for those few weeks last year such a joy.
Walking back later, I began to feel that my cynicism about the legacy may have been rather unfounded. London remains full of the same smart, creative and caring people who lit up 2012; we may have all gone back to keeping our heads down and our mouths buttoned on the tube, but there seems no doubt that we are still well capable of coming together to make more of these magic moments.
Of course, legacy is about much more than events like this one, and the truly important work comes in the schools and communities nearest to the Games’ epicentre. The results of those projects may take a generation or more to bear fruit.
Nonetheless, although Open East was only one tiny part in the ongoing labour of legacy, the excitement and enjoyment on those faces around me made me altogether more confident that, with good guidance and structure, legacy may just prove to be much more than the bid-boosting buzzword it once seemed.
Image by Luke McKernan courtesy of Flickr