London 2012: Did the Olympics benefit all, or leave a legacy of widening social inequality?

The Olympic Games have become a much sort after event by cities around the world. It is seen as an opportunity for the city not only to enhance and broaden its profile, but showcase its potential as an attractive place for investment (Hiller, 2006, p.318). This essay will explore the sociological impact that the Olympics have had on the city of London and its occupants. It will be argued that while there are numerous positive short term effects that come with hosting the Olympics, not only are the positive long term effects few and far between, but there is a number of negative effects impacting those belonging to the lower socio-economic group.
By examining what has occurred in London and comparing this particular Olympics to some past cities that have played host (Barcelona, Sydney, Athens etc), this essay will show that while stimulating economic growth, contributing to the short term happiness of the inhabitants and more recently, promoting environmental sustainability, the Olympics generally bring few benefits for socially excluded groups. Firstly, by looking at the history of the five London borough’s to be transformed by the Olympics, we will examine whether class theory is still a relevant issue for London and if Marx and Webber’s ideas are still applicable.
The argument will then be divided into economic, social, cultural and political spheres, with each being discussed in terms how they were affected by hosting the Olympics in London. The Olympics may be of only short duration; however its impact and meaning may exist far beyond the event itself for the host city (Hiller, 2000, p.440). The most visible of these impacts relates to the infrastructural improvements. All host cities carry out extensive regeneration of urban areas and in London most of this “clean up and reorientation of city spaces” occurred in the five East London Olympic host boroughs of Newham, Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Waltham Forest and Greenwich. (LERI, 2007, p. 5).

Traditionally, East London has been the heart of manufacturing and industrial work; it has been home to London’s working classes and has remained relatively poor compared to the rest of the city. In the last decade improvements in infrastructure and the regeneration of London’s docklands has seen the boroughs become socially polarised with small pockets of relative affluence surrounded by the still high concentration of relative poverty. The present day London is vastly different to Marx’s 19th century version, yet the re-emergence of class as a defining factor has seen a new generation of those once again being influenced by his writing and evolutionary vision.
Marx believed that class is best understood in terms of economic factors; his theoretical model is of a two class structure of owners and non-owners (Habibis & Walter, 2009, p. 18). Today’s London is not that different, austerity measures and rising unemployment have deepened the gulf dividing the haves and the have nots. In the New York Times, an article by Katrin Bennhold (2012, April 26) states More than a third of British land is still in aristocratic hands, according to a 2010 ownership survey by Country Life magazine.
In the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition cabinet, 15 of the 23 ministers went to Oxford or Cambridge. With this in mind, Webber’s multidimensional model of inequality and his argument that it is power rather than class that ultimately determines the distribution of resources in society (Habibis & Walter, 2009, p.19) can be used to explain how London is currently being governed. Webber placed much emphasis on the market and in doing so was able to account for the importance of non-material resources, such as education and skills. Most of those living in the East London in the lead up to the Olympics were young, lacking a proper education or skill base and therefore had little or no relationship to the market, and so, no power.
Like Webber, Bourdieu also believed that non-economic factors were important as sources of social power (Habibas & Walter, 2009, p. 50). He would have made much of the fact that, of London’s elite and those who currently hold power, most attended the same prestigious private schools, therefore creating “social and cultural capital” to use as a resource that few in the eastern boroughs could even dream of. In the lead up to the London 2012 Olympics the world was confronted with what has become known now as the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). This economic depression led to an increase in unemployment and poverty throughout the world, particularly in the case of those already belonging to socially excluded groups.
Social exclusion relates not only to economic disadvantage but includes the exclusion of people or groups from participation in mainstream social and economic life (Habibis and Walter 2009, p.78). The impact of the GFC was reported as leaving a whole generation of young people with opportunities that don’t live up to their aspirations, to the point where they may abandon hope for the future at all. The crisis means they almost invariably face fewer and less well paid entry-level jobs at every level, from graduate openings to factory work (Apps, 2011).
This unrest led to the London riots only 12 months before the city was to host the Olympics. London’s Olympic bid was promoted as being aimed directly at developing an extensive renewal process to address the social and economic problems faced by those living in the eastern boroughs (LERI, 2007, p. 5). In economic terms, the infrastructural developments and large building projects are important because of their ability to attract investment and increase employment opportunities. For London, the games related construction activity is estimated to support a £13.5 billion contribution to the UK GDP and the equivalent of 267, 000 years of employment in the UK economy between 2005 and 2017 (Oxford Economics, 2012, p.2).
However, national figures from December 2012 show a decline of 25 000 construction jobs during the year (Moulds, 2012). In the lead up to the Athens Olympics in 2004, employment went up by 7%, however once the games were over Greek industry lost 70 000 jobs, mainly in construction (LERI, 2007, p.55). The economic benefits from the flagship developments and major projects are supposed to filter down to all groups over time, yet for socially excluded groups, there are often no benefits. Instead, the impacts are often negative, with house prices rising and the cost of living increasing. “Those who benefit are the existing asset holders and affluent middle class” (Ryan-Collins & Jackson, 2008, p.4). The social and cultural impacts of hosting the Olympics have in the past been more about the ‘feel good’ aspects of the games (Smith, 2009, p.117), than any particular form of social sustainability.
Past Olympic host cities, particularly Atlanta, Athens and Sydney, have attempted to use the games as an opportunity for long-term social legacies. However research suggests that Sydney was the only city where a legacy for a socially excluded group (the Homelessness Protocol) was lasting (Minnaert, 2011, p.370). For East London, three important changes have taken place since the Olympics. Firstly, transport services to the area, especially Stratford have been dramatically improved. Secondly, in order to compete with the huge new Westfield shopping centre, the local Stratford shopping centre was given a makeover, yet is still providing cheap, affordable goods for low income families.
And finally, local schools have benefitted to the extent that they have lifted their performance from very poor to be able to compete with the national levels (Power, 2012). Minnaert (2011, p.363) has recognised three growing Olympic legacies for socially excluded groups; skills/volunteering, employment, and sports participation. The Olympics has been acknowledged as providing volunteering programmes that improve skills and employability, yet Hiller (2006, p.320) highlights that the model for the Olympic volunteer is best suited to primarily white collar workers.
The vast majority of London’s unemployed are young, with a poor education and little skill base. As pointed out by Habibis and Walter (2009, p. 134) ours is a knowledge based society and those who possess the knowledge and skills (the highly educated) are the ones who gain access to the rewards. The same issue applies when reviewing the idea of increased employment opportunities for the host city population. Whilst it is abundantly obvious that yes, there are more jobs, most are not evenly distributed; employment opportunities usually benefit those who already have the skills and education required to seek and obtain work, with or without, these increased opportunities (Minneart, 2011, p. 363).
The economic impact of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games (2012, p.32) states that 3000 previously unemployed workers (70% of them from the host boroughs) were employed in the construction of the Olympic Park and Athletes village, yet these jobs are unlikely to be permanent as research into the legacies of the Barcelona and Athens Olympics suggests that job creation tends to be temporary, often filled by migrant and transient workers, with little or no change in overall employment rates (East Thames Group, 2007 p.4).
One of London’s promises during the bidding for the 2012 Olympic games was to inspire a new generation to take up sport (DCMS, 2012, p.3). In the past the Olympics has been linked to increased participation in sport (Minnaert, 2011, p.363), yet there is little to suggest that these new participants are from any socially excluded groups. Although money, or lack of it, may play a part in this, another inhibiting factor is that sport involvement is also linked to cultural capital (Minnaert, 2011, p.363). Bourdieu used cultural capital to refer to a form of value associated with consumption patterns, lifestyle choices, social attributes and formal qualifications (Habibis & Walter, 2009, p. 48). It is comparable to other resources like economic capital in that it not only impacts lifestyles but also life chances.
Bourdieu believed cultural capital could be converted to economic capital through education. By sending their children to expensive private schools, working class parents can purchase the cultural power needed to move into middle class jobs (Habibis & Walter, 2009, p.109). It is still too early to tell whether London has succeeded in getting more people to take up a sport, but evidence suggests that in the past the Olympics has failed to show sustained participation once it is over (Minnaert, 2011, p. 363).
Those who make the decisions in London today hail not from backgrounds that anyone in East London could possibly relate to. The current UK conservative-liberal coalition government is comprised mainly of the affluent, privately educated, upper class. They and the global business leaders of the world were the decision makers for the London Olympics and decided how London was to be changed and regenerated. Western nations are currently seeing a rising influence of neoliberal discourses where the shift to a market influenced distribution has taken the place of a state related redistribution (Habibis & Walter, 2009, p.105).
Indeed the London Olympics has even been called the Neoliberal games (Renton, 2012). Renton (2012) argues that with all the corporate sponsorship from entities such as BP, McDonalds, and Rio Tinto, the 2012 Olympic games are a reflection of the injustices and inequalities of the current economic system.
One of the five government promises of the Olympic legacy was to demonstrate that the UK is a creative, inclusive and welcoming place to live in, visit and for business (LERI, 2009, p.6). Yet in the lead up to the games, there was suggestions of ‘social cleansing’ occurring as councils attempted to relocate those claiming the housing benefit to areas outside the city (Bowater, 2012). There is also still debate over whether the Olympic legacy of affordable housing will eventuate. Affordable housing was also meant to be one of the legacies of the London Olympics, yet with the recent cap on the housing benefit, many are doubtful that those with low income will be able to remain in the regenerated areas (Moore, 2012).
In conclusion, it is noted that while hosting the Olympics boosts a cities international profile, particularly regarding investment and tourism it does not benefit all. While some improvements have been seen in the host boroughs like better school performances, more hopefulness and resilience, the increasing global financial strain is causing cuts to funding and resources that may now turn the clock back and leave these areas even worse off than they were before the Olympics. The lasting legacy could be that with the local sporting facilities removed to make way for the large Olympic complexes, many will no longer be able to afford to use them.
With class still playing such an important role in determining life chances, particularly in London, the need to build a social system where education and skills acquisition are genuinely based on meritocratic principals rather than class hierarchy is the only way that inequality can be reduced. The Olympics has always been based on such meritocratic principals and it is the socially responsibility of those in power to see that as so much public investment is spent on financing such a large event, that it can only be justified if all benefit by being completely socially inclusive.

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