London takes inspiration from Barcelona for legacy
When London Olympic planners look for inspiration on legacy, they tend to look at one city above all others - Barcelona.
The 1992 Games were, perhaps, the first Olympics to leave a lasting, meaningful impact on their hosts.
From roads and redevelopment to tourism and the city’s global popularity.
When I visited the city at the end of last month, the pride in Barcelona’s Olympic achievements was still evident 20 years on.
The Barcelona Games projected a new image of Spain to the world
So it is hardly a surprise that London sees the Spanish city as a role model. Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone was only persuaded to back the capital’s bid back in 2003 by the prospect of creating “Barcelona-on-Thames”.
The subsequent transformation of the Lower Lee Valley into a modern Olympic Park is a tribute to that vision and, whatever happens after the Games, that cannot be taken away from London.
But, while the overall concept might be similar, there are many differences between London and Barcelona.
Unlike London’s concentrated Olympic Park, Barcelona’s Olympic venues were spread out across four separate campuses linked by new roads dispersing the Olympic effect.
The most visible example of the Game’s transformative power can be seen at Port Olimpic, site for the athletes village and sailing course. Before the Games, this was a run-down dumping ground – a remnant of Barcelona’s fading textiles industry.
Now it is a long stretch of golden sand lined with restaurants and cafes in the heart of the city. At the other end of the beach is a harbour packed full of expensive yachts and fishing boats.
The five-star Hotel Arts now sits in one of the two tower blocks built for the athletes. The other has been turned into residential apartments, a cinema and retail complex.
It is hard to imagine but, before this was opened up, Barcelona had its back turned to the sea.
Locals and tourists would have to drive 45 minutes up the coast for a swim.
One of the architects responsible for this was British-born David Mackay.
He told me that, without the Olympics, Barcelona would never have had the money or the momentum to create Port Olimpic.
But he did have a warning for London over their legacy planning.
“London has missed an opportunity with the Lee Valley,” said Mackay, who knows the area well having spent some time working on a project in the area.
“They should have used the Olympics to really open it up and take it to the River Thames, but they have stopped some way short of that. They should have been more ambitious.”
Barcelona was ambitious and the billions ploughed into regeneration have clearly paid off.
The vast global reach of the Games enabled Barcelona to project a new modern image to the world.
It came to symbolise Spain’s emergence from the years of General Franco and so, when the city’s residents talk about the 1992 Olympics having a deeper significance than sport or even physical infrastructure, this is what they are referring to.
The Olympics led to a huge tourism boost with the numbers of visitors to the city’s airport doubling in the decade after the Games. Now it is one of the world’s top 10 tourist destinations.
But not everything Barcelona did on legacy was perfect. While many of the smaller sporting venues do have community and elite use now – the flagship venues are in danger of becoming white elephants.
Up on Montjuic, the hill which overlooks Barcelona and where most of the main venues were located, the diving venue sits idle for all but eight weeks of the year. Even then, it only gets limited use for diving training and local competitions.
Twenty years ago this was the iconic setting for the Games. Who can forget those stunning images of divers standing on the 10metre platform framed by Gaudi’s masterpiece La Sagrada Familia?
The view is still as mesmerising, but the diving centre has definitely seen better days.
When I visited, the pool was clogged with leaves and a black bin liner floated across the murky water’s surface.
The main entrance and stairwell were covered in bird droppings, while next to the platform there was dog faeces.
The complex had not been cleaned for months.
Next year it will be given a makeover for the world swimming and diving championships.
But Jordi William Carnes, the city’s former deputy mayor, explained that the venue was a victim of Spain’s economic crisis.
Even in Barcelona’s temperate climate, he said, it was impossible to justify spending large sums of public money maintaining an outdoor facility which attracts few users.
The long-term plan is to make it an indoor facility. Until the economic crisis eases then it is likely to be left in a sorry mess.
The main stadium, on the other hand, is well looked after. But, while tourists flock in large numbers to see the venue built back in 1929, it is also struggling.
European Athletics Championships in 2010 showed it can still be a brilliant setting for track and field but the running track has driven away the anchor tenant which paid the bills. Espanyol Football Club moved out to a new purpose-built home in the suburbs three years ago.
I went along to their recent league game against Malaga and every Espanyol fan I spoke to said the same thing – that the track killed the atmosphere and they were now much happier in their new stadium. London and West Ham take note.
Across town, the velodrome, where Chris Boardman won gold and kickstarted Britain’s cycling revolution, is also looking a bit shabby.
The track is the Catalan Cycling Federation’s headquarters and it is used by local and elite cyclists.
However, it cannot be used for big international events because it does not have a roof and the middle of the arena is now covered with astroturf and is used by locals to play five-a-side football.
It must be said that the Olympic swimming pool at Montjuic is doing well (it will stage the world swimming championship in 2013) and the Palau St Jordi indoor arena, used for gymnastics, handball and volleyball during the Games, is a thriving concert arena. The basketball arena at Barceloneta is also a success.
The son of the former IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, Juan Antonio Junior, also says Spain’s emergence as a sporting power started with the Barcelona Olympics.
In the 1988 Seoul Olympics, he recalls, Spain picked up a paltry four medals. Now it hovers at around the twenty mark.
He also points to the country’s rise in recent years in football and tennis. "It all started over there in that stadium," he insists.
That might well be the case, but Barcelona’s real success was in choosing urban renewal over sporting legacy.
Two decades on, London is promising to do both. Now that would be a tough act to follow.