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London takes inspiration from Barcelona for legacy

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David Bond | 10:20 UK time, Thursday, 12 April 2012

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 closing ceremony of the Barcelona Olympics

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.


  • Comment number 1.

    Good blog. I visited Barcelona just after it was awarded the games - proudly wearing my 'Bring the Games to Birmingham' t-shirt (we lost) - and again 7 years ago and the legacy of the Games was there to see.

    Your blog is right in differeniating between the legacy for a city - regeneration, new infrastructure, pride etc - and the sporting legacy - bird droppings on the diving boards, bored footie fans, mis-used velodrome etc.

    With a very few exceptions, sport in Europe is no longer big enough for every major city to maintain major sporting facilities. I wonder whether the UK can support two international standard velodromes in the long run, for instance.

    Sport is now global and Europe is losing its importance. We can no longer claim sport as "Ours."

    Remember the Dutch, Austrian, Portugese, French and Swedish F1 Grand Prix? To reach the global audience sponsors want and global fans rightly demand, they have been replaced by China, Malaysia, Singapore, India and Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Sports is "theirs"" too, now.

    Therefore, the major sporting events which Olympic facilities need, is now spread so far and wide that a recent host city could wait a decade or more before 'its turn' comes around to hosting anything noteworthy.

    I think London has found the solution. Of the venues on the main site the Olympic stadium will either become the home to a football club (a la the City of Manchester Stadium) or, scaled back as the home of the London Grand Prix athletics; the swimming venue will be scaled back, and replace Crystal Palace as London's premier international competition centre; the hockey and basketball venues will be dismantled; and the handball veenue handed over to the local community as a new sports centre. Only the velodrome will escape the axe or major modification.

    Outside of the main site, many venues are temporary, or can be reused for the general public, such as the mountain bike course in Essex. Add to that, the country has not had to build a huge number of training facilities, and the infrastructure investment was needed anyway.

    So I think we stand a very good chance of an overseas journalist writing in time for the 2020 or even 2016 Olympics that London has set the legacy template.

    And we did this by prioritising the Legacy at the very earliest planning stages.

  • Comment number 2.

    I was lucky enough to go the opening and closing cermonies in Barcelona along athletics, swimming, volleyball and a bit of modern pentathlon. It was an unbelieveable experience and the atmosphere was amazing. London doesn't know just what a party it has coming. One criticism of Barcelona was the transport. Trains, as I guess you'd expect, were packed - with people (including myself) collapsing in the heat. It'll be interesting to see how London copes on that front.

  • Comment number 3.

    I fondly remember images of the Barcelona high dive. I became really interested in the Olympics after 1992 and wished I had managed to get tickets in my home city this year. I have, however, experienced the white water centre in Lee Valley - a whole lot of fun which I'm sure will be a popular destination long after 2012.

  • Comment number 4.

    The UK will have 3 international standard velodromes by 2014! Ultimately though, London has a lot more capacity to accommodate major sporting venues than most European cities. And its pretty disgraceful that the UK doesn't have a half-decent athletics venue yet. Worth noting that the City of Manchester Stadium had a large hole dug out in legacy to create a football field and Hampden Park is having a large amount of temporary soil infill to create an athletics track in 2014.

  • Comment number 5.

    London doea not need to look to Barcelona, London is a great city it its own right, has been for years. As for the high dive location in Barcelona, run down and basic when i went there couple of years ago. The Olympic stadium itself very basic and poor facilities. And now Espanyol no longer play there it will become more run down. Like something from 1952 not 1992. Some rose tinted specs here, not even sure what this blog was trying to say or prove.

  • Comment number 6.

    I moved to Calgary five years ago and there still seems to be a strong legacy here from the 1988 winter games. The facilities themselves are really depressing though. McMahaon stadium is decrepid and barely passes muster as a modern venue in 2012. The Olympic park itself is still heavily used (even during the summer) but the museum and facilities seem run down and I am always saddened that great athletes performed there and it now just seems so 'neglected'.

    I think the Olympics had a greater legacy concerning putting the city on the map and giving it a global identity which has really proved priceless. Concentrating on buildings and facilities is a red herring. Not many cities can boast a bob sleigh run, giant ski jump and skiiing facilites within reach of downtown but it's the greater legacy that rings true in Calgary, it put us on the map.

    Interestingly I went to Montreal a few years ago and visited the Olympic stadium there. It was the same story really, very neglected and just looked like it had seen better days. If kids go to these places today to be inspired I would rather they steered clear. Not sure if Montreal had the same wider legacy as Calgary but in terms of facilities it was disappointing.

  • Comment number 7.

    Conversly, I went to Helsinki in April last year whilst carrying out a research project in Tallinn. I dragged my architecture and engineering colleagues all the way through the city so I could see the Olympic Stadium.

    Now Helsinki hosted the Olympics in 1952 so despite being nearly 60 years old and having both a brand new football stadium and tennis centre next to it; the stadium neither looked run down or unused. There was even a Sports Museum housed in an annex outside.

    Unfortunately the Olympic Tower was being renovated, due to Helsinki being the City of Architecture 2012, but it is generally still open to the public and provides, so I am told, spectacular views across the city.

    So I believe that this should also be an inspriation to London to have "legacy" and not a white elephant. We also have a good track record with Wembley stadium lasting 70+ years before it needed to be replaced.

  • Comment number 8.

    I visited the old Olympic site on Montjeu a couple of years ago. Unfortunately the stadium feels a bit past its best but the whole area still has the element of grandure and spectacle.

    Things age and twenty years is a long time for sporting arenas which do not have monthly events taking place. Most olympic stadiums are white elephants but there seems to be less white elephants in Barcelona thna many other hosts. I imagine the Bird's Nest and Watercube in Beijing lose money by the bucketload.

    The problem I have wiht the London Olympics is that we were promised a sporting legacy which is unlikely to materialise and a physical legacy which feels empty.
    The games were promised to transform East London but beyond the collection of overpriced appartments situated in the centre of Stratford, the new Westfield shopping centre and the site itself, East London has recieved little form these games other than an increase in council tax.

    The jobs provided for the games seem to be few and far between as locals have been overlooked for paid jobs whilst being patronisingly offered the opportunity to volunteer for positions which should've been paid.

    Furthermore due to the insane ticket system and its requirement that you must have a visa card and must have the resources neccesary to risk bidding for thousands of pounds worth of tickets, there will be few locals at these games.

    The legacy of these games will be that the rich of the world were invited to the games. It was just that the people of Newham were not invited to the party,

  • Comment number 9.

    excellent blog, nice to hear everyone's views from barcelona with the benefit of hindsight, especially the football fans.

    post 1 also makes a good point about sport not being ours anymore, agree mostly but we still dont see the likes of abu dhabi and malaysia competing as much as they perhaps could in term of actual teams as opposed to just venues but their time will come

  • Comment number 10.

    I also thought that the Barcelona stadium area was an eyesore when I visited a few years ago, much as I expected.
    Usual story: Government picked up the tab. Construction/catering industry raked it in, but created largely temporary employment. Olympic Committee [not the city] raked in TV profits. Tourism profits were less than predicted, and the surrounding regions experienced a fall in tourist numbers.

    But the reason I went to Barcelona was to see the art and architecture of Gaudi. The city had the finest building in my world well before 1992 and, of course, it is still not even completed! [And it's not the Barcelona Gherkin, which is similar to the London Gherkin, though I quite like both of them]

  • Comment number 11.

    I agree that Barcelona is probably the best example of post Olympics legacy, but London should be careful not to model itself too much on that.

    1. London as a tourist destination is already elite: you won't be doubling visitor numbers any time soon. What should be happening is an improvement in airport and associated domestic transport infrastructure, not just for tourists but also for business travellers. That's the key need there.
    2. The general transformation of Olympic Park has an add-on benefit of rendering the overall locale far more desirable for investment. I'd be looking at 20 year business investment as the metric there.
    3. The key to sporting legacy is not in stadium usage but in participation, both at elite and community level. Again, that should be a 20 year metric, not a 3 year one. The recession won't help, but start sustainably and build, rather than go for short-term headlines.
    4. The final legacy should be the can-do attitude associated with a huge multibillion pound project well managed. For all the naysayers, the ODA has done a highly effective job and UK plc has shown it can work efficiently to time and budget. It should be a reason to kick on, not a last hurrah.

    Everyone is still arguing about legacy, which says that egos are involved.

    The problem with legacy is that it isn't like the Olympics, there's no finals day and no gold medal to be won. It's an ongoing, dynamic process with no finish line.

    Maybe LOCOG et al should think about that and make appropriate adjustments??

  • Comment number 12.

    Using Barcelona as the role model was flawed, as the difference between London and Barcelona are as stark as they get.
    Barcelona was an uncut diamond waiting to be polished, the olympics acheived this by breaking teh shackles of Madrid (and Franco) and allowing the proud Catalans freedom to express themselves. This is the reason that underpins Barcelona's success. Sadly that lack of 'national' identity will hurt London and no amount of lipstick will beautify the pig ....
    It always makes me angry when the Olympics is justified by saying it will leave a legacy .. it never will for London and we will end up being more like Montreal than Barcelona, by paying for a white elephant for years to come.

  • Comment number 13.

    A trifle naive to mention the increase in Spanish medalling or are UKA employing Dr E Fuentes?


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