Lying through their legacy-speak

Olympic ‘legacy’ has greased the path for enormous, upward transfer of wealth to the global propertied classes, writes Jules Boykoff

July 14, 2021 · 8 min read
Photo credit: Arne Müseler / arne-mueseler.com / CC-BY-SA-3.0

When the Tokyo 2020 Olympic bid team was wooing voting members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), it tendered lofty promises designed to entice. On the first page of the bid’s introduction, the blandishments flowed: ‘The Tokyo 2020 Games will help connect young people in a new, fast-changing world with sport and the Games, providing a lasting legacy for a new generation.’

Amid the nebulous verbiage lurked a key term – ’legacy’ – that over time has become go-to, must have lingo for winning over IOC voters. When the IOC chose Tokyo over Madrid and Istanbul back in 2013, a key factor was Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s double assurance that the triple-whammy earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown that hit Fukushima in 2011 was ‘under control’ and that handing the Games to Tokyo would inspire the region’s recovery.

Never mind that both promises were unfounded. Fukushima’s nuclear meltdown was absolutely not ‘under control’. As activist Toshio Miyazaki told me, even today ‘there is no recovery in Fukushima.’ And yet, the IOC legacy tick-box had been satisfied and Tokyo walked away with the Games.

This chimes with British sport scholar Alan Tomlinson’s observation that ‘legacy rhetoric pervades contemporary Olympic discourse despite strong evidence on many fronts that the harsh realities contradict the legacy hopes and aspirations.’ In other words, legacies that seem so solid during the bid phase melt away once it comes to staging the mega-event.

Brand management

In the late 1990s, the IOC began to dabble in corporate-style branding, though some within the Olympic inner orbit felt uneasy about it. They viewed ‘brand management’ as tawdry managerialism that cheapened the lofty – if conveniently self serving – notion that the Olympics were a movement for peace. In stepped the language of legacy to dilute branding’s bitter flavour. Comparatively, ‘legacy’ appeared benign and came inflected with heft and a twist of ambition.


In practice, ‘legacy’ has become an empty invocation of an assumed meaning. The seemingly innocent language of legacy – leaving behind positive structures and programmes that will benefit all in the wake of Olympic Games – is highly misleading. For starters, all modern day Olympic bids arrive festooned with grand ‘legacy’ projects, but all too often, these projects, publicly trumpeted during the bid phase, fail to come to fruition. Worse, broken legacy promises face no accountability. The IOC’s wilful gullibility further stokes legacy-speak. The organisation oversees one of the most pervasive yet least accountable sport infrastructures in the world.

The notion of legacy has spurred the ascension of a phalanx of ‘international legacy experts’ who have attached themselves barnacle-like onto the Olympic ship. This peripatetic band of grifters don’t linger in Olympic cities, but instead jet on to the next potential five-ring venue. When Olympics scholar John J MacAloon exhorts us to confront ‘the magical properties of today’s highly fetished [sic] legacy talk in Olympic circles’, a vital wellspring of this magical thinking is this well-heeled, cosmopolitan consultant class.

Olympic bid consultants also contribute to a certain esprit de corruption. French prosecutors are pursuing bribery allegations against Tokyo 2020 bidders for shunting $2 million to Papa Massata Diack, a ‘consultant’ and son of former IOC member Lamine Diack, in order to secure votes for the Tokyo campaign. Haruyuki Takahashi, a consultant for Tokyo’s bid, allegedly dipped into an $8.2 million honey pot to secure IOC votes by way of bribery. In 2015, the IOC inaugurated a consultant registry for 2024 Olympic bids, though it is unclear whether this will simply convert illegal grift into legal graft.

Olympic losers

In Vancouver and London – the hosts of the 2010 Winter Olympics and 2012 Summer Games – the Olympic villages were supposed to be converted in part into affordable housing. In both cities, the private firms tasked with construction failed miserably and the projects were essentially nationalised at taxpayers’ expense, only to be returned to the private hands who backtracked on their initial pledges.

The London 2012 bid ran thick with legacy-speak. It stated that the Lower Lea Valley in east London was ‘ripe for redevelopment’ and that ‘by staging the Games in this part of the city, the most enduring legacy of the Olympics will be the regeneration of an entire community for the direct benefit of everyone who lives there.’

Yet, ahead of the London Games, residents saw rents escalate, forcing them to move. In the years following, Newham, one of the five host boroughs for the Games, has experienced the largest spike in home prices across London. Not coincidentally, it became the borough with the highest rate of homelessness. ‘Olympic events have often promised regeneration,’ noted Tomlinson, ‘and delivered instead displacement and rebranding.’

The London Stadium was supposed to be the crown jewel in the Olympic legacy. Instead, it continues to haemorrhage public money. Earlier this year, the London Assembly budget and performance committee reported that the stadium – now the long-term, low-rent home of West Ham United – costs taxpayers more than £8 million annually to run. These lingering costs – the material legacy of the London Games – followed a massive initial price tag that spiralled out of control. London’s Olympic bid claimed the Games would cost around £2.37 billion, but costs escalated to at least £11.4 billion. Olympics critics like Julian Cheyne of the Counter-Olympics Network calculated costs at £13 billion, while a Sky Sports investigation that included public transport upgrade costs vaulted the price tag to a stratospheric £24 billion.

The 2016 Rio Summer Olympics promised to clean up the notoriously filthy Guanabara Bay as an Olympic legacy, but nothing of the sort transpired. Rio’s bid documents implied that more than 80 per cent of sewage at Guanabara Bay would be collected and treated by the time the Games arrived in 2016, but elected officials were forced to push back the clean-up deadline to 2035. Who knows if it will ever happen? The legacy for residents of Rio was not clean water but a horribly contaminated waterway where ingesting even three teaspoons of water meant a 99 per cent chance of viral infection.

Legacies sound appealing on the surface, but a quick scratch and sniff reveals the unmistakable stench of deception. The Olympics have become a vehicle for servicing the interests of the propertied classes while hoodwinking the masses, whose interests are left on the wayside. ‘Legacy’ as a discursive strategy has greased the path for this enormous, upward transfer of wealth – a sporty exercise in trickle up economics.

Jules Boykoff is the author of four books on the Olympics, most recently NOlympians: Inside the Fight Against Capitalist Mega-Sports in Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Beyond (Fernwood 2020). He teaches political science at Pacific University

This article first appeared in issue #232 ‘Rue Britannia’. Subscribe today to get your copy and support fearless, independent media.


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