It has been only two weeks since the 2012 Summer Games ended. Londoners are still giddy about their success, which feels all the more satisfying when considering the chaos over security and other preparations in the days before the athletes arrived. Yet the question of whether the Olympics proved to be a financial boom or bust will be unanswerable for a while.
But at least there is the signage. For the geographically challenged, the ideal time to visit a city is immediately after it hosts an Olympics. Every hundred feet there are large placards directing the masses who came here, and those who will be arriving for the Paralympics this week, how to get to where they want to be. Big maps with red circles explain “You Are Here.” They also seem to symbolize a different, and potentially longer-lasting, legacy of these games: You will not get lost. London may debate the costs of hosting for sometime, but the benefits are already visible. And if they prove to be enduring, the city might have helped the global Olympic enterprise find its way again.
For years, the bidding process by cities seeking to host the games has gotten bigger and more surreal. From across the globe, business leaders join with local and national governments to promise the sun, the moon, and a few sports competitions in between. Chicago and its Olympic committee spent over $100 million trying to get the 2016 Summer Olympics, and lost in the first round. Conventional wisdom is that while a city may love hosting, the economic gains are negligible, if any at all. And, in some countries, promises to deliver on new buildings, stadiums, and hotels have led to the displacement of poor populations.
It is for these reasons that many cities, including Boston, have chosen not to seek the flame. American cities are additionally hindered by the fact that the federal government does not offer help. Many can barely manage the bidding process for smaller events with Olympic-sized expectations; trying to host an event like the NCAA championship requires quite a red carpet. As the candidates for the 2020 Olympic games were whittled down to three — Istanbul, Tokyo, and Madrid — no US city even made a bid.
That should change, hopefully for the winter 2022 and summer 2024 games. No longer will potential host cities look to Beijing’s summer of disturbing excess in 2008 as the latest model. Then, an autocratic government with no fiscal constraints showed its power by making a couple of thousand men move in complete sync at the opening ceremonies. It was stunning, but also very chilling.
London opened the way to a more sustainable model — a way to make the games pay off both in pride and in long-term improvements, without frittering away too much money on pointless frills. The International Olympic Committee is well aware that fewer cities are making bids to host the games; it, too, is concerned about sustainability. For every Sydney, which capitalized on the games to turn an Australian brownfield into a popular and permanent suburb, there is an Athens, whose costly preparations for 2004 are often viewed as the beginning of Greece’s financial demise.
Walking through East London’s Olympic village, it is too early to predict whether the massive structures that loom over the once-unknown suburb of Stratford will continue to lure tourists to a complex that includes both an Olympic swimming pool and a flagship Prada store. Still, it is thriving. A majority of the city’s expenditures were used on infrastructure projects that will live well past the games. The city merely revamped pre-existing buildings for many events, and built temporary ones for popular competitions like beach volleyball.
And then there were the Spice Girls. Honestly, who among us wasn’t secretly pleased by their closing ceremony reunion? Silly, yes, but so welcome. London made the Olympics real again, accessible and practicable. These games were about the games; there was no grandstanding, or nation building, or Empire invoking. London promised competence, and it delivered. The city knows its place and embraced it. London today is back to normal, but it didn’t stray too far in any event.
The bills and checks are still coming in, but there is little doubt that London has signaled to cities around the world that maybe, just maybe, “You Are Here.”Juliette Kayyem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @juliettekayyem.