Michael Pavitt

Last month marked the 10th anniversary since the Lee Valley White Water Centre officially opened to the general population, the only venue built for the London 2012 Olympics to have public use prior to the Games.

The anniversary has come at a challenging time, with sporting facilities having spent over a year facing obstacles posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Enforced closures have hit revenues across numerous venues, leading to fears some may not reopen.

Shaun Dawson, chief executive of Lee Valley Regional Park Authority, acknowledges that the White Water Centre the organisation oversees has been more fortunate than some others due to its outdoor offering.

"It has been very difficult over the past year and a half, but as an outdoor sport it has suffered less than some," Dawson told insidethegames

"We were closed for a significant period of time to the public, we managed to keep going for the GB team, so all the Olympic sports preparing for Tokyo have probably fared better than most.

"Of course it has hit us hard financially and it has been really difficult, across all our venues. We are trying to retrieve as much as we can this year, rebuild and recover."

The 10th anniversary might not have been an ideal one, but members of the public were able to return for activities in April as the United Kingdom Government’s restrictions were eased.

Dawson said that demand had already been high, partly due to the return of people who saw their bookings last year suffer when the pandemic was at its peak. 

Cautious optimism was the message for the next few months, with the organisation saying there are ahead of where they expect the centre to be this year, after the earlier loss of revenues.

Sustainability remains the key as the centre enters its second decade in operation.

It is fair to say that the centre is in a better place than some of its predecessors. 

Britain celebrated gold and silver medals in the men's C2 competition at London 2012 ©Getty Images
Britain celebrated gold and silver medals in the men's C2 competition at London 2012 ©Getty Images

The specialised nature of whitewater centres is often viewed as providing post-Games headaches. The Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 facilities typically featuring among the horror stories of Olympic venues gone wrong, with photos of abandoned and dried out courses.

The logic of constructing bespoke whitewater courses for the Olympics has rightly been raised as a consequence. So how do you keep the centre operating sustainably once the five days of Olympic competition has come and gone?

That has been the challenge for the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority who were entrusted to oversee the Olympic whitewater centre after London 2012, ensuring Britain's men's C2 gold and silver medals at the Games were not the only success seen at the site. The authority is also in charge of the London 2012 Olympic velodrome and hockey facilities.

The Lee Valley White Water Centre, located in Hertfordshire, boasts a 300 metres Olympic course which is normally used for rafting and serves as the training venue for British Canoe’s slalom team. A national performance centre is also located at the facility, offering state of the art gym facilities and a physiotherapy suite.

Dawson points to the 160 metres legacy loop as being vital to ensuring the centre’s long-term sustainability. The additional course was not required for the Games where it served as a warm-up facility, but was included as part of the design with the future in mind.

"Even without the Games we would have had a whitewater centre, but it would have been a more modest affair," Dawson said. "We worked with British Canoeing and they had identified that their centre in Nottingham was coming to the end of its life.

"They needed something in the south-east. We wanted that and more, with a leisure venue and for sport.

"I went out to the Sydney Olympic course at Penrith in 2005 as part of our research.

"The abiding message from that visit was that they should have built a second course. They had the Olympic course and a small facility, but they could not retrofit it afterwards, as it would be too expensive.

"I came back with that lesson in mind, so we raised an extra £11 million ($15 million/€12.8 million) in funding to have the second legacy course and a larger facilities building."

The legacy course has been viewed as key to ensuring the sustainability of the centre ©Getty Images
The legacy course has been viewed as key to ensuring the sustainability of the centre ©Getty Images

While the British Canoeing team trains daily on the Olympic course, Dawson says the legacy course has proved vital in expanding the commercial potential of the venue.

Corporate bookings have provided a crucial revenue stream for the centre, while Dawson said the emergency services proved an unexpected market to boost their business plan. Forces from across the country are regularly present to carry out whitewater rescue training, with their use largely filling the expected downtime when school and paddle sports clubs would not be using the centre.

Dawson said that despite the inclusion of the legacy course on the initial design, they quickly realised they had underestimated the potential of the centre. Further funding was raised to allow for the expansion of the site to enhance food and beverage facilities to help cater for the events market.

The expansion meant that the overall centre received around £40 million ($56 million/€46 million) investment in total, with the upgrades also boosting British Canoeing’s facilities and provided space for seminars.

Around 3.4 million people have visited the centre since it opened, while the number to have participated in rafting activities is approaching 600,000. Dawson believes this shows the importance of providing a wider offering from corporate events to sporting activities.

"You have to continue to plan ahead and future proof these venues," Dawson said. "We need to be mindful of diversifying the offer, we have done that to a degree with other activities on the site. There is an area marked out for beach volleyball, along with a child’s play area as well.

"You have to be over 15 to go on the Olympic course, so there is a bit of a barrier there. We had to look to how to make it more family oriented.

"We also need to recognise whitewater rafting, our bread and butter, might not be as popular forever and a day.

"That is a lesson going forward to make sure these venues are sustainable in the long-term, continual investment is key."

Dawson said the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority had learned a lot from Barcelona and Sydney Olympic courses when planning its legacy, noting that there are only a small number of the facilities to learn from.

The Kasai Canoe Slalom Centre is home to Japan's first man made whitewater course ©Getty Images
The Kasai Canoe Slalom Centre is home to Japan's first man made whitewater course ©Getty Images

In turn, he has helped provide advice to organisers in Tokyo, with the Kasai Canoe Slalom Centre built for the rescheduled Olympics in Japan’s capital city the first of its type in the country.

The centre is located on the outskirts of the Japanese capital, close to an amusement park at Kasai Rinkai Park. The Olympic course featuring a length of 200 metres and a height difference of 4.5 metres from start to finish, while there is a warm-up area and finishing pool.

Dawson is optimistic the location can help the facility to be a success and hopes the legacy body in Tokyo will be able to learn from the London 2012 venue.

"The good thing with Tokyo is that it is in the bay area, its in the heart of the city," he said.

"There are other activities around the whitewater venue, which allows them to look at that wider offer with the whitewater being part of it.

"I look at the population of London and Tokyo, you do have that density of population to call upon. You have to adapt it to your own circumstances and demographics, but whether they have incorporated some of those leisure elements in the final analysis, I don’t know.

"Athens and Beijing did not get it right in terms of legacy, they were miles away from the city, a long way out, and Beijing just did not get that to work at all."

Dawson believes one of the key differences between the London 2012 and the Athens and Beijing examples was that legacy plans and the authority responsible were in charge from the beginning of the project. This helped to ensure the focus was maintained on post-Games use as well as the Olympic competition.

Athens 2004's canoe slalom venue has a contrasting legacy compared to its London 2012 counterpart ©Getty Images
Athens 2004's canoe slalom venue has a contrasting legacy compared to its London 2012 counterpart ©Getty Images

"If these venues were failing we would have no excuse as we were involved from the beginning," Dawson said. "We helped to shape their design and their business modelling, so they should be successful. I think that in itself is a message for other major event bids and legacies.

"It was fortunate that we had plans that converged with the Olympic project, so the London 2012 project benefited from having a legacy client for three venues that knew what they were doing and what they wanted. That has ensured those venues are strong.

"I think the London Legacy Development Corporation should have been there from the beginning, not as an afterthought after the Games. Sydney did the same. The legacy body was not in place until after the Games. I think breaking that cycle is important."

While the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority is seeking to ensure the long-term sustainability of its centre by diversifying the project, elite performance still remains central.

The legacy loop has been viewed as key to introducing young people to the sport, with around 30 people having joined high-performance programmes after talent identification.

The course has hosted two International Canoe Federation World Cup events in recent years, while the 2015 Canoe Slalom World Championships was held at the London 2012 venue.

Memories of London 2012 are expected to be rekindled at the venue again in 2023 when the World Championships return ahead of the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.