Chris  Low

The Paris 2024 Olympic Games is now less than a year away and amid all the excitement in the build-up to the most significant moment of the sporting calendar, talk has already turned to legacy.

Every Olympic bid is accompanied by a vision and plan for how hosting the Olympics will leave a long-term legacy in the host city and nation. 

The Games entertain huge audiences, but they also inspire people. It is this capacity to inspire that means they are uniquely placed to continue to shape outcomes long after races are finished and new records set.

The bid for London 2012, successfully made in 2005 by Lord Sebastian Coe, was hailed as a huge opportunity for the UK to capitalise on its strengths and build a lasting legacy to follow on from the Games. 

Emphasis was put on the need to make sure this legacy had an impact across the country and not just in the host city of London; something feasible given the UK’s small geographic size relative to other host countries.

In Sheffield, we are fortunate to boast the only Olympic Legacy Park in the world outside of a host city.

The brainchild of former UK Government Sports Minister Richard Caborn, it is a flagship location pioneered in 2014, and is home to the English Institute of Sport (EIS). It was a transformative concept that would go on to demonstrate that the 2012 legacy stretched well beyond London.

When we talk about an Olympic legacy, we usually talk about inspiring young people to take up sport. 

The Olympic Legacy Park in Sheffield is the only one outside the host city, celebrating London 2012 ©Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park
The Olympic Legacy Park in Sheffield is the only one outside the host city, celebrating London 2012 ©Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park

This is obviously hugely important, but legacy is also about creating economic opportunities, strengthening communities, celebrating culture and improving health and education outcomes, for the Olympics is not just about competition among athletes but about the spirit of striving for the best.

Some have questioned if there has been a positive legacy of the Games at all in the UK, after the number of people playing sport at least once a week declined significantly in the years immediately following London 2012 . 

Compounded onto this was the revelation that athletics may no longer take place at the London stadium anymore, as UK Athletics considers quitting the venue. 

While these developments are obviously disappointing, they miss the bigger picture - an Olympic legacy is about more than just the number of people playing sport or what is hosted where, but about the impact that the Olympics has on communities well into the future.

We are now 11 years on from London 2012 and 18 years on from the successful bid, and while much of the media coverage of its legacy has been mixed, there are shining examples of success that could serve as useful lessons for Paris.

One of the most powerful aftereffects of an Olympics is the 'beacon' effect that its physical spaces have. 

The potent mix of huge space, a high profile, and attractive location mean that they have a special ability to attract, develop and support clusters of innovation in health, wellbeing and sport. 

Public sector organisations, private companies, university researchers, investors and corporate partners come together to support and accelerate changes that remain true to the Olympic spirit.

This means an Olympic legacy can become not just an exercise in inspiring the next generation of athletes but one in transforming communities, facilitating innovation and in transforming population health.

While Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park has a smaller public profile compared to our London sibling, we have demonstrated what a successful Olympic legacy can look like by clustering a unique mix of organisations like the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre; UTC Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park, which offers qualifications in health and sports science; and the Canon Medical Arena, which is the UK’s first carbon-neutral built sports, healthcare and community arena.

Leveraging early wins to secure support from regional political stakeholders and from Central Government is key for Paris 2024 legacy ©Getty Images
Leveraging early wins to secure support from regional political stakeholders and from Central Government is key for Paris 2024 legacy ©Getty Images

From children to chief executives, we are showing the real, physical transformation that can follow an event that inspires and excites. 

Our track record of using the legacy to attract record investment, support HealthTech companies to grow and inspire school leavers to consider sporting, technology and healthcare careers is demonstrating that the Olympic legacy is alive and well.

So, what lessons should Paris take from the success of London 2012 and the decade of experience that has followed?  

Firstly, it is to focus on what can come out of the legacy if capitalised on in the right way. The beacon effect I mentioned means that the Olympic values, ethos and brand can be used to attract and guide investment and innovation that will enhance communities, deliver prosperity and bring about lasting health and wellness outcomes in an equitable way.

In Sheffield, we have seen the Park regenerate a community, deliver better healthcare provision and attract the kind of partnerships necessary to commercialise health, wellness and sport research effectively. 

My advice is to leverage early wins to secure support from regional political stakeholders and from Central Government, as I have done with the South Yorkshire Mayor and HM Treasury, as this can act as a real catalyst for legacy building.

Secondly, it is important to recognise where expectations have not been met and where additional effort should be invested. 

Ensuring the sporting and physical activity legacy doesn’t dwindle should be a key focus and might be done by better aligning the main stakeholders involved in facilitating and encouraging sporting activity, as money alone cannot make people act.

Over a decade has passed and we have seen huge progress in Sheffield, but in many ways, it feels like we are only just getting started in terms of what we could achieve. 

Paris will chart its own path for how the city and France as a whole can benefit from the legacy of its Games, but the thing about an Olympic legacy is it isn’t quite ever finished - it is enduring and continuous process of building, which is perhaps its greatest strength.