Hosting the Olympics is right up there on the list of global megaprojects in terms of scale, complexity, public attention and expense. On top of all the inherent challenges, this summer’s ‘pandemic games’ in Tokyo was beset by more and greater troubles than any modern Games.
Never before has a peacetime Olympics been postponed by a year and taken place under a state of public‑health emergency with stadiums devoid of spectators. It’s enough to make even the most hardened programme manager quail.
But does the inevitable short‑term focus on delivering the event obscure the longer‑term question of legacy?
A structural problem
“The Olympics can act as a tremendous catalyst. There is a real opportunity for megaprojects like this to play a pivotal role in long‑term development,” says Bill Morris, adviser to the International Olympic Committee.
Unfortunately, the track record of the Games on legacy matters is patchy. This is at least partly a structural problem based on the Games’ fixed eight‑year cycle from bid to delivery, says Alexander Budzier, fellow in management practice at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School.
“The Olympics is quite a short‑term thing – eight years from bid to delivery, and quite often nothing much happens for the first three years. Then everything is focused on delivering the opening ceremony; nobody thinks much about legacy.”
By no means is every Games’ legacy a flop, however. Experience suggests that lasting positive effects are much more likely if there is a clear vision and intent for what it should be, right from the start, says Julie Nerney, transformation director of Nuclear Transport Solutions and formerly a senior leader in the transport team for London 2012.
“If you look at the Games that have had more successful legacies and those where it hasn’t been so good, I think it starts with intent. In London, there were two big pillars of intent. One was about trying to get the public more active and more committed to sport. The other was about regeneration. I lived in Whitechapel before the Olympic Park was built; [the site] was contaminated wasteland. Now we have all these amazing facilities, and many thousands of jobs have been created.”
Costs v benefits
Hosting the Olympics is not only expensive, but almost always subject to budget overspend, leading to mounting concerns that, for host cities, the costs simply outweigh the benefits. The meter for Tokyo’s delayed event currently stands at $15.7bn – over twice the initial $7.5bn estimate.
But for all its travails, Tokyo has a pretty solid background when it comes to delivering a lasting legacy. The 1964 Tokyo Games involved building 100km of roads and a brand‑new sewage system. The event is widely acknowledged to have kick‑started the transformation of an ancient and overcrowded city into a modern global capital.
Legacy is not only about buildings and infrastructure, however. There is also the question of learning – how effectively is the experience gained from one Games transferred to the next? Because just like top athletes, even the most competent delivery and project management teams can benefit from some expert coaching from those who have done it before.
“We focus on the people who are on the ground delivering the Games, because most of them will not do an Olympics twice in their lifetimes,” says Chris Payne, associate director of Information Knowledge and Games Learning, the department of the IOC responsible for helping organisers to build on the lessons of their predecessors
The IOC has been formally involved in knowledge transfer since Sydney in 2000, and although every Games is different, one consistent theme is avoiding the temptation to dive straight in and start ticking off milestones on the project chart. “These are very competent organisations, but if they take time to do a bit of learning in the early days, then the quality of milestone delivery will be more effective. We want them to focus on desired outcomes initially, not on specific inputs.
The official learning process has been refined and now uses a combination of technology‑based initiatives around data capture and sharing with human‑based activities including workshops, observational learning and leadership development. It culminates in a major debriefing session at the close of every Games.
The principles of learning legacy
The lessons and experience accrued by each Olympic organising team also have value beyond the Games themselves. The success of London 2012 resulted in widespread interest from the major projects community, says Karen Elson, learning legacy adviser to HS2 and another London 2012 alumnus.
“What we had in London 2012 was a major project that was succeeding against a history of project failure in the UK. So we were getting a lot of requests from academics and industry for good practice and research. I was asked to look at setting up a framework to capture and coordinate it.”
The principles of learning legacy that emerged have been applied to programmes including Crossrail, the redevelopment of London Bridge station and now HS2 and the Houses of Parliament. Major focus areas include digital engineering, design and technical excellence, and health, safety and wellbeing – and there is growing demand around environment, sustainability and climate change.
So as the dust settles on Tokyo, a hidden Olympic legacy is already hard at work helping to deliver better outcomes across major projects worth tens of billions. These are projects that, just like the Games, face the same fundamental challenges over knowledge transfer when expert teams disperse when the job is over.
“They say you should never start from a blank sheet of paper, but projects often do. Innovation is lost when a project closes – a learning legacy is a way to ensure that it is not,” concludes Elson.