Background

Hosting a major international event, such as the Olympics or World Cup, provides a unique platform to display a country’s culture, boost tourism, promote foreign direct investment, and provide a boon for the construction sector. It is common knowledge that these events inevitably come at a significant cost and require large investment not only in terms of landmark projects such as stadia, but also in transport, services and accommodation infrastructure. For instance, the London Olympics in 2012 is considered to have cost more than £ 8 billion.

In order to justify the substantial capital investment, governments (and governing bodies) have increasingly considered the manner in which the buildings associated with these projects can either be re-purposed, or returned to the community so that the investment provides a long-term benefit. The concept of a project leaving a long term “legacy” has now become part of a number of bids and proposals by prospective hosts for these events. However, for every Eiffel Tower (built for the World Fair in 1889), there are spectres of crumbling stadia, swimming pools filled with litter and, in the case of Esposizione Universale Roma, an entire district which was left practically empty and in a state of partial completion for decades.

In anticipation of the upcoming Expo 2020 in Dubai, and the Qatar World Cup in 2022, we thought it timely to look at the most recent legacy successes, and how these experiences might translate to guarantee the long-term utility of the respective projects long after the fanfare of the event itself has passed.

Concept of Legacy

For London 2012, the concept of legacy was engrained in every aspect of the games. Some expectations failed to materialise, such as a sustainable tourist trade for the Orbit Tower and a media hub in the former broadcast facilities (now replaced by a new tech hub). However, there are four areas where the London 2012 Olympic Games has generally been considered to have delivered on its promise of providing an enduring legacy:

  • The regeneration of the Olympic Village into housing has not only helped ease pressure on an over-heating housing market, it has also contributed much needed affordable housing across the capital. In addition, the onward sale of the properties, the integration of the site into the transport network, and the increased demand for additional lifestyle services such as supermarkets, restaurants and shops, has resulted in the regeneration of a formerly deprived area of the capital, in line with the Mayor of London’s aims.
  • A number of the venues were built and designed with legacy in mind. Venues of the size and nature required for the Olympics seldom find a second life simply due to their size and the cost of upkeep. However, for buildings such as the Olympic Stadium and the Aquatics Centre, the design allowed post-event modification to reduce the capacity of the venues making them more desirable, and more affordable, in the long term for community use or for prospective tenants. In respect of the Olympic Stadium, this certainly played a part in securing West Ham United as a long term tenant for the venue.
  • The London 2012 Olympics, in part, utilized existing venues such as the Wimbledon tennis grounds, Wembley Stadium, and Dorney Lake. Granted not every country or city will have the benefit of appropriate, existing facilities, but thinking outside the box (such as by using Horse Guards Parade for beach volleyball) demonstrates that the absence of existing facilities does not commit the host to providing new, purpose built facilities for every aspect of the event. In this vein, the legacy aspect of the project is simply returning a venue to its former, tried and tested use.

Another more recent experience of facilities finding a second life comes from the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014 where the facilities are being updated to host the 2018 World Cup. Granted this is a further “one off” event, and it will not allow all of the facilities constructed for the Winter Olympics to be utilized, but it creates a partial return on investment whilst also resulting in a number of construction opportunities for the refurbishment and repurposing of the facilities.

Although not related to a major sporting or trade event, it is also worth looking at the Millennium Dome in London, which is a rare instance where a potential legacy flop was turned around post-event. After the initial use of the building expired, the structure was associated with a number of different potential uses, but ultimately looked set to become a giant white elephant on the banks of the Thames. However, the re-purposing of the building as a concert venue has not only seen the building find a lucrative new purpose, it has provided an economic lifeline to a formerly deprived corner of London.

Lessons

The lesson, therefore, appears to be either that the demand for increased facilities must already exist at the time of planning, or that the long term-desirability must be linked to more than just the prestige associated with the building’s original purpose. Looking at Expo 2020, there are clear signs that both of these lessons have already been well considered:

  • The Expo 2020 site is to be located next to the new international airport (set to handle up to 160 million passengers a year once complete). Proximity to an airport is already favoured by a large number of haulage, logistics and import/export companies world-wide, but the Expo site adds to this by also offering close proximity to the Jebel Ali Port and faster links to the nation’s capital, Abu Dhabi. Collectively, this means that the Expo site and the surrounding areas can be used as a single hub for companies serving the Southern Emirates.
  • The increased housing and hotel stock will either act to serve the ever-expanding tourism industry in Dubai, or, if required, can be re-purposed to assist in a number of the benevolent campaigns run by the Government, such as turning them into affordable housing in line with the policy established by Shaikh Hamdan Bin Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and Chairman of Dubai Executive Council in 2017.

Dubai has also announced that it wishes for the Expo 2020 site to become an “ecosystem” for emerging technologies in order to boost the state’s expanding technology sector.

For an event such as a World Cup, however, the long-term utility of landmark projects is dependent on whether tenants are already in place (such as a home-town football team) and/or whether there are real prospects of other events being held in the near future (such as regional football tournaments, or turning the space into a concert venue). This can make it difficult to return the investment to the community (albeit it could provide a catalyst for increased interest in sport in the local communities far beyond the physical and commercial legacy). There does, however, remain a real prospect of ensuring that hotels, accommodation, and the significant city-wide infrastructure investments brought with the World Cup 2022 will benefit the State of Qatar and its citizens for many years.