Lessons from London
It has been nearly two years since London 2012 and the buzz of excitement that came with it has died down.The iconic venues have been converted, the Athletes’ Village turned into housing and the famous smiling gamesmakers who ensured the Olympics went off without a hitch have returned to their daily lives.
But it is only now that it is becoming clearer whether the wider aims of the original bid to bring the Games to London have been achieved.
Alongside its promise of a world-class sporting event and the regeneration of East London, from day one, organisers had in mind that London 2012 would be a sustainable games.
To that end, many of the furnishings and fittings used in London have been transported by ferry to be used once more in Glasgow next month when the Commonwealth Games get under way, just a small indication that the London experience is being used as a blueprint to test what can be achieved in the future.
While London was not the first Olympics to deliver an environmental message – Sydney in 2000 was known as the ‘Green Games’ – David Stubbs, who was head of sustainability for LOCOG – says he hopes the impact of what was achieved in 2012 is now being felt throughout the world.
During the 1990s, Stubbs was director of the European Golf Association Ecology Unit, establishing the first Europe-wide environmental management programme for golf courses.
In 1995, the International Olympic Committee held the first World Conference on Sport and Environment at Lausanne.
“I became aware that the Olympic movement was starting out on a similar journey and I was intrigued by the idea of major events as a vehicle for trying to reach large audiences and to demonstrate sustainability on a large scale,” he says.
From 1998, he began advising the British Olympic Association (BOA) on environmental issues and worked with the environment team in the run-up to Sydney and during the event.
Official government involvement in a potential London bid hadn’t even started yet, but already the environment was being included in the very early stages.
With the IOC having included a clause on sustainable development in the Olympic charter, Stubbs said the BOA realised in order to have any chance of winning a bid it would need to cover all bases. The IOC was recognising that in future, the Games needed to be as attentive as possible to make sure it minimised the environmental impact and in fact could be a force for good.
“When it came to London bidding, there was a recognition this was going to be an important part of our pitch and we thought it we made it a more holistic approach around sustainability that could be a differentiating edge – and we knew we’d need all the help we could get to get us over the line to win.”
Millions of visitors came to London for the Olympics – more than 9m travelcards were handed out with tickets for events – and Stubbs admits that the Olympics, or any major event, is not necessarily the most obvious choice to start on the issue of sustainability.
However, like other areas of the bid, the legacy is all important. Planners were thinking of three or four decades in the future, where he says there can be a “quantum change which far outweighs the temporal impact of people flying in.”
As planning began in earnest after confirmation in 2006 that London had beaten Paris to the hosting rights, organisers were keen to use the considerable weight of the Olympic name to reinforce the sustainability message.
Contracts were drawn up with suppliers to ensure sustainable supply chains.
“That drove change in the market place,” says Stubbs. “It meant suppliers were looking at innovative solutions to find ways of addressing our requirements. That was really powerful – you’ve got the buying power to make some of these changes.
“The key thing in all this is it does not happen on its own. Suppliers basically meet the tender requirements because that’s what they need to do to win the job so unless the client organisation sets out its stall and is serious about it and follows through, it’s very hard for these things to happen.”
The same was true with sponsors. There were six sustainability partners involved in the event, including Coca Cola and BP.
Stubbs says these partners wanted to be involved to give them a platform that showcased their own environmental policies.
While sponsorship can often be a thorny issue, there is a relevant contemporary example – the Football World Cup and allegations of corruption over the 2022 event to be held in Qatar.
“It is interesting how a lot of the sponsors of FIFA are beginning to get itchy feet,” says Stubbs. “If you get bad news it affects brand image.
“Because of our strong sustainability credentials, it was more attractive to other companies to come in and associate with the London Games.”
He adds: “Having set out and made all the commitments around this, if we had wavered from them in a significant way we’d have been crucified by the media, politicians, by all sorts of stakeholder groups – there’s a certain risk to putting out such commitments but we wouldn’t have them on board in the first place so we had to go down that path.”
The other important impact opportunity for organisers was the potential to influence the millions of spectators visiting the venues in London, but Stubbs says LOCOG was careful not to overdo it.
“People were coming to the Games. They were not turning up to the Eden Project or the Natural History Museum or watching a documentary on BBC2.
“You can’t suddenly throw in their face a whole pile of sustainability messaging they didn’t want – a lecture on the carbon content of the concrete in the stadium, for example.”
Instead, what they set about creating was a subtle environmental message contained in the “collective experience” across the Games.
People had to travel to and from the venues by public transport, on foot or cycling, with huge investment in travel infrastructure as well as the free travelcards across London for ticketholders.
A London 2012 Food Vision was drawn up with issues like sustainable sourcing of fish and farming and there were colour-coded plates to match the relevant recycling bins to meet the Games’ aim of zero waste.
Uniforms for the gamesmakers, materials for banners, the flowers for victory bouquets and even the cauldron containing the Olympic stadium, were all prepared with an eye on sustainability.
And Stubbs says there was one thing that trumped all of this – the Olympic Park.
“It wasn’t just some concrete precinct with great big over-engineered venues in it. There were so many different areas where people had a great experience and if you look underneath it, there was a sustainability story to it. I think it was that rather than direct messaging and big announcements and posters, it was more something you absorbed.”
With 2012 now done and dusted – how influential has it been?
Stubbs, who has served on the IOC’s evaluation committee for the 2020 Games which will be going to Tokyo, said each future bidding city and hosts would hopefully be picking up on things that had been pioneered in London. There is even an international management standard IOS20121, which has come directly from London – with Roland Garros, the venue of the French Open, the latest to be given that certification. Elsewhere, events like the America’s Cup have also picked up on what was achieved by LOCOG.
“It’s hard to compare,” says Stubbs. “What it has done is put sustainability as a mainstream element of major event planning certainly within the Olympic world.”
While not formally involved in Glasgow 2014, Stubbs says there were informal meetings and ad hoc advice was given, dating right back to teams from both observing the Melbourne Commonwealth Games in 2006.
So is Glasgow learning from London? Stubbs says he doesn’t know enough to give the full answer.
But he adds: “I know [in relation to] the food standards, a lot of those have been adopted. I know a lot of good work on waste management and a number of elements of temporary venues in London are being picked up in Glasgow.
“What I don’t know is the overall story – you’ve got the detail of making the event as sustainable as possible and showcasing it to people and making them aware of it and then you stand back and you’ve got this overall story of how will, for example, the Commonwealth Games play out in 10 years’ time.
“What effect will they have had on Glasgow, not just in its physical sense but also reputational and from the goodwill that comes with it, how can the benefits of hosting it be be capitalised further?”
He adds: “You’ve got your immediate elements around how you deliver the Games in a more sustainable way, working with suppliers and managing the waste and I’m sure the guys from Glasgow will do a very good job on all of that. The wider story is one that plays out over time.”