Lifting the bar on Olympic and Paralympic Games legacy

Lessons from Barcelona, Sydney and London Olympic and Paralympic Games for creating lasting social and economic benefits well after the closing ceremony.

Creating a legacy beyond staging the Olympic and Paralympic Games is now central to the International Olympic Committee’s mission. It’s embedded in the Olympic Charter, which states that the aim of every Games is ‘to promote a positive legacy from the Olympic Games to the host cities, regions and countries’.

And by legacy, the International Olympic Committee isn’t focussed just on the tangible benefits of newly built infrastructure and facilities or economic effects. Host cities need to show how they’ll create long-term intangible benefits, like better health outcomes for the community, sports development, and job training. Environmental benefits are at the top of the list too.

I’ve been closely involved in two Olympic and Paralympic Games – Sydney 2000 and London 2012 – as well as researching the impacts of more than 12 other hallmark events. The main lesson I’ve learnt from past events is that long-lasting social and economic benefits don’t just happen automatically, they must be planned, funded and implemented well in advance of the event itself - and further managed and monitored after the event too in order to achieve the maximum benefit.

Fundamentally, the success of the Games is 100 per cent important to the realisation of legacy. They go hand in hand.   

Munich Olympiapark in Germany

Munich Olympiapark – one of the first examples of a long-term Olympic legacy.

The road to legacy

The word ‘legacy’ was first used by the Melbourne Games in 1956, perhaps slightly unwittingly. Melbourne had the first purpose-built Olympic village and thus created something new for the event that was used for social housing afterwards.

But the notion of what an Olympic legacy might look like came in 1972 when Munich used the Olympics as an opportunity to redevelop a derelict industrial area in the north of the city. Unfortunately, the Games were overshadowed by a terrorist attack, but the Munich Olympiapark is to this day a proud legacy of the event. 

Over the next two decades there were a few controversies surrounding the Games, notably the 1980 boycott of the Moscow Olympics and huge debts from the 1976 Montreal Games – tarnishing the movement with negative legacies.

In my PhD research some 25 years ago, I coined the expression ‘showing off or showing up’ the city. The simple proposition is that large scale events can ‘show up’ a city’s poor infrastructure and planning or they can ‘show off’ a city’s efficient urban systems and programs of transformation.

For the Games to remain relevant, the enormous costs and disruptions to a host city had to have lasting benefits for their citizens. The bar needed to be lifted as to the positive opportunities that hosting the event could provide and this came from Barcelona.

Barcelona’s seafront promenade, Spain

Barcelona’s seafront promenade – a legacy of the 1992 Games.

Barcelona 1992

Barcelona seized the opportunity to host the Games as a way of transforming the city.

The Games allowed Barcelona to engage in a transformative program of urban regeneration, which included new transport infrastructure, a new airport, and a new urban district to benefit the local community. The most obvious example of the transformation to the visitor is the new city beaches and seafront promenades. From historically turning its back on the sea, Barcelona now faces the Mediterranean and celebrates its location.

Barcelona’s hosting of the Games was just one milestone on a much longer-term program of city shaping that continues to this day. The city is firmly on the ‘must-see’ of tourist destinations and can comfortably call itself the capital of the Western Mediterranean.

The bar was lifted again in Sydney Australia eight years later.


Sydney Olympic Park - beyond the Sydney 2000 ‘green’ Games

Sydney 2000

Sydney viewed its legacy in a different way. It focused on creating the first ‘green’ Games.

The Sydney Bid Committee worked closely with Greenpeace Australia to design an Olympic village that would be the most sustainable urban community in Australia at the time. Though not all the original sustainability concepts were implemented, the example of the largest solar suburb in Australia at the time became an exemplar. It ultimately helped establish New South Wales’ Building Sustainability Index (BASIX).

The Olympic village was converted into private housing after the Games – with the homes featuring solar panels and water recycling. Waste water could be treated and redirected to the neighbouring wetlands, which was restored as part of the project.

Sydney set a benchmark for future Games to be sustainable. The transformation of Homebush Bay was also a positive legacy but the detailed planning for its post-Games legacy uses happened some time after the event.

River running through Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London, UK

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park – a lasting community asset post 2012 London Games

London 2012

London was up against some very stiff competitors to host the 2012 Games, notably Paris. From the outset, the then Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, set a big challenge for hosting the event. This was to transform the socially and economically deprived East End of London.

London lifted the bar again and put its broad legacy ambitions front and centre of its bid.

London carefully planned for its lasting social and economic benefits during the bid process. All levels of government had comprehensive legacy strategies that addressed sports participation, employment and skills creation, urban regeneration, tourism and business opportunities. It also created governance structures for regeneration early in the process, which eventually became the London Legacy Development Corporation.

The event was used to build national infrastructure projects and create new local facilities and programs including a new park – Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park (the largest new park in Europe), a build-to-rent scheme from the Olympic village, and an innovation hub Here East. There was a genuine effort to engage the local community, and to create community programs and campaigns to drive improved social outcomes.

London provided a stand-out case study on the importance of planning for legacy. It established clear objectives, funded them, and monitored progress years before the event.

Eiffel Tower with sun shining through tree in Paris, France

Next up Paris – an opportunity to lift the bar again

See you in Paris 2024

The Paris 2024 Games next year are poised to lift the bar again. The opening ceremony will be a new benchmark as it will be a city event not a stadium event. It will encompass the Jardin des Tuileries, the Seine and the Champs-Élysées.

Paris also has the most far-reaching set of legacy strategies I’ve seen. It has involved all levels of government as well as corporate and civil society organisations. There are a range of objectives ranging from sustainability to employment benefits. Getting locals involved in sport and healthy exercise also features – with a focus on swimming.

Opportunities for Brisbane 2032

There are good signs for Brisbane. The state government has already set up a legacy committee, stating: “Hosting Brisbane 2032 presents an opportunity for Queensland to drive legacy outcome over the next 20 years – 10 years to the Games and 10 years after.”

It’s worth studying past successful Games to provide inspiration for what is possible in 2032. Brisbane can also derive lessons from its hosting of World Expo 88, as my colleague Joanne Cousins has done in an insight here.

Again, the key to creating a positive legacy is to plan, fund and monitor well in advance.

Let’s hope Brisbane’s legacy committee is bold in its ambitions so we enjoy the benefits of hosting the Games well beyond 2032.


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