Five years ago Britain was in the midst of perhaps its greatest sporting summer, as Olympic heroes achieved unparalleled results in spectacular arenas, roared on – it seemed – by a united nation. Austerity had not yet truly bitten and Coalition Government still felt like a good idea. What a golden time it was.
When Sir Mo Farah was winning yet another World Championship gold on Friday in what is now called the London Stadium, it was easy to imagine for a moment that the world, the UK and athletics had stood still, that Britain’s Olympic legacy had somehow been secured. In truth though, a lot has changed in the last half decade. Usain Bolt’s defeat in Saturday’s 100m sprint final, his last individual race before he retires, was therefore rather more emblematic.
Most prosaically, the arena which made for such a wonderful Olympic venue is now – for most of the year – a football stadium. That transformation was inevitable if the hallowed ground which played host to 2012’s gold medallists was not to lie dormant. Indeed, other ex-Olympic venues in other countries have suffered much worse fates than being turned over to football, even if some will question the cost to the taxpayer of the switch. After all, £250m is hardly loose change, especially when added to the £429m that the Exchequer contributed to building the stadium in the first place.
On the plus side is the fact that the UK’s capital has a venue which can still, with a bit of seat reshuffling, host top-class athletics. Nothing but another Olympics will quite recapture the spirit of 2012 but the ongoing World Championships – and the Para Athletics equivalent which preceded it – have brought with them a reminder of the stadium’s original purpose. What’s more, it is hard to dispute the notion that the physical and economic regeneration of East London brought about by the UK’s hosting of the 2012 Games has been a lasting success story.
Seeing Sir Mo storming to victory has also, however, raised questions about the broader promises made five years ago; about how the Olympic Games would inspire a generation of Britons to turn off their TVs and their Facebook feeds, and instead head out for a run or pick up a badminton racket. Figures from Sport England last year showed that the number of people in England who are involved in any sport or exercise at least once a week had actually fallen since 2012 – down half a percent to 15.8million. The picture is rather…