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  1. Wealth
August 13, 2013

What legacy will London 2012 and Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games really leave?

By Spear's

Before next year’s Commonwealth Games have even reached the starting blocks, the city of Glasgow is wondering what legacy they will leave, says Sophie McBain

Before next year’s Commonwealth Games have even reached the starting blocks, the city of Glasgow is wondering what legacy they will leave, says Sophie McBain

OUTSIDE, IT’S A Scottish summer’s day — the rain is falling horizontally in great cold gusts, the temperature is struggling to reach double figures, and I am unnaturally grateful for the insulation of a hard hat and a heavy Foster + Partners neon jacket that reaches well over my knees. Inside the half-finished hulk of Glasgow’s SSE Hydro Arena, construction activity has reached a frenetic pace. Around 500 builders are working around the clock to finish the amphitheatre-style arena in time for a Rod Stewart concert in late September. Next July, it will host the gymnastics and netball for the 2014 Commonwealth Games. 

For now, however, troops of construction workers are completing 12,000 seats, thousands of square metres of under-floor heating and the vast ETFE plastic panels that will make up the walls of the arena. This space-age material means that even when images and colours are projected on to the façade, the walls will be translucent enough for passers-by to peer in. 

Nevertheless, one of the concerns when it comes to spending on large sporting events is precisely that local people remain on the outside. Expensive buildings are parachuted into cheap neighbourhoods, international crowds fill pricy seats for a few days, yuppies may move into new-build apartments — but the worry is that the rest of the community is simply left to struggle along on the sidelines.


The Scottish government says it’s determined that the Commonwealth Games prove ‘a golden opportunity for Scotland’ — a phrase that litters the Legacy 2014 website it has set up to track its progress on goals like contributing to economic growth, helping Scots be more physically active, strengthening learning and culture and increasing community and environmental sustainability.

‘We’re definitely looking to London for learnings from the 2012 Olympics and, like them, hope to host an incredible Games as well as ensure individuals across the country notice positive changes in their communities that will last long beyond the event itself,’ says Shona Robison, the Scottish sports minister.

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Walking around central Glasgow you might not realise the needs are so urgent, but there are pockets of deep deprivation beyond: life expectancy in Glasgow is the lowest in the UK — six years below average for men (71.6 years) and four for women (78). The city has the highest unemployment rates in Scotland, four out of ten Glaswegians are obese and rates of child poverty are the sixth highest in the UK (this list, interestingly, is topped by the Olympic borough of Tower Hamlets). Because Glasgow makes up more than 10 per cent of Scotland’s population, what happens here matters for Scotland, too.


Tackling these problems is a big challenge, especially when there’s considerable scepticism surrounding the legacy bequeathed by the Olympics, a far larger event. As director of the Olympic Park Legacy Company and founder of Mawson Partnerships, which has worked on urban regeneration projects for over 30 years, Lord Mawson has faith in the ability of large-scale investment projects to regenerate local communities — but he also believes they often fail. In his experience, politicians are rarely able to live up to their ‘unrealistic’ promises, and projects often remain ‘at 60,000 feet’, removed from the communities they purport to serve.

He told me that legacy is often seen as an afterthought and that politicians and organisations fail to engage with the detail. ‘If big projects are really going to add value to the communities around them, what is really important is that the lead organisations are serious about the words they use about legacy from day one, and that they have an understanding of the micro-issues around their site and engage with people in detail so that the aspiration is realised,’ he says.

One innovative project is addressing Mawson’s concerns by forging new links between those involved in the Commonwealth Games and grassroots organisations tackling social disadvantage. Pilotlight matches small, ambitious charities and social enterprises with teams of senior business people who coach the charities for one year on the business skills and strategic expertise they need to expand successfully and sustainably.

During the Olympics, Pilotlight paired up Olympic sponsors, including senior representatives from BP, Adidas, BT, Lloyds and Deloitte, with charities working in London’s East End. Now they’re transporting the same model to Scotland. Pilotlight believes these partnerships have a long-term impact. Its figures show that charities that complete this one-year process will, on average, increase their turnover by 50 per cent and double the number of people they reach — and this is despite painful public-sector cuts.

So far three social enterprises have been selected and paired up with Pilotlight teams drawn mainly from three Commonwealth Games sponsors: sportscotland, VisitScotland and Scottish Enterprise.

I headed on a train from Glasgow to Paisley to visit Active Communities, one of the social enterprises taking part. It runs low-cost games and sports sessions for families to promote healthier living and to bring the community together. Active Communities operates in the Ferguslie Park area of Paisley, rated the most deprived area of Scotland according to the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation 2012. Walking to my meeting I am most struck by the eerie emptiness of the streets here: barring one old lady slowly dragging a shopping trolley behind her, I didn’t see a single pedestrian.


Some of the most zealous supporters of sports-led regeneration see it as a tool of transforming their community, too, by increasing social cohesion, tackling marginalisation and reducing crime rates. The founder of Active Communities, Susan MacDonald, and her colleague Helen Moir both enjoyed international sports careers — MacDonald was a 5,000-metre runner, while Moir played hockey for Great Britain and Ireland. 

‘Sports have always been our passion but now we’re putting that out in a different format,’ says Moir. Not only do they provide examples of individuals who have used their sporting careers to help others, but Moir also speaks convincingly of how their fun, low-cost exercise classes promote healthy lifestyles for children, pensioners and everyone in between and encourage different sectors of the community to mix. She says she wants to encourage the ‘feel-good factor’ in a community used to bearing the brunt of negative headlines on joblessness, welfare dependency, crime and obesity. 

‘We had an initial meeting in offices in Glasgow and then we realised how big this was going to be for us, getting support from these very big national bodies like VisitScotland and sportscotland,’ Moir explains. She’s hoping to increase the number of activity sessions they run and the areas they can cover. Pilotlight is also working with a Scottish community sports centre, Drumchapel and District Sports Centre, and Youth Football Scotland, a website promoting youth football by posting match reports, star players and football vacancies. Before the games, Pilotlight will select a further nine social enterprises to work with.

It’s too early for these Scottish social enterprises to point to changes Pilotlight has brought about, but I spoke to Jennifer Fear, the CEO of Step Forward, which was coached by a Pilotlight team from Adidas in the run-up the Olympics.

She says Adidas above all helped her operate more strategically — pointing out what she does best and what she ought to be focusing on. ‘It’s very useful to have a critical friend and a supporter. Pilotlight allows you to hold a mirror up, to see what you do from another perspective,’ she told me. On top of this, working with Adidas meant that the young people she helps felt like the Olympics were having a direct impact on their lives: ‘They felt involved because someone who was involved with the Olympics was caring about them.’


With many in the media veering towards scepticism about the Olympics, while those working on Olympic legacy urge people to take a longer-term perspective on the subject, I wondered what Jennifer Fear, as someone on the front line, makes of it. I’m pleasantly surprised by her enthusiasm: ‘People might not realise the difference, but there’s been a change in people embracing values like respect and excellence, people are more willing to get involved with things, there’s more take-up of things like the open-air gym or the local swimming pools and people feel more positive about the local area.’ 

She’s optimistic, too, that following on from the Olympics, people will think more positively about similar large-scale investments: ‘A lot of the things people talked about beforehand were worries about crisis management, rather than the benefits of the Olympics. I hope now we have more of a “can do” attitude rather than expecting things to fail.’ 

It’s never a good idea to be charmed by grand government promises or to put too much faith in top-down initiatives, but some of the smaller projects popping up beyond the UK’s new world-class venues have a more than sporting chance of changing their communities for the better. 

Pilotlight’s website

Read more from Sophie McBain

Illustrations by Phil Wong



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