This summer marks the 10th anniversary of the London 2012 Olympic Games. It is customary here to suggest that decade has simply flown by, that the years have passed in a blink. In reality this already feels like an event from a different timeline altogether.
It’s not the actual Games, which will remain a wonderful thing, tenderly guarded. It’s more the staging. Looking back there is something jarring about the uniformly joyful and empowered response to the opening ceremony, with its ragbag of nostalgia and self-mythologising. Kenneth Branagh pretending to be Brunel. Musical Youth playing croquet. Roger Moore inside a phone box surfing dial-up internet porn. Fiona Bruce and Dizzee Rascal reciting the shipping forecast on top of a giant cheddar cheese.
It felt strange at the time that these images of the past, a kind of John Betjeman acid dream, were seen as a confident new reimagining of Britishness; that the future was now wide open, that we would all now speed off towards that horizon on a Union Jack Vespa.
And a decade on that show feels like a jumble sale of end-of-empire odds and ends, a nation chucking the last of the Regency dining chairs on to the fire for the entertainment – check that VIP guest list – of Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban and Robert Mugabe.
It turns out the immediate future would not be 50,000 nurses breakdancing to Elgar, but something closer to George Michael’s difficult new material. The future would be a Games that ran hugely over budget, whose legacy isn’t first-rate facilities or an end to the obesity and participation crisis.
Zoom out a bit and the most tangible legacy of 2012 is the career acceleration of Boris Johnson, the kind of politician who would steal Judi Dench’s Olympic skiffle board and outsource it to a Bosnian crime ring if it suited his personal advancement. Welcome, 10 years on, to the cut-price present, a place where the wallpaper has long since begun to peel.
The reason for offering these depressing observations is that the legacy of those Games has been in the news again this week. UK Athletics has been offered a tempting sum by West Ham to give up its right to stage events at the London Stadium, a move that does make some practical sense. Although not to Seb Coe, who has suggested it would be “bizarre” to relocate athletics events to Birmingham and that London must keep its “world-class presence”, which a cynic might interpret as retaining a fig-leaf that this was ever a working idea.
How to understand this mess? One way is to return to an unresolved complaint. The fact is London already had a dilapidated world-class facility. It remains a scandal of the London Games that £9bn was spent without regenerating the Crystal Palace National Stadium, an omission that tells us a great deal about how such a wealthy nation is so poor in its physical culture.
This is much more than a London issue. It speaks directly to the way resources and access have been squandered across the country, and how, if there was any will, this could be changed. Take a trip to Crystal Palace now and the National Stadium is still a wonderful place, an entire sporting village sitting there fully formed, frozen in a beautiful state of decay, all crumbling boulevards and mildewed ramps, an embarrassment of space and light and scrolling sight -lines.
There’s the stunningly airy indoor centre, a structure you feel you should call “Brutalist” because this is what people always say that about precast buildings. But it’s not brutal. It’s delicate, with its fine concrete lines, its steep glass panels, the canopy of that endless ceiling.
Down below is a pit where people play volleyball on sand donated by the 2012 Games, the sporting legacy equivalent of giving the gardener the final slice of two-week-old wedding cake. The stadium itself is a huge open space, with flying slab roof and classic leathery orange rice-pudding-skin running surface. On a Thursday afternoon some bokes were in there having a kickabout in front of 20,000 ghosts.
The real point is that this place isn’t a relic, but an idea that needs to be rebooted. The plaque from its official opening by Prince Philip describes it as “National recreation centre”, and the deep history of this place is in those words, the notion of sport as a force for collectivism and shared enjoyment.
Crystal Palace was one of five national sports centers conceived in the 1950s – Lilleshall, Bisham Abbey and Plas y Brenin survive – as a gift to the health of the nation. These were places where elite facilities were available to all, designed to foster not just excellence, but a culture of activity and participation.
The 1950s was that kind of time, with a postwar enthusiasm for adult education, social mobility, state provision. Whereas in the decades since we have sold our health and leisure off by the unit. Try walking into any national sports venue now and asking for a go on the parallel bars. You’ll be tasered by a private security firm called Quanglion. At Crystal Palace private entities called things like Supahealth and PeeplJym are still trying to make this beast work, like Star Wars scavengers sifting though the sand for half‑buried imperial cruiser parts. Its real value is as a living, crumbling case for a massive change in policy on health and sport.
The National Stadium should be renovated and maintained, but for its original purpose of open public use. And beyond that every British city and region should have one of these. A chain of national recreation centers should be the goal of every piece of investment. It can be done. Iceland chose to keep its creaky national stadium and use its income from Fifa and Uefa to build all-weather community pitches across the country.
If this feels like more Olympic-scale fetishising of the past, it is worth remembering the past also offers some pretty good ideas. Not so much Gary Barlow singing Let It Be in a taxi made from spam; but the message buried in the crumbling facade of Crystal Palace, of sport as a shared jewel, from a time when the future looked like a place we could all visit together.