Posted on Wednesday 16 November 2011 by Ulster Business

What have the Olympics ever done for us?

While some local firms have had notable success winning contracts for the London 2012 Olympics, Philip McDonagh believes more can be done to ensure Northern Ireland does not miss out on the wider sporting and economic benefits of the showpiece event

One of the big successes of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, was the Great Britain and Northern Ireland men’s hockey team.

With two Northern Ireland men in the team, they came from nowhere to get to the semi-finals and, after losing narrowly to Germany, watched by millions on TV, they beat world champions Australia for the bronze medal.

A few weeks later, inspired by the exploits of the LA heroes, dozens of enthusiastic young hockey players arrived for pre-season training at our local hockey club. In one stroke we trebled our regular membership and overnight hockey became the most popular sport in town.

Sadly the hockey craze in our town faded almost as quickly as it appeared – the club was totally unprepared and we had neither the facilities nor the programmes nor the coaches to cope with the unexpected surge of interest. The ‘legacy’ was lost.

Securing some sort of legacy from the Olympics, whether it is the direct benefits arising from increased sports participation or the broader economic and social benefits, has become the focus of attention for many recent host cities. There is a large volume of academic literature on the subject of the impact of the Games, much of it casting doubt on the benefits claimed by the organisers.

With the London 2012 Games costing in excess of £9bn to stage, at a time when public expenditure has become scarce, it has become imperative for the organisers to demonstrate how the positive impacts of the Games are going to be realised.

A huge effort has gone into trying to ensure that as much economic benefit as possible is secured before, during and after the three weeks in July and August next year, followed by the two weeks of the Paralympic Games in early September 2012.

The organisers are also keen that these benefits should be enjoyed not just by London and the area around the Olympic Park, which will be the centre of the Games, but by all the nations and regions of the UK.

So how has Northern Ireland benefited from the London 2012 Games so far? And how might we expect to benefit in 2012 and beyond?

There are four potential areas of benefit for Northern Ireland – business, tourism, sport and pre-Games training camps.

For business, the big opportunity in the lead up to the Games was to secure Olympic related contracts, which ranged from venue construction to all sorts of contracts associated with the operation of the Games, ranging from software systems to the tarpaulin covers for the beach volleyball courts. A special Compete for web portal was set up to allow companies from all the regions, including Northern Ireland, to bid for these contracts. The Olympics Delivery Authority announced recently that it had awarded over 1,500 direct contracts worth over £5bn.

Unfortunately, Northern Ireland companies have not hit the jackpot with these contracts – the latest government figures estimate that 43 local companies have won contracts with a total value of £40m, including a handful of small construction contracts, less than 1% of the total awarded to date. This is all the more disappointing given the current depressed state of the local construction industry.

While success has been limited so far, there are a few contracts still to be awarded and over 50 local food and drinks companies have registered for provision of the catering and hospitality requirements of the Games. Furthermore, the experience of the multiple contracts arising from the London 2012 Olympics has alerted Invest NI and the business community to similar future opportunities such as the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and other major international sporting events.

Nevertheless, there is the sense of a missed opportunity for Northern Ireland with the London 2012 contracts to date.

This is also reflected in the difficulty experienced in attracting pre-Games training camps, another area of projected benefit for Northern Ireland. DCAL had set a target of 10 such Olympic and Paralympic camps to be based in Northern Ireland, but until recently only two teams had signed up – the Australian boxing team and the Irish Paralympic team. However, the announcement that the Chinese artistic gymnastics team is to use Lisburn as its training base for the Olympics represents a major coup.

So what about the tourism benefits of London 2012 for Northern Ireland? There is a golden opportunity here to build on what is already happening in Northern Ireland in 2012 and 2013 – the Titanic celebrations and the opening of Titanic Belfast, the new Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre, the opening of the MAC in Belfast, the Cultural Olympiad and the City of Culture in Derry/Londonderry in 2013.

The NITB ‘NI 2012 Our Time, Our Place’ campaign is designed to capitalise on this – all we need now are the visitors. With millions of overseas visitors expected to travel to London for the Games, this represents a major opportunity to sell Northern Ireland as a destination. The boost to general economic activity generated by the Games comes at a critical time for the economy and it will be important for us to make the most of it.

Perhaps the greatest legacy of the London Olympics will come from increased participation in sport, whether it is hockey or some other sport this time. There is strong evidence that this leads to healthier lifestyles and reduces the costs of the health and social services. But we still need the investment in sporting facilities, programmes and coaches in order to secure these benefits, and securing that would seem far from certain.

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