Social Science blog

10 August 2011

Unsung heroes and new legacies


 If you asked someone to reveal his or her Olympic heroes, you would normally expect them to name famous athletes like Jesse Owens, Emile Zatopek or Kelly Holmes. We naturally expect Games heroes to be athlete-centred because that is where all the drama and the spectacle is. But in some ways the unsung heroes are just as interesting, and by these I mean those people who make the thing happen, and who sometimes pay the price.

 Round the corner from where I live is a congregational chapel (now in use as a nursery). It is popularly supposed to contain the grave of a workman who was one of the several casualties during the erection of the Crystal Palace in Sydenham, which is (or rather was in the Palace’s case) just up the hill. One can picture that sad scene as a navvy – which he probably was- was laid to rest in the dark green shade of the chapel’s small burial ground. He may have been one of those who died in a scaffolding accident at the Crystal Palace in 1853. The Times says of the accident that it was  " example of the risks to which the working classes are exposed in the course of their employment” and observes that the men concerned “ have perished while engaged upon the construction of a building unparalleled for its magnitude”

Now, lest you think I have turned into Charles Dickens or am about to embark on a gothic horror story let me hasten to add that there’s actually a sunny side to these reflections, and that’s the occasion of the recent awarding to ODA and its delivery partner CLM of a RoSPA award for health & safety in the construction of the Olympic site at Stratford. According to the British Safety Council, “The Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) announced that the Park and Village workforce had achieved 3 million hours worked without a single reportable injury. Despite being the largest construction site in Europe, with more than 12,000 workers…the Big Build is also the first Olympic project of its kind in the world to have been completed without an accident-related fatality”.

This is no mean feat in a dangerous industry such as construction, and it deserves to be given prominence as one of the most important legacies to come out of the Games. Tom Mullarkey, RoSPA’s Chief Executive is clearly aware of this aspect, claiming that “the lessons the project has generated for health and safety form an important part of the overall Olympic legacy – with enormous potential to influence health and safety in the UK as well as globally and to demonstrate further the contribution which high standards in this area make to overall business success.” To celebrate, the British Safety Council has created a five minute video (available on Youtube at ) which is well worth a look.

The IOC’s aim is that the idea of legacy should be central to the Olympic Games – for a variety of reasons, but obviously to disarm the inevitable criticism about the costs and logistics of staging what is virtually a one-off event for a host city. It is incumbent on OCOGs to furnish information on all aspects of their planning and carry out – in order to provide a textbook on how to do it – for future host cities, and indeed for others not involved in the Games at all. Each of the Olympic reports give detailed information about the construction of the stadiums and the rest of the Olympic infrastructure and lessons are clearly intended to be learned from past experience. They have to be. London’s Olympic build will be able to pass on some extremely valuable lessons for the planning and carrying out of huge works which actually centre on the well being and safety of those involved in these complex projects. Our experience will save lives. What could be better!


RoSPA . ‘A legacy for safety’

The big build: structures: milestones to 27 July 2010. London: Olympic Delivery Authority, 2009.

DS shelfmark OPA.2010.x.1380







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