UK Web Archive blog

23 March 2020

Boris Johnson, fertility and the royal baby: how far does the concept of Olympic Legacy go?

By Caio Mello, Doctoral Researcher at the School of Advanced Study, University of London

Recently, exploring the data available in the UK Web Archive related to London’s 2012 Olympic legacy, I found a very curious fact. Boris Johnson - Mayor of London during the games - told the BBC in 2013 that a baby boom in London that year was among the legacies of the event. According to Johnson, his team at City Hall had looked at the data and found a rise in birth rates that year not seen in the capital since 1967, the year after England won the FIFA World Cup. Moreover, Johnson said that even Kate Middleton and Prince William’s first baby could be considered a post-Olympic outcome.

In a recent blog post I briefly introduced my research on media coverage of the Rio and London Olympics and discussed the wide range of attributes to which the word legacy has been attached. As part of a Digital Humanities project, this study seeks to develop an interdisciplinary approach to the topic, combining both qualitative and quantitative methods. In order to do that, I have been looking at different repositories of news articles, including web archives. In addition to accessing content available in the UK Web Archive by going to the British Library, I have also searched for news articles through SHINE, a tool developed as part of the Big UK Domain Data for the Arts and Humanities project, to explore UK web content collected and stored by the Internet Archive. SHINE offers access to an open data repository that has allowed me to conduct multiple studies by writing Python scripts that return language and textual analysis. By scraping some of the news articles from SHINE and analysing word frequency in an initial exploratory study, I have been able to get a sense of how broad the concept of legacy might be.

Although often concerned with what could be described as ‘material legacy’, the articles and reportage go beyond physical infrastructure - such as stadiums - to describe expectations that more people will practise sports or even that a country might be more strongly recognised as open and welcoming. Legacy definitely seems to carry a very positive meaning per se and, when it refers to negative outcomes, it often seems to flirt with irony. On the other hand, words like gentrification appear in very dubious contexts: sometimes they refer to regeneration and development, at other times to an unsustainable process that leads to people’s exclusion from traditional areas affected by this sort of transformation.

While Johnson’s reference to the baby boom can be understood as a joke, it reveals how obsessive politicians can become in using the official narrative of Olympic legacy as it relates to their particular country or host city. A good legacy, as pointed out by MacRury and Poynter in Olympic Cities: 2012 and the remaking of London, is fundamentally important for managing tensions between Olympic dreams and huge economic investment.

In December 2019, Boris Johnson, now the Prime Minister, tweeted his desire to host the football World Cup in 2030. “I want it to show our national confidence as we get Brexit done”, wrote Johnson. Once again, immaterial legacy emerges at the heart of a political argument defending the choice to participate in such mega-events. Looking deeply into these multiple dimensions of legacy seems to be an important step to understand, through language usage, how narratives have been built around the Olympics and how different actors have appropriated the concept and disputed its meanings.