When we house hunting with a view to moving to Weymouth, in 2009, many of the properties boasted their proximity to the Olympic sailing venue. A year later, in 2010, those references to the Games had gone.
This change sums up Weymouth’s relationship with the Games – initial enthusiasm and excitement following by frustration and, for many, a desire to distance themselves for the Olympic circus.
There was talk of people being about to rent out their homes during the Games for exhorbitant sums, such would be the demand for accommodation. And indeed many, including some of our neighbours, made a point of being miles away from the town when the Games arrived.
Unhappiness on an Olympic scale
One point of contention was the location of the sailing events. Not the choice of Weymouth (although this did put noses out of joint at venues that considered themselves more prestigious) but the name itself. The athletes would be based in and sail from Portland. The media adopted ‘Weymouth and Portland’ when describing the home of the sailing action.
The stringent rules applied by the Olympic organisation became increasingly irksome. The owner of the Fantastic Sausage Factory got into trouble for a sign representing the iconic five rings made from his products. There was talk of the entire seafront being fenced off so that only paying ticket holders could watch the events.
The Red Arrows were banned from performing at the annual Weymouth Carnival. Fishermen and others earning a living from operating boats out of the harbour faced a ban on going about their business. Hoteliers feared their regular clientele would stay away in 2012.
The Olympics promised to boost Weymouth
The implied promise of the Games was to put Weymouth and Portland on the map. Generous investment and a national profile would create prosperity in one of the most socially deprived areas of Dorset.
This started with building a better connection to the rest of the UK. For years the main road into the town involved a long, slow drive over the hill from inland and down through Upwey. Years of talk about a fast road from Dorchester, cut through the hill and bypassing Upwey, transformed into action when the UK won the Games.
The new road was built and it make a significant difference to travel times. Fibre broadband was installed in time for the Olympics, enhancing the town’s digital connection.
There was much talk of ‘Olympic legacy’ although finding someone who could articulate what this actually meant wasn’t easy.
The Weymouth Olympic Games experience
The weeks leading up to the Games were not promising. Heavy rain lashed the UK bringing floods to the town. The festive mood was dampened further when a local fishing boat went down at sea with the loss of three local men.
And it became increasingly clear that the predicted Olympics crowds weren’t coming. For months, when driving down the M5 from Bristol, we’d seen signs warning of Olympic congestion in Weymouth. This messaging, repeated in other media, was so effective that almost everyone who usually comes to Weymouth decided to stay away in 2012.
Far from being a boom year when hotels and guest houses could charge a premium, many were seeing bookings way down on normal.
Over optimism combined with disappointing visitor numbers created very real problems for many. A host of people were employed by Bayside Festival, a two week celebration event set up on the Pavilion peninsula. While it brought a great look to the town, it didn’t bring in the numbers. Within days the festival closed its doors, leaving dozens of staff unpaid and thousands of pounds of debts outstanding, as the company behind it went into liquidation.
Too late, the authorities changed their tune and began promoting Weymouth as an Olympic destination. Numbers picked up and some businesses enjoyed a boost as crowds of well-heeled visitors filled local bars and restaurants.
I remember reading that one restaurant had never sold so many bottles of champagne in such a short space of time.
As for the traffic – the town’s roads were very quiet in the summer of 2012.
The Olympic legacy in Weymouth
What did the Olympic Games do for Weymouth? In my opinion, they gave a useful push to the town’s long-term revival. But not everyone would agree.
Despite appalling weather before and after the Games, the Olympic fortnight was blessed with sunshine and the images of Weymouth, beamed worldwide, looked fantastic. First-time visitors have come here since because of what they saw in 2012.
Since 2012 Portland Port has seen record numbers of cruise ships visit and Weymouth has been selected as the venue for a number of sporting events. It’s probably impossible to know whether the Games played a part in the decision to come here.
Today, many local people and businesses are pulling together to improve the town. Having not been here before Weymouth was chosen as an Olympic venue, I can’t tell if this ambition for revival existed earlier, but there is now a strong sense that we want to create our own Olympic legacy, either because of or despite the Games!