Community 10.10.23

Richard Caborn: How Yorkshire MP helped bring 2012 Olympics to London – and build its legacy in home city of Sheffield

This article was originally published by the Yorkshire Post and is available in full here:

Richard Caborn spoke to Chris Burn of the Yorkshire Post to mark his 80th birthday.

Richard Caborn played a central role in bringing the Olympics to London in 2012. Now 80, he is retiring from the project to create a lasting legacy from the event in his beloved Sheffield.

Making unpopular decisions is part of a politician’s lot – but it is rare for their own mothers to be among those complaining. However, that was the situation Richard Caborn found himself in when the former Government minister and Sheffield MP was involved in contentious proposals to demolish the city’s Don Valley Stadium.

Having initially been built for the 1991 World Student Games and going on to host an array of sporting occasions and concerts, a decision to knock it down was taken in 2013 as a money-saving measure for the local council.
Caborn was advising the council over the issue, which saw thousands sign a petition against the plan, while the city’s Olympic heroine Jessica Ennis, who had trained at Don Valley, described the proposal as a “huge shame”. But there was another dissenting voice at the time.

“Knocking the stadium down was not universally popular. Even my mother, who was into her 90s, phoned me up and said, ‘Richard, are you doing the right thing? We’ve had a lot of happy occasions down there and a lot of people are very sad it is going down and you are effectively the person knocking it down’.

“I just said, ‘Mum, things have got to move on’. Having been involved in Wembley Stadium and the reconfiguration of the City of Manchester Stadium after the Commonwealth Games, I was well versed in being criticised nationally and internationally for knocking down what seemed to be iconic sports facilities.

“The rest is history and people will make their own judgements as to whether that was the right or wrong decision. But then we started looking very seriously at how we could build this up.”

As Sports Minister, Caborn had played a central role in bringing the Olympics to London in 2012 and saw a golden opportunity on the Don Valley site, which was already home to the English Institute of Sport, to create a lasting legacy.

The Park has now developed into a combination of sport, health and education facilities and is run by a partnership including Sheffield Council, local NHS trusts and Sheffield Hallam University.

There is everything from the Sheffield Eagles rugby league team’s stadium to an Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre while Oasis Academy Don Valley and a University Technology College are also on-site.

A new National Centre for Child Health Technology is planned, while the latest addition to the site Canon Medical Arena, which will provide a 2,000-seater home for the Sheffield Sharks basketball team. The same building includes a new Medical Diagnostic Centre for both elite athletes and NHS patients.

As Caborn shows The Yorkshire Post around the site – cheerily greeting seemingly everyone we pass by name – the hive of activity it has become is obvious, with schoolchildren playing football on the Eagles’ pitch and the final touches of construction work taking place on the new basketball arena.

Sheffield is the only city in the world to have been granted permission to use the “Olympic” name without ever having hosted a Games. Caborn reveals that came about through an approach that could best be described as “asking for forgiveness rather than permission”.

“We registered our company as Legacy Park Ltd. We didn’t register Olympic Legacy Park because we knew if we put it in front of Companies House we wouldn’t have been able to use it.

“But we started using the world Olympic in front of it and of course, the British Olympic Association and the International Olympic Committee wrote to us saying, ‘Who gave you authority?’ We said, ‘Oops – but look at all the stuff we are doing’ and to cut a long story short we eventually agreed a Memorandum of Understanding with 10 objectives we have to adhere to which is renewed every three years.

“I think they have now recognised what we are doing here is a credit to London 2012 and is an exemplar of what you can do out of an Olympics.”

That ‘forgiveness not permission’ approach is also one Caborn notably took during the lobbying process for the Olympic Games in which London was an outside contender against Paris in a fiercely-fought contest.

He reveals that he persuaded Nelson Mandela to publicly back the London bid by being “a little economical with the truth” and telling him that the Queen personally wanted him to support it when she had in fact not said anything of the sort.

“I said, ‘Madiba, we’ve made a bid for the Olympics – is there any chance you could offer some support?’ I said we are the only Commonwealth country bidding, which was absolutely true, and added the Queen would love you to support it. He said, ‘Richard, if the Queen wants me to support London, I will’ and the rest is history.”

He says he later confessed what he had done to the Queen. “I’m a Privy Counsellor and at the end of one meeting, I said, ‘Ma’am, I have been a little economical with the truth’ and I told her the story. I shall never forget her face because she just smiled at me. I thought, ‘Phew, I’m not going to the Tower!’”

Caborn says the day in 2005 when it was announced London had won the bid will be forever in his memory.
“The bid was a great time, we had a fantastic team and the nation got behind us. When the nation pulls together around a project like that, it is unstoppable.

“I was very privileged to be part of that team. I brought to the team a skillset and things that others didn’t have. I had been involved in the anti-apartheid movement which helped me get access to Mandela. I had worked closely with Sven-Göran Eriksson which then helped get David Beckham on board. I do feel I made a significant contribution because of the skillset and connections I had got that were unique. I’m not saying that in a bragging way, I was just lucky I could use all that and others on the team had brilliant skillsets I didn’t.

“In 2005 when we won it when everyone thought the French would win it, it was this massive outpouring of pride. When they said ‘London’, I just thought, ‘Chuffing hell’.

“I had an emergency dentists’ appointment the following month in Padstow in Cornwall and the nurse said her daughter had been so inspired by us winning that she was determined to be a gymnast in Team GB the London 2012 Olympics.

“I thought if that is happening around the country, that is amazing.”

Caborn has turned 80 this week and has decided that the landmark birthday marks a good moment to step down as chair of the Park. The search is now under way for his successor.

“I think this Park is now on the threshold of much bigger things. There is a real opportunity to engage some of the big boys of the private sector. We have seen Canon coming here and across the world the question in health and wellbeing of moving towards prevention rather than treatment is being looked at.

“It now needs someone with a different skillset than I have got.”

Caborn will not be standing down from public life and remains involved with efforts to put South Yorkshire at the heart of supplying the UK’s nuclear technology industry. He says he will still be making regular visits to the Park as an ordinary citizen and sports fan.

“It will be great to see it grow. This ranks very highly in my career because it is my payback to Sheffield. Sheffield has been incredibly generous to me and it has been a great privilege to have been part of this.”

Richard has written a book called London 2012: From Concept to Legacy. Email for information about copies.