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London’s Olympic venues must impress as well as serve, but Londoners don’t want to be left — like Beijing after 2008 — with enormous, costly facilities that are hardly ever used. Christopher Clarey visits a construction site where this contradiction is being bridged
Wedged between Beijing and Rio de Janeiro, the London Olympics look suspiciously like a Games without a big-ticket theme. Beijing in 2008 was about China’s re-emergence as a global and sporting superpower and about its government reminding its billion-plus citizens that the big hand on the tiller remained firm enough to deliver present and future glories. Rio in 2016 should be a coming-of-age party for Brazil (a place that knows how to party) and a bridge to a continent as South America stages its first Olympics.
London, it seems, will have to rely on less-transcendent material as it hosts the summer spectacular for the third time.
“What I’m anticipating is very much like Sydney in 2000,” says David Wallechinsky, a leading Olympic historian. “Which means a really good sports atmosphere, and, frankly, what else do you want?”
The London Games, although lacking in geopolitical oomph, do have a big-ticket project: The Olympic Park in Stratford, a massive, multibillion exercise in urban renewal that will, at least for 17 days in July and August, shift London’s traditionally west-leaning axis to the east as tourists and Londoners alike disembark from tube and train among other transport options (and then work their way through security).
The primary river here is the Lea not the Thames, and the zone was no garden spot when London narrowly defeated Paris in 2005 to win the right to stage these Games.
“We’ve got the ‘before’ photos around here somewhere; the Olympic stadium site was just a rotting heap of fridges,” says Sebastian Coe, head of the London Organising Committee. Coe says he felt a bit like “a timeshare salesman on the Costa Brava” as he tried to woo the International Olympic Committee eight years ago despite the discouraging view. “We’ve come a long way really,” he says.
There can be no denying that. Coe says the idea of bringing the Olympics to this blighted section of Greater London dates to the 1970s, when a conservative politician, Horace Cutler, began pushing it as a way to regenerate an area that had been badly damaged in the Second World War and was too big and expensive a reclamation project without a major project to carry it forward.
“West London and northwest London particularly are overheated; there really wasn’t the kind of space,” Coe says. “If you put the games in west London, you really would be talking about venues dotted around rather than a critical mass of them inside an Olympic Park. There’s nowhere else in London where you probably could have created an Olympic Park. Things came together at the right time.”
Plenty of venues will still be in classic London this summer: archery at Lord’s Cricket Ground, beach volleyball at Horse Guard’s Parade, soccer at Wembley Stadium, tennis on the grass at Wimbledon. But the heart of the matter — Olympic Village and Olympic Stadium, on an island, included — will be in Stratford, where I got the chance to take a drizzly-day tour late last month as construction workers and landscapers were still toiling apace.
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At first visit, it is a surprisingly watery site (irrespective of the rain), where function trumps fashion. There are some architectural highlights, such as the Aquatics Centre designed by the Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid and the sleek, swooping velodrome that would have made Brancusi proud.
But there is nothing to generate involuntary gasps as the Bird’s Nest Stadium and Water Cube did through the Beijing haze. There is also this matter of the ArcelorMittal Orbit, a 115-metre, or 277-ft, observation tower designed by the sculptor Anish Kapoor and billed as legacy artwork. It looks for now like something left behind when a work crew went on strike while dismantling an amusement park roller coaster.
But we digress. Back to the actual sports venues, one of the most intriguing of which is a huge structure that will be dismantled after the Games. Many an Olympic organiser has paid lip service to sustainability, but here is a temple to reason, 104 metres long, 97 metres wide and 35 metres tall and wrapped in a white PVC fabric that is a nice visual joke, considering that this is anything but another Olympic white elephant.
It has 12,000 seats and will stage early-round basketball games and the gold-medal games in team handball. Then, after the Paralympics in September, the hosts hope it will be packed up and shipped elsewhere, leaving behind an empty space for future housing to supplement the adjacent Olympic village, which is already set to transform into nearly 3,000 residences after the Games.
London organisers claim the white-wrapped arena is the largest temporary structure in Olympic history. It is not without character, its smooth surface given relief by elements of its frame that push the fabric out at whimsical angles. (It will look fanciful when lit up in colour at night).
“We don’t want to leave white elephants that don’t have a long-term future after the Games,” says Michael Pirrie, an adviser to Coe, who also worked on the 2000 Sydney Olympics. “We have reached a stage in planning where you don’t have to build big permanent venues to have Olympic-size crowds and configurations and fields of play.”
This thinking, coupled with London’s emphasis on best ecological practice, is the right approach for a movement littered with too many empty stadiums, most recently Beijing’s Bird’s Nest, which has rarely been used since 2008.
In London, too, the Olympic Stadium’s long-term legacy remains uncertain. Protracted negotiations and legal twists involving two London soccer clubs, Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham, have for the moment failed to result in a permanent post-Games tenant.
The stadium, which cost about $807 million, will be the site of the 2017 world athletics championships, but that will account for only about 10 days of competition. There are decades of dates to fill, with soccer clubs resisting because they don’t like the permanent track. But Coe, an athletics man to the core who won two Olympic gold medals in the 1,500 metres, is among those committed to reviving his sport’s appeal at home and abroad. Hence the ironclad commitment to a track remaining part of the stadium.
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Ian Nuttall, who runs a business summit focused on international stadiums, says the London organisers had “done a great job with sustainability, with legacy, with environmental objectives.”
“They’ve really embraced it in good faith and have done the best they can,” he adds. “The only question mark I have is why is the biggest building in that park the least sustainable going forward? Your showcase building is the one that these concepts have really stumbled on.”
Coe and Co. would certainly beg to differ, but Nuttall’s suggestion that the International Olympic Committee consider a less grandiose template for Olympic Stadiums of the future — perhaps even a pack-and-play circus tent option — certainly deserves more serious thought. Rio de Janeiro is thinking smaller, with a plan to stage the ceremonies in the renovated Maracana Stadium but the athletics in a smaller stadium. What is clear is that hundreds of millions in public money should never be spent merely to accommodate two ceremonies and a few big-bang track and field events.
In broader terms, however, the London Games have transformed rubble and entrenched blight into something green and hopeful. Now if only the Londoners themselves would embrace the achievement and enjoy the show.
“We hear people grumble, ‘Why are we spending all this money for all this inconvenience?”’ Wallechinsky says. “But that’s exactly what people were saying in 1948, the last time London had the Olympics: ‘We are three years out of a war. Why are we spending all this money to have a sporting event?’ Grumble, grumble.
“But then the torch is lit,” he adds, “and everybody forgets about the complaints.”
“I would imagine the same thing will happen as soon as the competitions begin this time,” he says. “Everything else will fall by the wayside unless something horrible happens, which I of course hope it doesn’t.”
2012 © The New York Times