While the London Olympic Games’ critics see them as a pretext for land grabs and corporate posturing, recent news from London suggests that the less well off aren’t the only ones who will have to grin and bear it this summer.
According to an announcement by city travel body Transport for London, the games will commandeer the queen’s own driveway for three months. Well, sort of. The road to be closed is actually the Mall, a grand avenue that connects Trafalgar Square with the queen’s London home at Buckingham Palace. An elegant promenade since the 17th century, this wide road flanked by parkland and mansions is generally the chosen spot for royal processions. If you’ve ever watched any televised British pomp, you’ll have seen it already.
When it’s not full of liveried guards and people waving little flags, the Mall is also one of central London’s few wide roads for traffic – unlike Paris, London never had a Haussmann to punch broad, car-friendly avenues through its core. The Mall’s impressive appearance makes it a perfect sporting backdrop for TV crews, and the Olympic marathon, road cycling and fast walking events and the Paralympic marathon will all be staged here. This means building a spectator stand almost looking into Buckingham Palace’s front windows. Unfortunately, these stands will block the roadway, meaning the Mall will stay closed from late June right up until the Paralympic Games finish on September 9.
The queen isn’t the only VIP being squeezed. At the other end of the Mall from Buckingham Palace, the Olympic beach volleyball court has been set up on an 18th century parade ground. This ground is so close to the British Prime minister’s Downing Street residence that a stray ball could almost take out David Cameron’s back window. In fact, the Irish Republican Army tried doing just this from the same spot with a homemade mortar back in 1991. Delivering the 20,000 tonnes of sand needed for this court is one of the reasons the Mall is being shut as early as June. London’s main newspaper and previously consistent Olympics booster the Evening Standard has suddenly turned sour and damned this inconvenience as “an imposition too far,” possibly because disruption is now nearing the paper’s West London offices.
While the closure will cause complications, it is at least for sporting events rather than the convenience of Olympic officials. There is also a clear rationale behind it. No matter how splendid the new Olympic Park proves, the average tourist doesn’t want to hang out exclusively in a regeneration zone where the trees are all saplings and the buildings not yet humanized by real use. Central London businesses are also afraid that all their usual summer customers will be sucked out east to the stadium. London’s Olympic organizing committee know this and for all their praise of London’s grittier eastern reaches, they have scattered venues through London’s prettier parts (including the UNESCO-listed old river port at Greenwich, Southeast London). Occasional traffic gridlock seems a fair price to pay to make sure central London’s businesses don’t suffer a summer drought – though the queen and prime minister might be tempted to spend the summer with their blinds down.