In Pre-Summer Games London, Edginess and Anticipation

Londoners have complicated feelings about hosting the Olympics. You'll be hearing from one of them here every week.

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Reuters/Andrew Winning

With only five months until the 2012 Olympics begin, London is already like a party host anxiously wondering if their guests are going to show up. East London’s Olympic stadium is all but ready, its surrounding park needs little more than a tidy-up, while the scaffolding has just come off the new, monolithic Olympic Village next door. Politicians are drumming up support for what they claim will be London’s greatest summer, while behind the scenes the government is quietly stockpiling anti-anthrax jabs in case of biological attack. But despite impressive forward planning, Britain is still showing a high level of pre-Olympic jitters, worrying about the games’ cost and doubting their impact. This soul-searching is understandable. Amid the public fanfare, these are recession Olympics and London is a more uneasy and arguably more interesting host than any the games has seen in decades.

Beijing, Athens, Sydney, Atlanta, and Barcelona – London’s forerunners – were all towns on the make, using their games to boost low international profiles or celebrate a new maturity and openness as world centers. London, on the other hand, is neither peripheral nor up and coming. It’s Europe’s most important, vibrant city (whatever the Parisians say) and has been so on and off for over a century. But with continuing recession and a summer of rioting knocking it off course, London’s economic and political muscle are if anything slightly on the wane. So what are London’s games for? To promote the city’s charms anew to a captive global audience and thus attract fresh investors and tourists? Are they a welcome excuse to upgrade its ailing infrastructure? Or will they instead deter visitors and drain public coffers for showcase building projects with useful lives scarcely longer than the average moth?

These questions hanging over London’s games make them especially contested and intriguing. Over the next few months we’ll be looking for some answers, reporting back regularly on London’s Olympic progress, shadowing its massive construction efforts and exploring how the city itself is responding to them, how it is adapting and how it is resisting.

So far, both London and Britain are resisting fairly hard. As a recent survey by pollsters ComRes showed, public ambivalence still reigns, with only a third of respondents agreeing that the Olympics were worth the money. Londoners in particular are anticipating the games with more dread that excitement. With a heavy tax bill and an already stretched transport system, it’s easy to see why they’re feeling curmudgeonly. The city’s roads are routinely clogged as it is, and many fear planned Olympic lanes for athletes and VIPs on major routes will make congestion unmanageable, driving people out of cars and into a temperamental subway system that already makes the average sardine can look roomy.  Add to this London’s role as a prime target for international terror and you’re looking at a long hot summer of tension and stress.

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But while some fear that the games will make the city a living hell, others are predicting the opposite – that Olympic price hikes will leave London empty and that tourist revenues will plummet. In December, the European Tour Operators Association warned that the games are already deterring regular sightseers, with hotel bookings down by a fifth compared to the same period last year. Musical theater composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, meanwhile, has said advanced bookings for London’s theaters are so bad for the summer that the sector “faces a bloodbath." Given these two contradictory extremes of anxiety, it’s hardly surprising that the official response to such pre-games jitters has been one of bullish confidence, with London’s eccentric mayor Boris Johnson memorably dubbing Olympic skeptics “Gloomadon poppers."

There’s no denying, however, that pressure on London to produce games that are both impressive and thrifty is especially intense. Cut corners and the government risks being damned as the purveyor of a diminished, gimcrack Britain. Splurge on one-night-only pomp and flashy buildings and they may stand accused of impoverishing the country for short-term promotional gains.

All the extra expenditure may be worth it, nonetheless, if the Olympics regenerate the deprived area of East London surrounding the Olympic Park. Newham, the park’s location, has the youngest population and second highest poverty rate of any borough in England. An area with an ethnically diverse and often transient population, it never quite recovered from the closure of the nearby London Docks in the 1960s, and badly needs more jobs and decent, affordable housing. Promises that re-usable sporting facilities, rent-controlled housing in the ex-Olympic Village and a new Mega-mall next to the park would suck money and jobs into the area were a key reason the Olympic Committee chose London for 2012. The games have unarguably brought massive investment into the area, but question marks still hang over the sustainability of the new facilities’ future. Meanwhile the park’s location – between the post-industrial River Lea and the new mall’s back end – means that the park risks remaining an island, poorly connected to the area it was intended to benefit.

The Olympic Stadium and Orbit tower are seen at sunset in Stratford in east London. (Toby Melville / Reuters)

Aesthetically, the park has had a mixed reception so far. Its crown-shaped central stadium, by architectural firm Populous, has earned both praise for its excellent sight lines and lean, lightweight materials, and scorn for resembling the gasometers that are a standard feature of British cities. Either way, its visual impact is surprisingly muted, though this may improve when its surrounding wrap (more on that later), a white zigzag resembling a ring of icicles, is installed.  More eye-catching are the park’s ripple-roofed Aquatics Center and Velodrome, designed by Zaha Hadid and Hopkins Architects respectively, which both in different ways recall massive flat fish scuttling along the sea bottom. As if aware that the park looks rather low-key, organizers have added a striking focal point, a viewing tower called the ArcelorMittal Orbit designed by sculptor Anish Kapoor and bankrolled by steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal. Resembling a rollercoaster mangled by aerial bombardment, the tower is like a panic attack rendered in red steel, a fact that has not stopped London’s mayor comparing it hopefully to the Eiffel Tower.

At least the new Olympic Village has received more enthusiasm. A conscientious updating of a 1960s-style monumental social housing project, its concrete blocks reaching up to 13 stories (high for low-rise London) are somewhat forbidding without mature trees to soften their impact, but have been praised for their high building standards and private central courtyard gardens. Crucially for the project’s claims to benefit local communities, half of these apartments will be reserved for affordable, rent-controlled housing after the games, an invaluable asset in a city with Western Europe’s highest rents.

Such worthy aspirations still haven’t prevented the Olympic Park becoming mired in scandal. That humdrum, self-effacing stadium in particular has been hit by controversy, much of it ongoing. Last autumn, the Indian government were furious to discover that the stadium’s wrap was to be sponsored by Dow Chemical, the U.S. corporation that in 1999 merged with Union Carbide, whose gas leaks at their factory in Bhopal, India, led to up to 8000 related deaths. Many Indians believe that Dow has actively shirked the responsibility it inherited to the disaster’s victims and found the idea of giving it the stadium wrap as a promotional platform grotesque. Following pressure from the Indian government and threats by Indian athletes to boycott the games, Dow offered to remove their logo from the wrap, a promise that has not as yet halted ongoing protests.

Deciding what will happen to the stadium when the games end is another debate that has turned ugly. Many believe athletics don’t attract enough spectators to fill the stadium’s 80,000 seats regularly and that only a soccer club will do the place justice. The two contending teams to take over the grounds are West Ham United, a Premier league team already located in the borough, and Tottenham Hotspur, a team whose base is farther away in North London, but whose higher Premier League position (5th compared to West Ham’s 20th) makes it a more likely crowd puller. Preferential bidder status was granted last winter to West Ham, when Tottenham Hotspur – generally known as Spurs – claimed they would partially demolish and remodel the stadium to make it more suitable to soccer. Furious, Spurs then challenged the decision in court. Delays caused by Spurs’ challenge ended up scuppering West Ham’s bid, and the stadium will now remain in public hands and be rented out an annual basis. If this level of bad blood wasn’t enough, Spurs were then accused of hiring private investigators to spy on the Olympic Organizers, with four men arrested to date.  All this might at least make the stadium seem deeply covetable, but West Ham now find the new proposed rental agreement deeply unattractive, and might not rebid. Might the stadium end up a white elephant after all?

While London’s Olympics preparations have been a pretty bumpy ride so far, this needn’t suggest that the games will ultimately flop with the home crowd. British people are often diffident about their country’s attempts to impress the rest of the world and don’t generally possess the flag-waving, can-do attitude you find in the United States. If the games come out well, however, it’s probable that public opinion will swing behind them – the announcement of last year’s hugely successful royal wedding was initially met with indifference by many who later appreciated it. But with so many things to deliver and so much skepticism to overcome, London’s Olympic Organizing Committee – and London itself – have a very fraught five months ahead of them.

Top image credit: Reuters/Andrew Winning

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