Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Olympic visitors came for the sports, and stayed for the karaoke bar in the mall. Why aren't they visiting London?
This isn’t what I expected at all. In Olympic London, there are no transport delays, no soldiers barking, no outbreaks of jostling or shouting and no mile-long queues at the Olympic Park or outside tourist attractions. In fact, beyond a small area of East London, there are practically no crowds anywhere. Central shopping streets are without their usual summer pavement gridlock. Olympic volunteers around town seem so under-taxed that they pounce offering help if you so much as stop to read a text message.
This pattern seems to be repeated across the city. Crossing London to visit my dad yesterday, I could have rolled a bowling ball from one end of my single-car train to the other without knocking anybody down. This isn’t normal even in a non-Olympic year (unlike Paris, London doesn’t usually empty on August 1) but during the world’s biggest sporting event, it’s particularly spooky. I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Londoners have been chivvied for months by (now cancelled) official warnings begging them to work from home, avoid peak hours, leave their cars at home and change their normal commuter journeys to take the long route via Omsk instead. Well, it seems they were listening.
It would be unfair to say this officially orchestrated roominess is really a disaster. With extra space, the Games are certainly running more smoothly than anyone dared to hope for. Friends tell me that Olympic Park security takes just ten minutes to clear and that the military presence is gently managed and friendly – one smiling soldier even greeted a friend of mine with "we all love a good frisking, don’t we sir?" While heavy brand dominance has left the Park seeming a little over-regulated, it is at least cheerful, well-run and quite pretty, with its every grassy knoll speckled with wildflowers. And elsewhere, the calm is rather lovely, for residents at least.
But while Olympic organizers are doing a good job in selling the Games, they’re not proving so hot at selling London itself, either to visitors or to its own citizens. Restaurant bookings are down and theaters are half empty, not just in Central London but across the city. Some are blaming officialdom for their falling takings. Shopkeepers near tourist-friendly Greenwich’s Equestrian Centre, for example, have complained that police barricades have made their shops inaccessible to visitors
Previous Olympic cities have experienced similar (and worse) effects when an influx of sporting tourists has scared regular tourists away, but it’s still strange to experience. I feared visitors might go home saying my city was cramped, stressful and hysterical, which it can be. What I never expected was that their main London impression might, on balance, be that there was no there there. I was hoping for some applause; I didn’t anticipate the sound of one hand clapping.
Still, if you set yourself up to attract sports tourists, you can’t be shocked if sport is all they’re really keen on. The average Olympic visitor probably couldn’t give two hoots about the newly regenerated neighborhoods near the Olympic site, with their artisan coffee shops and decidedly exclusive nightlife scene. I imagine they’re fairly happy in their Olympic bubble – apparently the most happening nightspot in town is currently a karaoke bar in the new megamall neighboring the Olympic Park. In the meantime, Britain’s sports minister is insisting that all the Olympic publicity London’s getting will push up visitor numbers across the city once the Games are over. Let’s hope he’s right.
Top image: Rev Stan/Flickr