Monday, 4 July 2011

The making of an Olympic city

The Olympic Stadium under construction
I know the Olympics are near when a recent trip to Stratford  has nothing to do with buying kenkey from nearby High Road Leytonstone - though that is as good an errand as any - or putting in a questionable turn as an events promoter at the Stratford Rex, and everything to do with checking out the progress of the place that is going to be at the centre of the universe this time next year. 

These are exciting times. I remember a period when the Olympic Games seemed so foreign to me, until a Physical Education teacher in senior secondary school sparked a somewhat reluctant interest when she asked us to make scrapbooks of our experience of the games then. It was Athens 2004. I have vivid recollections of a proudly decorated scrap book that bore the title, To Athens for Gold, and a kicking in of the desire to live in an Olympic city one day. 

Being in London as it prepares to play host to the world in the highly anticipated 2012 Olympic games is therefore something of a smaller dream come true. With just under 400 days to go before the opening of the games (the London 2012 clock in Trafalgar Square counts down to the second) , it seems now is the time for visiting countries to bag choice places for their national support teams and organisers: the Brazilians will take over Somerset House, Holland will display team spirit in Alexandra Palace, France will belt 'La Marseillaise' in Old Billingsgate, the Germans will be found at the Museum of London, Docklands, and Switzerland will spread chocolate love in London Bridge. And there's more to come.

When I come out of Stratford station, I look to my left and am immediately confronted with the building that is, quite simply, going to change retail experience massively in the capital. Westfield Stratford City is on course to be the largest urban shopping space in Europe, with 1.9 million square feet of space delivering goods from 300 brands including John Lewis and Marks and Spencer. Come September when its grand doors open to the public, WSC will be strategically placed to be the gateway to the Olympic Park, and will welcome the world in a truly fashionable style. 

I walk to the main entrance, hoping that perhaps I can blend in with the wall, and thereby sneak through the doors into the area that is clearly out of bounds for us mere mortals. A security guard spots me, and even though he returns my slightly flirtatious, pleading smile, I notice the stern look in his eyes and I advise myself. On the wall behind him, I spot a table of facts and figures about what WSC has/will provide: 25,000 construction jobs created during the build with approximately 10% coming from Newham, the Borough within which Stratford is located; 4,500 daily peak of workers on site; 18,000 permanent jobs following launch; and a scintillatingly useless one informing me that 750,000 slices of bread have been eaten by site workers. It is a wonderfully random one, I think, and the mind boggles at the staggering amount of slices of bread.

A short walk from the station toward the Olympic Park reveals much of Stratford to be a giant construction site at the moment. It is no wonder. The area will be the location of venues including the Olympic Stadium, Aquatics Centre, Velodrome, Athletes Village, Handball and Basketball Arena and the Arcelormittal Orbit, and will, doubtless, unite to provide an extraordinary cultural and sporting offering. 

In the hype and excitement surrounding the game, I often find myself getting caught up in the events that will take place in the space of a mere fortnight. But London 2012 is so much more than the track and field events of the Olympic and Paralympic Games; it is the aftermath and the legacy that now grips my mind. On the surface it is the story of a city's determination to deliver competitive sports in pomp and pageantry. A tiny scratch though, and out comes a deeper desire to make sports a participatory activity that breaks barriers and unites people from all walks of life. 

With this thought in mind as I reach the Olympic Park, I take in the vast venues with keener eyes, deeply interested in what is to become of them once the games are over:

The Olympic Stadium : hosting the opening and closing ceremonies and all athletics and Paralympic athletics events is due to be taken over by West Ham for the 2014-15 football season.

The Aquatics Centre: for events including diving, swimming, synchronised swimming and Paralympic swimming will house 2x50m pools and 1x25m diving pool beyond 2012, and will be facilities used for both community and elite purposes. This is a venue after my heart since my recent attempts to take to water like a fish stem from watching Rebecca Adlington and Michael Phelps in the last Olympics.

The Velodrome: the site where I may hover in the hope of catching a glimpse of triple gold medalist, Sir Chris Hoy, while we bond over cycling in the capital, is for track cycling and Paralympic track cycling. Beyond 2012 a VeloPark will be created for community use.

The Olympic Village: will house thousands of athletes and officials during the games, and will be expanded to include a new shopping centre, leisure and residential facilities beyond 2012

It is a noble objective to create an Olympic legacy that projects sports as a fun, healthier way of life. And, given the impact on the local way of life, it is my hope that London 2012 is as much about the games as it is about creating more jobs, affordable housing and better opportunities for London and its people who have watched the expansion and regeneration of an area that is fast shaping up to be the new metropolitan hub of the East End.

I have already decided that if nothing at all, I shall get high on the Arcelormittal Orbit, London's answer to the Eiffel Tower, and see what I can from  atop the 80m observation tower. I am certainly getting into the Olympic spirit!

Now do you hear that beating? It comes straight from Stratford, London's Olympic heart. 


Obibini (The Black One) said...

london is the place to be in june 2012.

Davida said...

Couldn't agree more!