Monday, March 26, 2012

Celebrating the Olympics Months Early


London has a new tourist attraction, and from the size of the crowds showing up to view it, it may be giving the Tower of London a run for the jewels. Pretty impressive for a sight that isn’t even completed yet.

London’s Olympic grounds, which can’t yet be entered without a hard-hat and a construction contract (for the most part; see below), are drawing hundreds of tourists each day to a viewing walkway that overlooks the site. And though the shells of the upcoming structures are impressive (or so I thought so on my fall visit) my guess is it’s the dramatic tale behind the development of this area that may be partially responsible for all the interest.

Tourists view construction
London was, after all, the underdog candidate during the last Olympics pick, having hosted the Games twice before (in 1908 and 1948; it will be the first modern city to host three times). What put the city over the top? Its innovative plans for land reclamations and the re-use of the site and venues, plans which may well serve as a paradigm for future Olympic host destinations.

The games are being set in Stratford, an area of London that few if any visitors will be familiar with (and no, this is not Shakespeare’s village, that’s Stratford-On-Avon). A tattered, ugly quarter, it had, since the 1840’s, been a place of heavy industry. Alas, the factories that once thrived here left an ugly legacy: mercury, lead and other toxic materials sunk into the ground, creating a wasteland.  

The effort to secure the Olympics for London, spearheaded by former mayor Ken Livingstone, was also a strategy to get the funds to clean up Stratford. A winning strategy, happily: in the last several years, workers have engaged in ‘soil washing’, a method of removing poisons from the earth. It’s been so successful that 98% of the soil being used in the Olympic park was cleaned in this fashion, and all the contaminants have been removed.

But that’s only the beginning of this very green Olympics story, which extends to the structures being constructed, all of which will have a second life after the competitions end. Seats in many of the buildings will be removable to make arenas multi-purpose and the Athletes Village will be converted into apartment buildings.

The thinking that went into creating these games, the intriguing history of the area and the “what’s going to be where” is all discussed on tours, both motorcoach and walking, that sweep the Olympics area. I took an excellent 9 GBP walk with the Blue Guides (www.tourguides2012.co.uk); it departs daily, rain or shine, at 11 am. For those who prefer to go solo, there are panels set up at the construction site with computer generated images of what the site will look like when completed.

Because the sites need to be tested, seeing a sporting event in an actual Olympic venue will also be an excellent way, in the run up to summer of 2012, to get up close and personal with the Games. A number of these are planned for the upcoming months; to view the list and secure tickets, go to  www.londonpreparesseries.com.

A final part of the pre-Olympics experience? Shopping! At the Olympic viewing site  a small, but jam-packed, souvenir stand has been erected. One can also purchase knickknacks galore at a number of shops around London as well as at Heathrow Airport. Yes, Britain’s Olympic mascots are downright creepy—they make the weird Chinese ones from the last Games look in good taste—but, hey, they could be worth quite a lot on Ebay a decade from now. At least that’s the plan for my neon yellow Olympics umbrella….

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