Wednesday, July 06, 2005

On Wednesday July 6th 2005
the IOC selected London as the host city
for the 2012 Olympic Games

Read the back story below...

The London Olympics: 2012

Olympic snapshots: Trafalgar Square
I didn't think Trafalgar Square would be very full. I was wrong - it was rammed. Thankfully I'd arrived early and was able to weave my way down through the crowd into the central space, just a few rows back from the main stage. The world's media were already in place on the raised piazza in front of the National Gallery, their cameras pointed out over the seething throng below. Most people present were resigned to this being the London bid's last hurrah, a final 'Thank you' celebration for us getting this far through the shortlisting process. It had been a plucky attempt by the British underdog, although surely doomed to ultimate failure. But there was still a real air of tension in the square, especially when it was announced that the final battle was to be fought between Paris and London. And where better for a good old Anglo-French showdown than at the foot of Nelson's Column? A pointless mimed performance by popstar Rachel Stevens dampened the atmosphere somewhat, but a pair of chirpy presenters from Capital Radio rescued the situation by wheeling on a series of top class Olympic athletes. And then the big screens either side of the stage flashed over, live, to the announcement of the result in Singapore.

I have never seen anyone take so long to open an envelope. IOC president Jacques Rogge stood there building up his part for ten of the longest seconds anyone in the crowd will ever remember. 200 miles apart, two capital cities stood in expectant silence. And then, as the wholly unexpected word 'London' dripped from his lips, the crowd around me erupted in jubilant celebration. People gasped, and cheered, and leapt, and hugged, and waved flags in the air... and they carried on doing so for some considerable time. The line of Olympic greats took a second to react, but it was a joy to be close up to Kelly Holmes as she pulled another of her legendary jaw-dropping expressions. Her euphoria was infectious. After a few minutes Heather Small bounded on stage to perform 'Proud' to a delighted audience, and it all felt so right. "I step out of the ordinary, I can feel my soul ascending, I am on my way, Can't stop me now." Somehow, against all the odds, Seb Coe had pulled off one last gold medal-winning performance and the 2012 Olympics were coming here, to our city. Who'd have thought? Alas the next act lined up on stage was a jumped-up rap wannabe with a freshly-signed record contract complete with the dreaded words "and this is my new single". It was a depressing reminder of how easily big business takes priority over sporting achievement, something I suspect we'll see rather more of as 2012 approaches.

A red, white and blue flypast from the Red Arrows restored national pride somewhat, at which point (regrettably) I had to leave the square. I had to be back in the East End within the hour to rendezvous with my landlord for the first time in four years. I wondered whether he might want to evict me from my flat in favour of a foreign camera crew, or at the very least treble my rent now that I live amongst some of the most desirable real estate on the planet. But I needn't have worried. For a start, London's 'obsolete' transport system whisked me back to the Olympic Zone with plenty of time to spare. And my flat inspection went swimmingly, thank you very much (my surfaces have never been so gleaming), with eviction never even on the menu. It seems I'm safe and secure in my stadium-side home for several years to come, so I have every expectation of remaining an Olympic resident until the five-ring circus arrives here in 2012. Bring it on!

Trafalgar Square: 2578 days until the 2012 London Olympics

12:46pm: Oh. My. God. Down here in Trafalgar Square an ecstatic crowd is still cheering in elated disbelief. You might have seen me on the telly - I was the grinning geezer up the front beneath a sea of flags, balloons and waving hands. I think we still can't quite believe it, but London is both thrilled and stunned. Thank you IOC and thank you Seb. See you all down my manor in seven years time!

Singapore 2005: Election of the host city of the Games of the XXX Olympiad
"And the 2012 Olympics are awarded to..."


I live at the centre of the world. Who'd have guessed? It'll be seven years before the rest of the world arrives, and they're planning on staying for less than a month but, come 2012, a massive global spotlight will be shining on that big patch of wasteground at the bottom of my road. The Olympic bandwagon is coming to Bow and I for one am delighted. Against all the odds a committee of international sports gurus has given the go ahead for the greatest transformation in East London since the massive rebuilding of the area following the Blitz 60 years ago, and it starts today. How bloody exciting.

So, what to expect over the next seven years? Increased council tax bills for a start, and endless pessimistic articles in the Evening Standard detailing how the whole venture will undoubtedly be a complete disaster. Plus, for us East End residents, the opportunity to be locked out of 1500 acres of local wasteland for several years while some multinational construction company makes vast profits by turning all the grass there into concrete. But, come completion on Friday 27th July 2012, fireworks will light up the sky over the Lower Lea Valley to announce to the world that East London can put on an Olympic Games like no other. I just hope I'll still be living around here to see it.

I live in the arse-end of nowhere. No change there, then. The faceless bureaucrats of the IOC have spoken and the hopes of my local neighbourhood have been extinguished. There'll be no Olympic Stadium in Stratford, no world class athletic facilities in the Lower Lea Valley and no international marathon running past my front door. The kingfishers can carry on nesting down the Bow Back Rivers, factories down Marshgate Lane can continue to pump pollution into the East London sky, and the last few days on my blog can be filed away for future historians merely as an online archive of what might have been.

Admittedly the Government has still pledged cash for some urban renewal around here no matter what the result of the Olympic vote, but I suspect any future projects will be be minor, piecemeal and underfunded. And all this planned future redevelopment has one major downside. If London ever chooses to put forward another Olympic bid, say in 8 or 12 years time, there'll be insufficient brownfield land remaining in the Lower Lea Valley for the construction of an Olympic park. 2012 was a one-off chance for local international glory and we blew it. Still, it was a nice dream while it lasted. Any other godforsaken London borough fancy giving the Olympics a try in 2020?

 Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The London Olympics? 2012

Olympic snapshots: Media Centre
I am, very nearly, an Olympic resident. A marathon runner could jog from my front door to the edge of the Olympic Zone in one minute flat (and, if all goes to plan come 2012, they'll be doing precisely that). The prospect of wholesale urban regeneration on my doorstep is therefore a very desirable thing, and would be even more desirable if I owned my flat rather than renting it. My corner of the Olympic Zone, between the Bow flyover and Pudding Mill Lane DLR station, has been designated as the Media Village and International Broadcast Centre. This means that we'll be descended upon by the global equivalents of Gary Lineker and Sue Barker, their task to link together the latest reports from the taekwondo, the weightlifting and the synchronised swimming. I look forward to sharing a bag of chips with everyone outside Mam's Fish Bar. Construction of the Media Village requires that a whole swathe of heavy industrial units are cleared away from the site first, although most of these appear to specialise in waste disposal so maybe they can dismantle themselves. I'd like in advance to thank you, the British taxpayer, for funding a project that my local councils could never ever afford by themselves. True community gold really could be unearthed at the end of this Olympic Zone rainbow. But I wonder how easy it would be to live with the biggest building site in the country at the bottom of my road for seven long years before any of the rewards can be felt.

Olympic snapshots: Back the Bid
Go back just a year and you'd have been hard-pushed to find many Londoners who supported the Olympic bid. It needed a massive (and carefully conceived) PR campaign to turn the population of this Candidate City in favour of the 2012 Olympics, and thankfully that's exactly what we've had. You can't fail to have noticed 'Back the Bid' flags hanging from London's lampposts, 'Back the Bid' banners draped across London's public buildings and 'Back the Bid' stickers plastered all over London's public transport. This photograph, taken at Bromley-by-Bow station, shows one of two tube trains that have been madeover in Olympic colours - even the seats have been covered by special yellow 'Back the Bid' upholstery. It's an awful lot of money to throw at a campaign for an event London probably won't win, and all this still only achieved a 68% satisfaction rate in the IOC's final survey of public opinion, but the expense might just be worth it when you consider the potential regenerative benefits to be had in London's poorest boroughs if the bid is successful. I just wonder how many months it will take to remove every last scrap of depressingly upbeat 2012 branding across the capital when Paris wins on Wednesday instead.

Olympic snapshots: 2012, no thanks
As you can see, not everybody wants the Olympics to come to London. You'd be hard pushed, for example, to persuade citizens of Shetland, Belfast and Birmingham that their hard-earned taxes should be spent laying asphalt and astroturf in my backyard. Many Londoners are equally strongly opposed to the huge debts they might end up paying off over the next seven years (and beyond). But the most vociferous protests have come from those living and working on the Olympic site itself, so it came as no surprise to stumble upon this delightful piece of graffiti sprayed on the underside of a litter-strewn bridge down Marshgate Lane. 308 local businesses would be forced to relocate within two years of a successful Olympic bid, and they're understandably aggrieved. Compensation has only been pledged based on existing land values, a token gesture insufficient to cover the cost of reconstruction on more expensive land elsewhere. A major legal challenge is threatened if London wins tomorrow. Most of the thousands of jobs which would be lost are in unglamorous but essential service industries such as waste disposal, recycling, demolition (and, erm, luxury salmon-smoking). Although several thousand new jobs would be created in construction, these wouldn't be especially appropriate jobs for ex fish filleters (neither would they continue beyond 2012 like the jobs to be found here today). At least a few local unskilled teenagers can look forward to employment selling programmes and flipping burgers for three weeks in the summer of 2012. Beyond the closing ceremony, however, who knows? Maybe some of the current skilled workforce would like to apply to become a parkkeeper or, rather more likely I fear, a security guard.

Take a stroll around the East London Olympic Zone.

 Monday, July 04, 2005

The London Olympics? 2012

Olympic snapshots: Aquatics Centre
These two ramshackle buildings are fairly typical of the industrial skeletons to be found scattered around London's Olympic development site. They were half derelict when I took this photograph 18 months ago, a crumbling example of what happens when an area is left quietly to fall apart, and have since been demolished. We're looking out across the Waterworks River on the eastern edge of the Olympic Zone, on the very spot where London's new Aquatics Centre is about to be constructed. The powers that be have promised to build two 50m swimming pools and a 25m diving pool here, whether we win the 2012 Games or not, which is the sort of government commitment this deprived area so desperately needs. The inhabitants of nearby Stratford wait expectantly to see whether this new water feature will be full of international champions breaking world records or just teenagers divebombing one another and urinating in the shallow end when they think nobody's looking.

Olympic snapshots: Olympic Park
Heaven knows why the IOC originally complained that the Olympic Zone area was inaccessible and underconnected because you can't move around here for train tracks. Branch lines, mainlines, light rail lines, tube lines, they're all here already. And sidings - acres and acres and acres of railway sidings. Some are already in the process of being transformed into Stratford International station, immediately to the east of the proposed stadium, and ever so convenient for (ahem) all those eager Parisian visitors to the 2012 Games. However, as you'll see from this photo, Thornton Fields sidings have yet to be transformed. They run off the mainline from Liverpool Street to Norwich, sandwiched on a long island site between two of the Bow Back Rivers. During the week inter-city trains are stockpiled here during that daytime lull between the morning and evening rush hours. But visit at the weekend, as I did, and the sidings are completely deserted. I'd been out taking a stroll down the Waterworks River, not another living soul in sight, when I noticed an unlocked iron gate beckoning invitingly from the towpath. There was no warning sign telling me to keep out so I wandered through into the empty sidings and stood all alone beside the vacant tracks and gantries. It was an eerie experience, and I had a gut feeling that this was somewhere I wasn't supposed to be. Come 2012 and these sidings will be wiped from the map to be replaced by a wide paved pedestrian walkway linking together the major sporting facilities up and down the two-mile-long Olympic site. I look forward to standing here again, still not a train in sight, but surrounded by hundreds of thousands of bustling spectators.

Olympic snapshots: the Olympic Village
A Velopark is planned for the very northern tip of the Olympic Park, tucked inbetween the A12 and New Spitalfields market. £22miliion will be spent constructing a velodrome and an outdoor BMX circuit where blokes in tight lycra can wear enjoy wearing streamlined pointy helmets in public. But there's already a major cycling facility just a few hundred yards to the south - the 53 acre Eastway cycle circuit. A mile-long tarmac track curves invitingly through hilly green heathland, with challenging off-road tracks scattered around inbetween. London cyclists love Eastway and, as a visiting pedestrian, I was quite taken by it too. Not that there was any evidence that this circuit is ever used by cyclists any more. The changing rooms were padlocked, the admission prices were years out of date and the only official presence as I wandered around the track was a security guard with a very large alsatian. If the IOC award the 2012 Games to London, the Eastway circuit will be eradicated so that the Olympic Village and other sporting facilities can be constructed on the site. The world's best athletes and Paralympians will live right here, for a fortnight each, on the very spot from which I took this photograph. The Olympic village will also consume some really (really) nasty student flats nextdoor at Clays Lane (yes, I know they all belong to a well-meaning co-operative, but you'd really only live here if you had no choice). Hopefully the social housing left behind by the Olympics will create a more worthwhile place for disadvantaged local Londoners to live.

Olympic snapshots: Hockey Stadium
Wander through to the southern edge of the Eastway cycle circuit and there, hidden down a well-hidden footpath, you may stumble upon the delights of the Bully Point Nature Reserve. I was charmed to discover this verdant mini-valley hidden away between some allotments and a giant building site, extremely close to the tunnel mouth into which Eurostar trains will plunge on their seven minute journey to St Pancras. Here the tiny Channelsea River flows, here trees and bushes explode each summer in a riot of green, and here butterflies silently flit between the fragrant flowers on the riverbank. Even kingfishers are regularly seen, here, bang in the middle of a godforsaken East London wasteland. To be honest it's only the urban location that makes this lowly spot feel so special. But a successful London Olympic bid would erase this natural beauty spot forever. The Channelsea river would be diverted and the allotments concreted over, while Bully Point would disappear forever beneath the pitch of a new Hockey Stadium. In fact the entire Olympic development zone would have to be fenced off for several years leading up to 2012, its green corridors made wholly inaccessible to us local residents while all evidence of reality was obliterated. Sure the new Olympic park would have trees and flowers and rivers but they'd all be fresh, sanitised and artificial. And somehow, I suspect, rather disappointing. Standing here in peaceful silence amongst the leaves and buzzing insects, I hoped for the first time that London's Olympic bid might fail so that the wildlife residents of Bully Point could survive into a more permanent future.

 Sunday, July 03, 2005

The London Olympics? 2012

The 2012 Olympics will probably be held in: Paris
But: there's still a chance it might be London
So: let me dream for the next 75 hours, won't you?

Olympic snapshots: the Olympic Zone
Now: This is Marshgate Lane, about half a mile west of Stratford and just up the road from my house. I guess a long time ago it was quiet a country lane snaking between the triple braids of the River Lea, surrounded by grass, farm animals and the odd passing bird. Not any more. Marshgate Lane now runs through some of the most dismal scenery East London has to offer. It's a drab polluted wasteland covered by warehouses, small factories and discarded junk. Pylons stalk the grey horizon. Lorries thunder down from the M11 delivering fats and waste cooking oil to tall belching incinerators. Workers in orange dungarees eat their sandwiches surrounded by a sea of litter. A long queue of rusting cars lie trashed along the roadside waiting their turn to be cannibalised for spare parts. And, just to give you a true sense of the place, I took this photograph while standing on top of a giant sewerpipe. Marshgate Lane is a place you'd hate to work, not a place you'd like to live, and it could be so so much better.
2012: If London is awarded the 2012 Olympics, this part of London will be transformed. And about time too. Look down from the sewer pipe in seven years time and you'll see a striking Olympic Stadium rising anew in the centre of the photograph. It takes quite a leap of imagination to picture anything quite so enormous and important here today, but maybe a leap of imagination is exactly what's required around here.

Olympic snapshots: the Olympic Stadium
Here's a view from the opposite angle, looking south towards the intended site of London's 2012 Olympic stadium. As you can see there's a lot of water round here. The River Lea passes along the western perimeter of the site, and we're only a stone's throw from the lockkeeper's cottages from which the Big Breakfast used to be broadcast. But there are several other rivers threading through the site, all part of the Bow Back Rivers, each with their own wildlife and ecosystem. Here at Carpenter's Lock two of those braids join, leaving a scrap of land inbetween that's just big enough to hold an Olympic stadium. The water also provides a useful natural barrier that would act as a security cordon around the future arena, should it ever be built. Today you can still walk freely following a series of overgrown footpaths along the riverbanks, taking in the greenery, the desolation and the silence. Very few local people appear to bother to tread these paths, far from the madding crowds, but those of us who frequent the remoter stretches of the Bow Back Rivers prefer it that way.

Olympic snapshots: the Stadium (interior)
If you try standing here in seven years time you'll probably be arrested, because this is the very centre of the proposed Olympic stadium. Stand on this spot on the evening of Friday 27th July 2012 and you'll be whisked away in a heaving sea of choreographed flag-waving schoolchildren, all taking part in the extravagant made-for-TV spectacle of the opening ceremony of the XXXth Olympiad. And over the following fortnight the world's best athletes (and the world's most convincing steroid-takers) will stand here on the winners rostrum to receive their Olympic medals. Hence I was very disturbed to discover that there are already three flags fluttering over this very spot, and that they're all German. That's because there's a Mercedes after-sales centre on the site today, the sort of grey shed you bring your car back to when it stops working - I guess it beats turning up early and staking your claim with a beach towel. But a single cross of St George still flutters proudly in the forecourt of Bywaters skip hire service nextdoor, so maybe there's still hope.

Olympic snapshots: the Stadium (interior)
I guess few snapshots sum up the huge amount of redevelopment needing to be carried out if London wins the 2012 Olympics better than this picture. Across the road from the Mercedes garage, still well inside the 400m running track, I found a cheap karaoke machine and four smashed fridge-freezers, all lined up side by side on the pavement. They've got to go. In just seven years flat Marshgate Lane needs to be transformed from an industrial dumping ground littered by abandoned white goods into a state-of-the-art arena for world class sport. There are warehouses to dismantle, there are pylons to bring down, there are contours to level and there are polluted bushes to clear away. Admittedly many of the businesses that will be eradicated really don't want to go, but their removal will bring about the 'legacy' redevelopment that remains London's trump card over the Paris bid. Vote to bring the Olympics here and there'll be no more fridge freezers, no more karaoke machines and no more waste. Maybe, just maybe, this place has a bright future.

London's 2012 Olympic bid
Images of the propsed Olympic venues
Plans for the redevelopment of the Lower Lea Valley
Map of the Bow Back Rivers and Marshgate Lane
2½ years of my Olympic reports on one page

 Saturday, July 02, 2005

The London Olympics: 1948

The 1944 Olympics should have been held in: London
But: there was a big World War on at the time
So: London was awarded the 1948 Games instead.

Olympic snapshots: Wembley Stadium
Then: A lot of mopping up and rebuilding needed to be carried out after the Second World War. Nevertheless London willingly took on the responsibility of hosting the 1948 Olympics, the first to be held following a twelve year wartime hiatus, and they did so on a shoestring budget. The Games cost just £¾ million to stage, with existing facilities being used wherever possible and athletes housed not in some expensive new village but in schools, homes and even military barracks. And for its Olympic arena London turned to Wembley, the national stadium built two decades previously for the opening of the British Empire Exhibition in 1924. The Wembley Olympics ran successfully and smoothly, remembered best perhaps for a dashing Dutch housewife and not for Great Britain's lowly 12th place in the medal table. My history of Wembley Stadium is here, and there's more about events at the 1948 Olympics here.
Now: After years of vacillation and political wrangling, the famous twin towers have fallen. In their place, ever so slowly and worryingly behind schedule, a new 21st century Wembley Stadium is rising into the Brent sky. You can see the white Wembley Arch [stats: weight 1750 tonnes, length 315m, height 133m] across half of London, but I chose to take a look from close up. This photo is taken from the perfect viewpoint of Sherrins Farm Open Space, a grassy kickabout zone hidden away on the opposite side of the Chiltern railway line. The changing facilities are non-existent, the pitch slopes downhill and any goalposts are almost certainly knitted, but it's currently the only place round here where budding Beckhams can still play ball.

Olympic snapshots: Olympic Way
Then: Olympic Way, a long (and very wide) pedestrian thoroughfare, was built for the 1948 Games as a crowd control measure to link the stadium to the nearby tube station. This brutal minimalist walkway carved through what had once been gardens and across the site of an ornamental lake, more's the pity. But look behind the modern hotdog stall and you can still see the remains of one of the glories of the 1924 British Empire Exhibition - the Palace of Industry. In its heyday this vast 13 acre hall contained dazzling examples of British invention, including a coal mine and real pit ponies, and was constructed as one of a pair with the neighbouring Palace of Industry. Elsewhere on site were built opulent pavilions relative in size to the perceived importance of various Commonwealth countries, so Australia, Canada and India were afforded rather more space than Nigeria, Burmah and Ceylon.
Now: With the exception of several thousand Indian families, the nations of the new Commonwealth have long abandoned Wembley. Only a very few buildings from the Empire Exhibition remain, and those that still stand have been subsumed into a rundown retail park of furniture shops and carpet warehouses. The Palace of Industry has become a shabby shadow of its former self with jaundiced paint peeling from the pioneering concrete walls. The interior of this former exhibition space has been brutally subdivided and now houses, amongst other light industrial delights, a fleet of White Arrow delivery vans. Meanwhile Currys and JD Sports nextdoor stockpile white goods and sweatshop trainers mass-produced in the rising economies of the Far East. The glory days of Empire lie unnoticed and forgotten.

Olympic snapshots: Live Aid
Then: On Saturday 13th July 1985 the world returned to Wembley, either on foot or via satellite, for the Live Aid concert. I was a student at the time and three of my flatmates were lucky enough (and solvent enough) to get tickets. While they stood on the hallowed turf of Wembley Stadium in the presence of greatness (and Nik Kershaw), I sat at home watching the entire event on my portable black and white television. From Status Quo to Paul McCartney the top pop acts of the eighties (and a few dodgy hangers-on) kickstarted their failing careers with a few unforgettable performances. Those who'd never heard of U2 suddenly had, and those who'd heard of Duran Duran suddenly wished they hadn't. But, more importantly, the world's conscience was pricked as the plight of poverty-stricken Africans was given the prominence it so desperately deserved.
Now: And so it is again today, with the Live 8 concert in Hyde Park. Say what you like about Bob Geldof (and the words 'gobby', 'opinionated' and 'stubborn' spring to mind) but his persistence has certainly helped to launch the issue of world poverty much higher up the global agenda. Hurrah. Only the silent cheers of 20 years ago will echo round Wembley Stadium today, but at least the original event is commemorated in this tiled mosaic on the approach to Wembley Park station. Look, it's that Dire Straits bloke with the annoying bandana, that Tina diva with the frizzy perm, showman Freddie in his finest hour, and some anonymous drummer who has too much hair to be Phil Collins. Today the torch finally passes to the new generation of (supposed) international musical megastars, but I bet nobody erects a mural in Hyde Park to commemorate the event.

My gallery of London Olympics past.

 Friday, July 01, 2005

The London Olympics: 1908

The 1908 Olympics should have been held in: Rome
But: Mount Vesuvius erupted in 1906, so the Italians didn't have enough cash to build a stadium and rebuild Naples
So: the 1908 Games came to London instead.

Olympic snapshots: White City Stadium
Then: When London got the call to host the 1908 Olympics there was one big problem - there was nowhere to hold the Games. Thankfully the city was constructing a huge Franco-British exhibition in White City at the time, so they tacked on an Olympic-sized stadium in the northwest corner of the site and built it in ten months flat. The giant stadium held 93000 spectators and a running track one third of a mile long, and by April all was ready for the opening parade of the 22 participating nations.
Now: You're right, that building in the photograph doesn't look much like an Olympic stadium. Some athletics may have continued at White City until 1970, but for most of the 20th century the former grand arena was nothing but a glorified greyhound track. The stadium was eventually demolished in 1985 and, with BBC Television Centre located just down the road along Wood Lane, a new BBC office block was built on the site. At least silver looks less showy than gold or bronze.

Olympic snapshots: The finishing line
Then: See that line of white lettering across the front of this photograph? It reads "This is the site of the finishing line of White City Stadium which hosted the 1908 Olympics". And it was right here that one of the most famous marathon races in Olympic history was played out. The marathon had started back at Windsor Castle, with the race specially lengthened so that it could begin right in front of the royal box - a distance of 26 miles 385 yards that remains the marathon standard to this day. By the time the race reached the stadium Dorando Pietri of Italy was in the lead. Unfortunately he then collapsed with exhaustion, five times in total, only to be helped to his feet by some over-zealous British officials and carried over the finishing line. This enraged second-placed John Hayes of the United States, and an American protest (eventually) led to the Italian being stripped of his gold medal. As a result of this farce (and other dodgy decisions during the Games), all Olympic events since 1908 have been adjudicated by a pool of international judges and not a rabble of biased amateurs from the home country.
Now: The finishing line now stands in the courtyard of the BBC's new Media Village, opened just last year beside the existing White City building. Off the left hand edge of the photo there's a row of the type of shops that modern planners think office workers want (great if you want a latté, a muffin or a panini). The whole area looked very dead when I visited on a rain-soaked Saturday morning, but I'm delighted that to see that this historic finishing line is still semi-accessible to the public.

Olympic snapshots: The medal table
Then: The British found one particularly cunning way to use their home advantage in the 1908 Olympics to good effect. The games opened on 27 April but, rather than the compact fortnight we know today, they continued for a full six months until 31 October. For local athletes this wasn't a problem but, in the days before commercial air travel, global competitors were at a distinct disadvantage. Of the 2000 competing athletes there were proportionally more UK competitors than perhaps there ought to have been, and look what happened as a result.
Great Britain: 56 gold, 51 silver, 38 bronze
USA: 23 gold, 12 silver, 12 bronze
Sweden: 8 gold, 6 silver, 11 bronze
France: 5 gold, 5 silver, 9 bronze
Germany: 3 gold, 5 silver, 6 bronze
For the first (and only) time in the history of the Olympic Games, Great Britain topped the medal table. Look, we got a mammoth haul of gold medals, more than all the other nations of the world put together. I know that, once upon a time, this blessed country of ours used to be a great world power but surely this was one self-deluded step too far. Nevertheless the 1908 Games were still a considerable success, impeccably organised with Empire efficiency, and laid the foundations for the founding of the International Amateur Athletic Federation four years later.
Now: On the wall of the Broadcast Centre in the BBC Media Village, just beyond the Olympic finishing line, stands a tall plaque commemorating the 1908 Games. Olympic chief Jacques Rogge unveiled it five weeks ago in the presence of Director General Mark Thompson, and a small crowd of BBC staff. Look, Martin was there and got photos. I'm sure there are some other bloggers working nearby who could tell us more.

Olympic snapshots: White City reborn
Then: The original White City exhibition consisted of 20 huge palaces and 120 exhibition buildings spread across a sprawling 140-acre site. The exhibition showcased the industrial and cultural achievements of England and France (like that would ever happen today, eh?) and drew more than eight million visitors. Whitewash was used to cover the multiplicity of steel and concrete buildings on site - hence the name 'White City'. Wood Lane station (on the Central line) was built to serve the exhibition, and underground anoraks may be interested by the following websites which chronicle the unusual track layout at the now-demolished station.
Now: Much of the White City area has recently been razed to the ground ready for major redevelopment. Tall cranes stand guard over an enormous building site north of Shepherd's Bush Green, complete with its own office for the signing on of casual labour. There'll be some affordable housing in one corner, of course, but most of the site is earmarked for the largest shopping centre in London. Great, just what we need. And it's all due to open in 2008, exactly a century after there really was something here worth celebrating.

Monday, June 6, 2005

The last lap

A giant lady athlete stood motionless outside Stratford station today. She was of reassuringly indeterminate ethnic origin, she was holding aloft a Union Jack and she looked like she'd just smashed the record for the women's 100m sprint (which is not difficult when you're ten metres tall). The good people of Stratford went about their daily business at her feet, trying hard to ignore the TV cameras pointing in their general direction and the whirr of the BBC News 24 helicopter buzzing overhead. It could mean only one thing - London's pre-Olympic hype was in full swing. Yes, in just one month's time the International Olympic Committee will be meeting in Singapore to decide whether my local neighbourhood gets to become a regenerated hub of global importance or remains a barren industrial desert.

Yesterday the IOC published its final report on the five cities bidding to win the 2012 Olympics. The good news is that London received an excellent report, praising the comprehensiveness of the bid and the rather splendid legacy that the Games would leave behind. The even better news is that New York, Madrid and Moscow received less glowing reports (especially Moscow which is basically dead in the water). The not-quite-so-good news is that the Parisian bid has been deemed essentially perfect with barely a word in the wrong place, and so Paris remains the firm favourite to win the Games in one month's time. But not yet a dead cert.

Gold: Paris (1-4 favourite), public support 85%
Silver: London (3-1), public support 68%
Bronze: New York (12-1), public support 59%
4th: Madrid (33-1), public support 91%
5th: Moscow (100-1), public support 77%

According to the official IOC opinion poll, 11% of Londoners strongly oppose the Olympics being hosted in East London. That 11% no doubt includes those employed by the factories in Marshgate Lane which will be forcibly relocated when if the Olympic Stadium is built on top of them. I took a walk through this doomed trading estate this afternoon. Banners and graffiti on the walls of this smoked salmon factory made it very clear that the Games are not wanted here. Official 2012 banners were erected here last week but somebody local has already been round with a big pair of scissors to cut most of each sign down, leaving just a few sad white strips flapping limply in the wind. The whole area may look like a polluted dump full of scrapyards, incinerators and warehouses (and indeed it is), but local people's livelihoods will be extinguished if London's bid is successful, and these ex-workers will be expected to pay higher council tax for the privilege. Roll on July 6th.

If there's still one slight question mark hanging over London's bid, it's transport. Heaven knows why the IOC still think two tube lines, two DLR lines, two suburban rail lines, an inter-city railway and a Eurostar International station might somehow not be quite enough to service two weeks of visiting tourists, but apparently they're not. Or maybe the IOC are just worried we won't build them all in time...
"Whilst the Olympic Park would undoubtedly leave a strong sporting and environmental legacy for London, the magnitude of the project, including the planned upgrade and expansion of transport infrastructure, would require careful planning to ensure all facilities and rehabilitation projects were completed on time." (IOC report summary)
So I've carried out my own consumer test to see which of the two top bids is actually the most accessible:
London (06/06/05): Exit my house, walk east past Bow Flyover, turn left up Pudding Mill Lane, arrive at proposed Olympic Stadium. Total walking time = 14 minutes.
Paris (23/04/05): Exit my house, take DLR to Canary Wharf, take Jubilee line to Waterloo, arrive Eurostar terminal, queue through security and customs, wait half an hour for train to depart, crawl through south London, chug across Kent, zoom under Channel, whizz through Northern France, arrive Gare Du Nord, try to find correct 'B line' platform, get lost down urine-stained back stairs, stand for ten minutes waiting for packed commuter train to leave platform, ride a mile out of town, walk ten minutes north from station, arrive at proposed Olympic Stadium (Stade de France). Total travel time = 4 hours 50 minutes.
London wins, QED.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

April in Paris: ville Olympique?
Just like in London, there are reminders all over Paris that the city is bidding for the Olympics. Banners hang from lampposts, signs have been erected on public buildings and there are stickers on the doors of all the Metro trains. I spotted especially large 'Paris2012' logos on the front of the Parliament building and the side of the Eiffel Tower, each encouraging citizens to support "L'Amour des Jeux". Like us, Parisians are keen to host the world's premier sporting event because of the national prestige and redevelopment a successful bid would bring. The city exudes a quiet confidence, having barely put a foot wrong during the bidding process, but that's probably because civic leaders have learnt a great deal from two previous failed bids. While I was in town I took the opportunity to visit the site of the proposed Olympic Stadium, a short train journey to the north of the city centre. Just like Stratford in East London this is a poor multicultural neighbourhood of light industrial wasteland and low-cost housing, with noticeable redevelopment already underway. Unlike Stratford the Olympic Stadium already exists - the Stade De France, built for the 1998 World Cup. Late on Saturday afternoon it stood quiet and empty beside the Périphérique, just a circular concrete amphitheatre locked away behind tall metal railings. The only athletes out training in the sunshine were three young boys busy skating and laughing around the perimeter. The stadium already looked late 20th century to me, and by 2012 may feel positively archaic, but here was London's most fearsome opponent, prepared and ready.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Counting down

Just in case London's Olympic bid might be slipping off your personal radar, a minor media stunt was stage-managed today in the middle of Trafalgar Square. A big clock has been erected beneath Nelson's Column to count down the 75 days remaining until the IOC selects Paris as the venue for the 2012 Olympics. One man who still hopes otherwise is Seb Coe (right, in sensible suit), and he persuaded some 'big' political names to join him for the unveiling. Tessa Jowell (centre, in bright green) was joined by two anonymous shadow Sports Ministers (left, and cropped from photo), while Cherie Blair (2nd from left, grinning) also appeared in her new role as one of the bid's international ambassadors. Seb and Cherie both gave brief inspirational speeches, probably using words like 'hope', 'community' and 'legacy' except that nobody had remembered to bring a microphone so their pleadings were largely inaudible. Two real sportswomen, brought in for their photographic charm, removed the heavily-sponsored plastic cover from the giant white timer, and then a brief photo opportunity was staged. This may have been a non-event of Olympic proportions, but at least it all looked jolly impressive for 15 seconds on local TV news later in the evening. The clock is ticking, but most probably for that big French city across the Channel...
by Eurostar: 2 hours 40 minutes from Waterloo

Sunday, February 13, 2005

the Bid

Anybody want an Olympic Stadium in their backyard?

Apparently not. Motorists passing Bow Bridge yesterday would have seen these two homemade banners strapped to the roadside, denouncing London's 2012 Olympic bid in no uncertain terms. What motorists wouldn't have seen however, unless they'd been crossing the Bow flyover in the cab of a particularly tall articulated lorry, was the unusual protest being staged a few feet below.

A flotilla of anti-bid boaters assembled on the River Lea at 1pm yesterday afternoon. The protestors chugged down the Bow Back Rivers alongside the proposed Olympic zone and then tied up their narrowboats three or four abreast close to the flyover. They were demonstrating as part of the NoLondon2012 campaign, an outspoken pressure group intent on whipping up public opposition to London's Olympic bid. Not that yesterday's floating protest was in any way a bad-natured affair. The campaigners may have tooted their boats' whistles for a few minutes, but otherwise they just stood around on their barges or wandered up and the towpath a bit. Other protestors arrived on foot, or by bike, and some kept busy by taking photographs of the assembled gathering. Most appeared to be committed environmentalists rather than frustrated taxpayers - I saw rather more hand-knitted jumpers than I would normally expect to see along the banks of the Lea. It was certainly a colourful affair but, out of sight beneath the roadway, the participants appeared to be preaching only to the coverted.

There were muted jeers as a blue 'Back the Bid' double decker passed the site of the demonstration. Protestors will be hoping to make themselves heard more loudly when International Olympic Committee inspectors roll into town this week for their four day scrutiny visit. A much bigger demo is planned in Meridian Square in Stratford next Saturday, and one of those Critical Mass civilly-disobedient bike rides is scheduled to head this way on Friday evening. Expect to hear well-rehearsed arguments that money frittered away on the Olympics could be better spent on local hospitals and education, that a unique wetland habitat is under threat and that the promised influx of jobs, tourism and sporting facilities will do nothing to help local people. Speaking as an extremely local person myself, I must say I disagree.

After a sunny start to yesterday's demonstration, the heavens suddenly opened and sleet hurled down from grey clouds. Most of the protestors scuttled inside their narrowboats and waited for the wintry squall to pass. While they weren't looking a perfect rainbow appeared in the sky, spearing the ground precisely where the proposed Olympic Stadium would be built. I reckon this was a sign from above. There's a buried golden future here, but only when this grim industrial wasteland is earmarked for total regeneration will the financial rewards ever surface for the benefit of the local population. Don't get me wrong, I do love walking the deserted footpaths alongside my local rivers, but decades of urban neglect have scarred the environment here to the point where wholesale Olympic renewal can only be a good thing. A few riverbanks may be sanitised and a few moorhens left homeless, but what this area needs is progress, and lots of it.

After the sun came out, the protest resumed. I left quickly, before anyone thought I was one of 'them', and walked the short distance back to reality.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

10 reasons why I love London's 2012 Olympic bid

a) For a fortnight in 2012, the eyes of the world will be on my backyard.
b) I live less than five minutes walk from the Olympic zone, so I can walk to the opening ceremony (Friday 27th July, 19:30-22:30).
c) The proposed route for the marathon goes right past my front door...
d) ...which probably means Paula Radcliffe will stop and sit on my doorstep for a good cry before dashing off to run the last mile in record time and win gold.
e) When the Games fail to sell out, they'll probably give free tickets for the synchronised diving to us local residents.

f) The rest of the country's taxes are going to pay for the redevelopment of my local community (selfish I know, but thanks).
g) They're planning to clean and widen all the local waterways, plus restore three acres of wetland habitat for wildlife, which has to be better than the silted-up industrial wasteland I currently live in.
h) By the time the Games are finished, my local transport links will be world class.
i) Property prices round here can only go up (drat, I wish I'd bought this place rather than renting).
j) When Paris wins instead, my London 2012 promotional biro will probably be worth at least £2 on eBay.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Dear International Olympic Committee,

Please find enclosed London's bid for the 2012 Olympics. It's dead good and has not been cobbled together in a rush. We all really really want the Olympics to come here in eight years time, even the people who say they don't, mainly because we hate the idea of the French winning the Games instead. Please ignore all the less than good bits in our bid and let us win so that we can overspend our taxes in the name of International Sporting Endeavour.

London loves the Olympics. You can tell this because we've painted some buses blue and because the whole city is draped in curtains featuring the Olympic logo. Our 'Back The Bid' campaign has whipped the population into a frenzy of optimism, so much so that they all plan to leave the capital in 2012 to leave more room on public transport for visiting Olympic officials.

London loves sport. Well, London loves football, which is not quite the same thing. Nobody in London gives a toss about Olympic football because we don't take part but, believe us, we'll pretend to have a passion for beach volleyball, taekwondo and badminton if it helps. We are particularly talented at shooting, however, although not necessarily of the Olympic type.

London loves the world. We're a multicultural global city, where people from all nations gather together to take on underpaid overnight cleaning jobs in high rise offices. You can travel here by air, by boat, by rail, or in a secret compartment in the back of a container lorry. And we're knee-high in tourists already so a few more foreign athletes should fit in perfectly.

Most importantly, London would love to be a better place. It's amazing how hosting a few running races can suddenly inspire governments and businesses to pour money into rundown communities that have been forgotten for decades. There are whole swathes of East London that will be reborn if the Olympics come to town, leaving a legacy of hope (and a nice swimming pool) for future generations.

See you all for the inspection visit in February. We'll show you round the grim industrial wasteland in Hackney where we want to build the field of dreams. And don't worry, we'll show all your wives round Harrods instead.

Yours sincerely,
Seb (and every person in London, honest)

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

If Olympics 2004 had been held in East London...

I've reported before from the site of London's proposed Olympic Stadium, just a few minutes walk from my house (report here). In eight years time Marshgate Lane Industrial Estate hopes to be home to world record attempts and world media attention. Last week it was home to four fridge-freezers and a karaoke machine, lying discarded on the pavement smack bang inside what may one day be the Olympic Stadium. I stood alone amongst the bleak rows of warehouses and small factories and tried to imagine what it would be like if the athletes, officials and spectators were here right now. What if Olympics 2004 had been held in East London...

The four fridge-freezers would have been plastered with the names of the Games' corporate sponsors.
The Olympic flame could have been powered by the huge tanks of industrial cooking fat currently to be found across the site.
Half the competitors would still be stuck in traffic on the Blackwall Tunnel Approach road.
The marathon would have gone past my front door, and Paula would have won it.
The whole world would have seen that the weather in London is 'always wet'.
The swimming could have been held in a flooded Victoria Park without the need to build a new 50m pool.
The canoeing could have been held across town in the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain (or the cycling, if dry).
London's obsolete transport network would have ground to a halt due to 'late running of engineering works at White City'.
Local muggers would have taken the medals in the wrestling, shooting and 100m sprint.
We'd all have stayed at home and watched everything on the telly rather than forking out £100 for a distant seat in the grandstand.

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