I can still remember seeing the joy on Ken Livingstone’s face when London won the selection to host the 2012 Olympic Games, so why wasn’t I jumping up and down for joy with him?
Call me an old cynic if you like, but the legacy of the 2004 Athens Games is a stark reminder of how emotions can change from joy to despair in such a relatively short space of time. The debt that Greece accrued for putting on the world’s greatest sports event was a heavy enough price to pay without the knowledge that the sporting venues quickly fell into disrepair as well.
I’m pretty sure that Ken wasn’t thinking about the sporting side of things when, as Mayor of London at the time, he put the bid in: in fact, I don’t think he even expected to win it. The reason behind his thinking was that the event would focus minds on giving a much-needed boost to rejuvenating a part of East London that was in desperate need of some extra cash, so I think his wide smile was for a different reason to those involved in sport.
I’m also pretty sure that the powers that be were only too aware of what happened in Athens and would have been determined that London’s legacy would be different.
With all this in mind a 500-acre site at Stratford was given the go-ahead as the home of the Olympic Park, the main venue for both the Summer Olympics and the Paralympics.
Work started in May 2008 on the project that was to see the landscape transformed. 52 electricity pylons were removed – as were the homes of hundreds of people in places like the Clay Lane housing estate. People complained bitterly of course, but they weren’t allowed to get in the way of the multi-billion pound scheme.
How much it all cost I have no idea, and I wonder if anybody does. The total cost of hosting the Olympics was supposed to be £9b but I’ve been looking for a final figure without success. There were other venues, but this was the big one, and so it also attracted huge investment in transport infrastructure and projects like the adjacent International quarter which has had an injection of £1.3b.
So, what was achieved? what’s here now? and was it all worth it?
Firstly, as a sporting arena for the Olympic Games, I think it’s fair to say that it was a great success, and not just because Team GB done well. The Olympic Stadium, the Aquatics Centre and the Velodrome were all worthy sporting venues and are still used on a regular basis.
Since then, West Ham Football Club have taken over the lease of the stadium and moved from Upton Park in time for the start of the 2016/17 football season, but it wasn’t without controversy.
Apart from the fact that two other clubs had something to say about it (Tottenham Hotspur and Leyton Orient), the Hammers fans weren’t too happy about it either. It maybe a nice new shiny stadium, but it’s not their spiritual home – and the pies are more expensive too!
Other sporting areas inside the park include the Copper Box Arena, (which was used primarily for Handball during the Olympics and now basketball as well), and the Lea Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre.
Since the Olympics, the sporting facilities have been used for a multitude of national events as well as for local amateur use, which is good to see, but the park is not just used for sport.
The total area is larger than Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens combined, but can be considered in two separate parts as well.
The South Park has most of the tourist related activities, whilst the North Park is being turned primarily into a conservation area. The River Lea which runs through the park used to be an industrial valley before it became neglected. I have to admit that I haven’t explored this part of the park much yet, but if what I’ve read is true, then this area could well be one of the success stories to come out of the legacy of the Olympic Games.
The Lea also runs through the South Park, where the Carpenters Road Locks have been renovated and wildfowl and fishermen fight over what’s beneath the surface of the Waterworks River.
Now known as the Stratford Waterfront, the waterside has been smartened up enough for boats to take passengers on short cruises. Unfortunately, unlike the inhabitants of Clay Lane, not all the rats have moved out yet.
As you would expect, there are walking and cycling trails in amongst the new habitats planted with native species, but the manicured gardens have a variety of plants from around the world which look brilliant, but would look even better if there was a little less hardscaping surrounding them.
There’s still one thing I haven’t mentioned – The ArcelorMittal Orbit. This is one of the most visited things in the park, and even if you didn’t want to see it, you will – because it’s the tallest sculpture in the country. Tallest, biggest, or whatever, doesn’t always translate into being the best, and people have different views about it. This mangled jumble of steel tubes won’t be pleasing on the eye to everybody, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and strangely enough I was more impressed than I thought I would be – not by its beauty, but by its ingenuity. It’s quite remarkable how all those tubes fit together.
If that doesn’t impress you then the far-reaching views from the viewing platform might. Unfortunately, from a photographic point of view, the conditions were less than ideal when I was up here, so I’m afraid I can’t show what you’re missing.
One thing I didn’t bother with, although there was no shortage of willing participants, was the slide back down to the bottom. I’m no Olympian and opted to take the lift instead.
One of the things that would have been important to the people working out the legacy of the games would have been what to do with the Olympic Village.
When the athletes left, plans were put in place to ensure that locals would benefit from the properties that were left behind, but the reality of the new East Village, as it’s called, has fallen short of the ambition. As some people would no doubt have predicted, the gentrification of Stratford has pushed property prices upwards out of the reach of locals, and the target of 50% affordable housing in the East Village has been revised downwards to between 20% and 31%.
On a more optimistic note an Arts Hub is planned which will include an outpost of the V&A Museum, the Saddlers Wells Ballet Company and the University of the Arts London.
This will sit alongside the existing modern Westfield shopping Centre and new local Stratford and Stratford International stations. The whole area will become known as Stratford City.
So, is Ken Livingstone still smiling? He has to be. He probably isn’t over the moon about locals being squeezed out of the housing market, but that in itself is an indication on how the area has changed for the better – but what do I think?
Well, it would appear that many lessons have been learned from past mistakes, and although it would be easy to criticize some aspects of the handling of the project, on the whole I’m pleased to see how the area has been transformed – although I acknowledge that it wouldn’t have pleased everybody. On that basis I award the organizers a silver medal – but I’m sorry to say that I’m still cynical about the whole Olympic concept in its present form.