Legacy – Sunday 1st November 2009

Posted on November 1, 2009


The sweeping curves of the Aquatics Centre are inspired by the fluid geometry of water in motion. The building will be covered in aluminium

Are you an Olympic sceptic ? Many of my neighbours are. Their worries seem to be twofold – first, whether our transport system is capable of coping with the half a million visitors to the park expected on each of the sixteen day games and secondly, the costs of putting it all on. I was privileged to be taken on a tour of the Olympic Park recently and amazed that in the rush hour it took just 55 minutes door to door, including the walk to Arnos Grove. Admittedly the three-carriage overground service from Highbury toStratfordwas a bit of a squeeze, but it afforded excellent views of the new Aquatics Centre designed by celebrity architect Zaha Hadid. The building caused controversy last year, when it was claimed that the sweeping curves of the roof would be too complicated to build. The engineers have proved the critics wrong and the roof, which is inspired by the fluid geometry of water in motion, will make this building the best in the park (far more exciting than the main stadium itself). The 17,500 seat venue seems so small when seen from the train window – until you see someone in a yellow high-vis jacket next to it!

The Olympic Park must already be one of the most intensively policed parts of the country and after my half hour wait in the ‘Security Plaza’ to receive a day pass (with passport and utility bill in hand), I was not surprised to learn that 10% of the £9.3bn Olympic bill is being spent on security. In August, the British Badminton Team cancelled their trip to the World Championships due to a “specific terrorist threat” – small wonder then that 14,700 athletes, 20,000 journalists and 9,000,000 Olympic visitors will require considerable protection. With two-score burly day-workers queuing behind me waiting to clock in, I didn’t even try to read the small print on all the entry forms I was given to sign.

The Olympic Stadium – all the major venues are due to be completed one year before the games begin

After being stamped in, I was taken to a mini bus that was provided to ferry us around. I soon found out that I would be unable to have my photograph taken on the finishing line of the stadium – not only because photography is prohibited but also since the track is currently a store for building materials. In hindsight, the lycra-clad, shell-like curves of my Rococo waistline are probably not the sort of image the organising committee wishes to see plastered over the web, especially after forking out £400,000 for their trendy brand identity (that squiggly pink logo).

The preparations for the 30th modern Olympiad certainly go to prove that “where there’s muck there’s brass”. I was amazed to discover that 95% of all the material from the buildings demolished on the site is being reused – crushed to make the hardcore for the new roads, including the ‘VIP’ perimeter route which will circle the park protected by a metal fence patrolled by armed police. Somewhat unexpectedly, watching the ‘Soil Hospital’ in action was fascinating – here, some of the two million cubic metres of earth being moved around the site is sieved and washed, before being stored in gigantic heaps awaiting transportation to form some of the green bridges that are a prominent feature of the video fly-through that we have seen on the news. The Olympic Delivery Authority says that 2,500 trees will be planted across the site, but it strikes me as unlikely that so much money would be spent deep-cleaning the soil just to create a municipal park. Surely most, if not all of the land will eventually be sold off for housing developments after the games are over?

Having seen the original masterplan, I was surprised to find how empty the park feels – several of the temporary venues have been moved to other locations leaving the stadium and the aquatics centre among the few permanent buildings. There will be no transport within the park itself and the walk from the coach park in the north to the main stadium in the south is a considerable distance. Perhaps I am being too cynical, but knowing the sponsors, I imagine the gaps between the venues will be crammed with fast food concessions!

The original masterplan showed a number of temporary venues in the park, which have since been moved to other locations in London

Visiting the Olympic Park, even in its half-finished state, was an amazing and somewhat unreal experience; it is still hard to believe that this vast building site with its futuristic and monumental structures is less than an hour away. Despite my misgivings, I left with a feeling of excitement and a sense of optimism – had I been sold the “Olympic Dream?”

Most advertising is about exploiting our aspirations in some way – the potential for a better life if we use a particular shampoo or eat a certain brand of breakfast cereal, but never before can this have been attempted on a product as expensive as the Olympic Games! By wrapping the event in the narrative of a non-sequitur (a ‘future legacy’) the marketeers have cleverly sought to assuage our natural reticence for change, nullify the impact of any logistical embarrassments and temper the inevitable cost increases by deflecting our present-day concerns with a wistful vision of the future – feeding on our fondness for the past and our urge to establish our ‘place in history.’

Beginning with All Saints and All Souls Days, followed by Armistice Day and with Churchill’s birthday at the end of the month, to me November is all about legacy – a legacy that is a gift to us from the past. The Service of Remembrance in Broomfield Park will this year take place against a backdrop of temporary plaques, erected to replace the original bronze memorials that were so callously stolen for profit just months after the garden was refurbished. I understand that permanent replacements have been commissioned. The desecration of our local war memorial was a visible example of the growing disregard for the legacy of our servicemen and women by a few individuals – but I discovered recently that we are all, unknowingly, accomplices in a similar contempt. I was shocked to learn that according to the charity Combat Stress, moreFalklandveterans have committed suicide since the conflict ended than died in action, with suicide rates even higher for veterans of the Gulf War. A graphic reminder that while it is easy for us to covet the promise of a ‘future legacy’ and even easier to disapprove of those who dishonour that of the past, ultimately we will be judged by our own everyday actions – and inactions.

There are many charities which exist to support injured servicemen, including Help for Heroes and Combat Stress : www.helpforheroes.org.uk  www.combatstress.org.uk