The young lad sitting near me had sketched what looked like a basic three-storey apartment building that was three windows wide. Unfortunately, he was supposed to be drawing the view of the new London Olympic Park across the street, as his classmates were doing.
And while the structures certainly looked quite distinctive and daring from our vantage point at a third-floor department store window (see photo above), none of them resembled the Birds Eye Potato Waffle this budding artist had produced. He looked worried.
Fortunately, his teacher was reassuring. “Well,”, she mused kindly, “it could be a building that was there before the stadium.” This lady was obviously a believer in the Olympic ideal of how it’s not about the winning but the taking part.
It’s not easy to have such an innocent and untainted view of the Olympics today. After all, to get to the Olympic Park from Stratford train station, you must pass through a large shopping plaza – depressingly appropriate for such a sponsor-shackled event, you might say. The Olympic Park is not yet open to the public and is still surrounded by construction-site metal fencing, so sightseers are advised to follow signs to a viewing gallery in John Lewis – not a person but the Official Department Store of the London Olympics. (The viewing gallery includes a shop selling Official Products.)
If London’s Olympic Park was designed with visual impact in mind, then it has certainly succeeded. The Aquatics Centre looks bizarre, like an open book with a flying saucer for a page-marker. The main stadium, home to the athletics, appears mundane by comparison.
But most eye-catching of all is a red metallic viewing tower called the Orbit (whose official title contains the name of its corporate sponsor), resembling a rollercoaster tangled on a lighthouse. This is a clear pitch for posterity and tourist landmark status – after all, no events will be hosted on the Orbit, unless the diving competitions get particularly weird.
Get used to the look of it all, because for three weeks this summer it’ll be the centre of the world.
Around London there are other Olympic locations. For instance, the marathon will take place on an 8-mile loop around the city centre stretch of the Thames, finishing in front of Buckingham Palace on The Mall. The cycling road races will also finish there. Hyde Park will host the triathlon, and beach volleyball finds itself in a temporary open-air arena in Horse Guards Parade.
Strolling around the centre of London this week, I didn’t see as much Olympic paraphernalia as I had expected. Londoners seem to be quite cool about the Games – and maybe even a bit weary of the whole thing already. Posters in the Underground stations and carriages advise commuters not to take the Tube during the Olympic and Paralympic period – a rare example of an organisation actively discouraging its customers. Heathrow Airport is already struggling to cope with queues at its immigration controls. The media features stories of missiles based on top of apartment buildings and fighter planes roaring over residential areas, all to the inconvenience of the locals. Perhaps the best place to experience the London Olympics is anywhere except London.
Still, there was a good atmosphere around the Olympic Park when I was there. (I’m comparing it to Paris, where I live, so perhaps that’s faint praise.) Outside Stratford train station, sightseers seeking the Olympic Park were guided by a trail of people wearing large pink foam fingers to point the way, happy to pose for photos. The woman working in the merchandise shop had time to chat with customers as they bought branded T-shirts and plastic beakers.
And those artistic schoolkids seemed genuinely enthralled by the Olympic vista before them, unconcerned that the merchandise shop only accepts one brand of credit card, that of the Official Partner.
If all goes to plan, sightseers will continue to make the short Tube trip from central London for years to come. Discussions about ‘legacy’ have surrounded the Olympic Park almost since its conception – the stadium, for instance, has been at the centre of competing bids and legal challenges by local football clubs looking to move in after the Games. Kites were flown by bidders about taking up the running track. But as the stadium is due to host the 2017 World Athletics Championships, track and field will still have a home in this corner of London long after the five-ring circus and its Official Partners have left town.
You can find out more about the Olympic Park and other venues at the official London 2012 website: www.london2012.com. To get a glimpse inside the stadium, here’s a short news report from the opening night: