Countdown to the Games

London seems to be on track to host the 2012 Summer Olympics. Even the newts have been taken care of.

Countdown to the Games

Anthony Charlton/ODA/CP

On a dark, drizzly evening last week, several hundred Londoners gathered near Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square to watch a ceremony to unveil a broken clock. “It is tremendously exciting since this reminds us of how much we’ve still got to do before the Olympics,” London’s famously shambolic Mayor Boris Johnson announced as the cameras rolled. “We’re on schedule, with an iron grip on the budget so far—but really it’s all about sport and beating France!”

To be fair, the Omega London 2012 digital countdown clock was not broken at that moment, but stopped unexpectedly less than 24 hours later—499 days early for the city’s planned Olympic opening ceremonies on July 27, 2012. And despite this minor glitch, London seems to be in good shape well in advance of its big moment on the world stage.

The same day the clock flopped, the first advance tickets went on sale. Roughly 75 per cent—some 6.6 million—of tickets to the Games will be up for grabs to the public, through an application process which closes in six weeks’ time. Lord Coe, the London 2012 chairman, told the BBC sales had so far been “steady—with no reports of anything untoward.” In honour of the 500-day milestone, foreign press were also allowed a rare glimpse into the Olympic Park located in the city’s formerly industrial and increasingly rejuvenated East End. During a bus tour guided by Sarah Weir, head of arts and culture for the Olympic Park, reporters were assured that preparations were on schedule, with construction 75 per cent complete.

Shrouded in English mist, the amazing scope of the venue was laid bare: 2.5 square kilometres of new construction and landscaping with a budget of $15 billion, which according to organizers has not changed since being set in 2007. The big stadium, the heart of every Olympic venue, is now weeks away from completion—a ring of lightweight white steel resembling an airy modern day coliseum. It will be located on a man-made “island” surrounded by a moat of water on three sides. Spectators will cross one of five bridges to gain entry to the venue, which will be home to the opening and closing ceremonies as well as countless athletic events.

Like most of the structures, the stadium was built with legacy in mind. During the Games, it will have capacity for 80,000, but its construction allowed for the top tier of seating to be dismantled, bringing the capacity down to a manageable 25,000. Practical as this design was, it is now moot, following the recent news that West Ham football club, with its legions of fans, will likely move into the venue once the Games are over.

Other buildings will evolve as planned, such as Zaha Hadid’s marvellous undulating Aquatics Centre, built with two temporary “fins” for extra seating that will be dismantled post-Games. The basketball arena, shaped like a quilted air mattress and certainly the least attractive building on the site, will serve (thankfully) as the world largest temporary sports venue of its kind. The velodrome, a 6,000-seat paraboloid-shaped building (think of a Pringles potato chip) was unveiled last month by British gold medal-winning champion Sir Chris Hoy. It has been hailed by organizers as the world’s fastest cycling track.

Art installations are beginning to spring up around the park as well, with the most notable being Anish Kapoor’s semi-constructed Orbit, a spiralling metal sculpture that will stand 115 m high. Though the piece is only a third finished—a single cone composed of red metal spokes is all that exists so far—an average of 10,000 visitors a month make the voyage out to the wilds of east London to examine the piece from the free viewing centre, which sits just outside the park.

After the importance of legacy, sustainability is the other major theme. In addition to spending months “decontaminating” the site’s soil (after decades of industrial use), organizers claim 97 per cent of everything in the original setting has apparently been reused in the park (though where all those antique bricks ended up is anyone’s guess). Nature lovers will be pleased to hear that measures are being taken to sustain the natural habitat on the banks of the River Lee, which snakes through the site. Hundreds of new trees sit with netted root balls, waiting to be planted. And 2,000 newts, as well as other creatures, were moved into temporary digs before construction. The plan is to move the survivors back once the Games are over.

Like their animal counterparts, many human beings will have a chance to move into the Olympic Park once the athletes’ village is converted into residential dwellings—60 per cent will be for private sale and another 40 per cent for social housing. Some 16 months before the Olympics even begin, such talk may seem premature, but as Weir points out, “Everything about this park is designed with the future in mind.”

Now, one supposes, it’s just a matter of beating France.

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