17 Days to Forge the Next 70 Years
The eyes of the world will be on London for 17 days this summer. But once the Olympic Games are over, will they leave the positive legacy for future generations promised by their organizers?
17 Days to Forge the Next 70 YearsBy Yueh-Lin Ma
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 497 )
The Summer Olympic Games are being held in London this year, and on May 18, the Olympic flame arrived in Britain from Greece, ready to be carried around the United Kingdom on a 70-day 8,000-kilometer relay culminating in the sporting extravaganza's opening ceremony.
HTC Corp. CEO Peter Chou will represent Taiwan's business community as one of the 8,000 torch bearers who will parade the Olympic symbol around the country.
Though the arrival of any Olympic Games is accompanied by plenty of pomp and fanfare, one could forgive the U.K. if it complained that the momentous occasion was not exactly coming at the right time.
London won the right to host the 2012 Games on July 6, 2005 at the International Olympic Committee's 117th session, beating out heavily favored Paris with a campaign trumpeting the "London 2012 Olympic Legacy."
The next day, on July 7, the London underground was hit by a terrorist bombing attack that shocked England and the rest of the world.
Since then, the global economy has suffered through a financial meltdown and continues to be paralyzed by a prolonged debt crisis in Europe. Though the U.K. is not part of the eurozone, it faces its own debt of over 1 trillion pounds and a weak economy where unemployment hovers over 8 percent.
To put it bluntly, the London Olympics are up against the deepest global economic slump since World War II, complicating the task of having them leave behind a positive legacy – the stated goal of Olympic organizers.
"Though much has been done, I am acutely aware that the drive to embed and secure the benefits of London 2012 is still to come. That is our biggest challenge. It's also our greatest opportunity," said British prime minister David Cameron in late March during an inspection visit by IOC members.
"Legacy has been built into the DNA of London 2012. But by definition, of course, the true legacy of London 2012 lies in the future," Cameron said, putting his finger on the focal point of this year's Olympics.
Hosting major events has become a source of competition among cities and countries around the world. Whether for emerging countries or venerable cities, winning the right to hold a large-scale sports event immediately conveys global status. But once the fun is over, those events have also dragged countries down, with citizens forced to confront the debts and white elephants left behind by the competition.
Beijing, Athens, Barcelona and Seoul have all faced such plights, but London has vowed to pursue a new approach and use the Olympics as a catalyst for urban renewal that previous generations had struggled to achieve, and to recruit contractors to prepare job opportunities for the next generation.
Ultimately, the 17 days of sport are seen as a starting point for changing the country's next 70 years.
"We must grasp this opportunity to reinvent ourselves," says Martin Uden, managing director of the British Business Embassy at UK Trade & Investment, a government trade promotion body.
Uden's words may sound like empty rhetoric, but the many venues under construction demonstrate that the vision goes beyond mere propaganda.
Looking for Face or a Facelift?
Starting from the city's center, a 20-minute drive takes you to the Olympic Park in Stratford in eastern London. A park shuttle bus gives a visitor a close-up look at the stunning venues that have been created for the 30th Olympiad – the Olympic Stadium; the Velodrome and its double-curving, cable-net roof; the Aquatics Center and its double-wing design; and the ArcelorMittal Orbit, a twisting observation tower made of recycled steel that is Britain's largest piece of public art.
Some 4,000 newly planted trees and 74,000 plants and the dredged River Lea enhance the natural setting for these many architectural wonders.
After the Summer Games conclude, the 2.5-square-kilometer Olympic Park will be converted into the biggest city park Europe has seen in 150 years.
But visitors coming to Stratford for the first time may have trouble imagining that the park, which is 9 times the size of Daan Forest Park in Taipei, was a wasteland of derelict graffiti-covered industrial buildings and a dumping ground for old cars and refrigerators just 10 years ago. For decades, the area had been home to noxious industries and slaughterhouses that left it with the moniker "stinky Stratford."
Aside from factories, the area was also home to poor immigrants. The anger displayed in the graffiti on the walls of "stinky Stratford's" dilapidated factories represented the most obvious manifestation of the gap between rich and poor in London.
"We could have chosen to put the Olympics in Hyde Park in the heart of the city," said Andrew Mitchell, the British Foreign Office's head of the 2012 Olympic Games. The beautiful setting not only would have saved the city time and money, but it would have also better represented the "face" of London in tourists' minds, he said.
Escaping Poverty and Stench
But London decided to situate the quadrennial event in Stratford to parlay the massive resources devoted to the Olympic Games into an extremely difficult, large-scale overhaul of East London.
Of the games' 9.3-billion-pound construction budget, 75 percent was earmarked toward the rebirth of East London, the asset the event is expected to leave to posterity.
One of the urban renewal project's major challenges was cleaning up land so badly contaminated that it was unfit for humans to live on.
In the 19th century, gasoline, paint and other toxic chemicals were not allowed into London, so factories and warehouses producing and selling the materials concentrated in Stratford. Toxins such as tar, lead arsenic and vinyl chloride accumulated over the years, seeping into the soil and seriously polluting every inch of the town's land.
At the beginning of the Olympic Park project, contractors excavated 2.3 million cubic meters of soil contaminated with industrial pollutants and used technology developed in the private sector and sophisticated heavy metal treatment processes to clean it, rather than transporting it off-site. The volume of the treated soil was equal to that of 1,022 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
"This work won't be seen in the future, but it's still very, very important," said Graham Watts, chief executive of the Construction Industry Council.
After the soil was treated, 220 derelict structures were torn down, providing the foundation for East London's rebirth and making way for planted trees and a park designed with sustainability in mind.
The Athletes' Village, situated on the waterfront in the northeastern section of the Olympic Park, and the media center, in the northwestern quadrant, face each other across the River Lea. Both have clearly designated post-Olympic uses.
The Athletes' Village will have kitchens installed to convert it into a complex of 2,800 apartments, of which 60 percent will be put up for sale and 40 percent will be set aside as social housing. The media center will be converted into an office building catering to start-ups.
Such changes to the area would not have been possible even over another 50 years if it had not been for the Olympics, Mitchell says.
The Olympic Park will also get a new postal code (E20) that will cover neighboring areas in East London and include 11 schools and three health centers.
Stratford finally seems ready to leave behind its "stinky" and impoverished past, swept up in the wave of sustainability that has become one of the London Olympics' main themes.
The starting point for all venues has been "addition by subtraction," typified by the constant trumpeting of the expression "temporary buildings" by James Bulley, the director of venues and infrastructure for the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (LOCOG).
Putting Dismantling before Building
Even the most renowned architects have been forced to consider how their venues can be downsized after the Olympic Games to accommodate smaller-scale community needs.
In line with London's sustainability pledge, the Olympic Stadium is the lightest in history, minimizing the use of steel, and its roof truss was made primarily from unwanted gas pipelines. Its 80,000-seat capacity will be reduced to 25,000 after the games conclude on Aug. 12.
The Olympic Park Basketball Arena, one of the largest temporary venues ever built for an Olympic Games, consists of a structural steel frame wrapped with a white recyclable PVC fabric. The arena will have a capacity of 12,000 during the competition and then be dismantled, ready to be transported elsewhere for reuse.
Chris Jopson, associate principal of Populous, the design and engineering company responsible for the Olympic Park's master plan, said his firm's main consideration went beyond simply creating temporary structures, focusing instead on a bigger goal: converting existing urban space into a temporary sports complex. The thinking highlights London's determination not to leave behind the white elephants so evident in other former Olympic cities.
This attention to sustainability has enabled designers to set some venues against London's most iconic landmarks. The beach volleyball stadium has been located at Horse Guard's Palace near Buckingham Palace, and 600-year-old Greenwich Park on the southern bank of the Thames will be the site of the equestrian events. Even the road in front of Buckingham Palace will be used for cycling road races and the marathons.
Ultimately, the London organizers have made it a priority not to "leave behind" anything that could cause a burden to the venerable city in the future. But once the global spotlight has disappeared, they do hope to hand down a legacy consisting of the jobs of the future and a high quality of life for local residents.
From the energy center in Olympic Park to the new lighting project for the London Tower, the urban improvements made for the Games should emerge as new community models of green environments.
Another Legacy: Bringing in Investment
Britain also hopes to leverage the Olympic Games into an opportunity to attract investment, desperately needed by a country facing a moribund economy, high unemployment, its biggest rich-poor divide since World War II and record government debt.
Of the many ongoing Olympic-related projects, only the search for investment is being led by Britain's prime minister through the UK Investment and Trade's British Business Embassy.
The British Business Embassy will hold a series of global business summits using the Olympics and Paralympic Games as backdrops to showcase potential business partnerships and investment opportunities. Since last autumn, Cameron has sent invitations to financial leaders and corporate CEOs inviting them to London to participate.
IMF managing director Christine Lagarde, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India and Acer Inc. founder Stan Shih all plan to take up Cameron on his offer.
The centerpiece of the legacy program will be the Global Investment Conference to be held on the eve of the Olympic Games at Lancaster House, used primarily to hold government receptions.
Cameron will be heading the program, but the British Business Embassy will provide its beef.
The many summits it will hold on Olympic-related commercial areas, including energy, infrastructure, retailing, and a broad cultural category featuring film, fashion, TV, games and music, will take place during the Olympics, and the British Business Embassy's Uden expects each conference to draw 300 people, one-fifth of whom will be from abroad. Officials will also help arrange one-on-one meetings between companies.
The investment campaign is just one way Britain is hoping to leverage its Olympic aura to restore some of the prestige and admiration advanced countries in the West lost following the global financial crisis in late 2008. Another has been using sport as a diplomatic tool.
In 2007, the LOCOG launched the International Inspiration program, which dispatched star athletes, coaches and teachers as athletic ambassadors to 20 countries, including Brazil, India, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Uganda and South Africa, to teach youngsters sports.
This program, scheduled to run through 2014, is expected to touch and influence 12 million teenagers and children.
Grabbing Hearts with English Culture
Despite its many efforts to reinvent itself, England's greatest assets may still be its culture and fashion.
The London 2012 Cultural Olympiad has featured programs inspired by the Olympics since 2008. In 2012 alone, England will host 1,000 cultural activities and performances, including art exhibitions, dances, concerts and plays, enabling visitors to catch a show at any time of the year and leaving a good impression of English culture around the world.
The country has also invited performance troupes from all parts of the globe to perform at the Shakespeare's Globe Theatre on the southern bank of the Thames to offer new interpretations of English literary classics – Shakespeare's works.
On one weekend evening at the end of April, with the sun still shining on the Millennium Bridge not far from St. Paul's Cathedral, visitors could enjoy Richard III being performed at the open air Globe Theater not far away.
The props on stage were simple – two tables and five chairs – but when the actor playing the Duke of Buckingham called out "long live the king," he was speaking in Chinese. The performance was being staged by the National Theatre of China from Beijing, an indication of how much of an impact Shakespeare's plays have made on the new hegemon of East Asia.
Making history requires two abilities: the courage to change things and the wisdom to preserve them. London has both.
The 17-day Olympic Games have yet to be staged, but London has already planted the seeds of change for future generations, reinvigorating the country's cities, environment, economy and confidence.
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier