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Saturday March 12, 2011

Bling for Britain

Britain is gearing up for the Olympics, all the while mindful of the environment and of not creating white elephants.

This coming decade will be the decade of sports for Britain. Just this year alone, Britain will host the Champions’ League final, the ATP World Tour finals and the World Short-Track Speed Skating Championships.

But these events, though substantial hosting coups in their own right, are simply the appetisers for the main course to come — the 2012 Olympic Games!

With the Summer Olympics just over a year away, it seems all of London is in full swing to prepare for the biggest sports spectacle the country has ever seen. This will be the third time the UK plays host to the Summer Olympics.

Follow developments on the Olympics with a walking tour. — Pics by ERIK FEARN

The first time was in 1908 when the Olympics were originally scheduled to be hosted by Rome, but the 1906 eruption of Mt Vesuvius caused the Games to be relocated to London.

Incidentally, these were the first games to have an opening ceremony.

Interestingly, it was in the 1908 Olympic Games that the exact distance of a marathon was established as 26 miles and 365 yards. Diving was added to the events for this year. Approximately 2,000 athletes participated, representing 22 countries. A record number for that time.

The second time London played host was in 1948. It was the first Olympics after a 12 year hiatus because of World War II, after the 1936 Games in Berlin. The event came to be known as the Austerity Games due to the economic climate and post-war rationing.

Look out to London from a London Eye capsule.

No new venues were built for these games and athletes were housed in existing accommodation instead of an Olympic Village. A record 59 nations were represented by 4,104 athletes, 3,714 men and 390 women.

Next year, some 63 years later, London is about to host “the greatest sporting spectacle on earth” again. Although a number of events will be held at other venues around London and the UK, the focal point will be on the stunning Olympic Park in East London.

Rising up from the formerly run-down industrial area of Stratford, East London, the huge 2.5sq km. (202ha) Olympic Park is well ahead of schedule for completion of its many spectacular, futuristically designed structures.

Of the dozen or so new venues being built, the most eye-catching are the Aquatic Centre with its wave-like roof (which looks like a Pringle), the residential towers of the Olympic Village, and the most modern velodrome in the world (for bike racing).

The heart of Manchester has been extensively modernised.

But the focal point of the Olympics, the architectural jewel in the crown, where the world’s attention will be focused for two spellbinding weeks next summer (starting July 27) is, of course, the absolutely massive Olympic stadium at the heart of it all. This building has to be seen to be believed.

This crown-shaped mega-stadium, when completed, will be the most state-of-the-art stadium in the world — easily beating the main stadium in Beijing (which, as you recall, hosted the last Olympics in 2008) for adaptability, multi-purpose, brave design and media-friendliness.

In fact, interest in the growing Olympic Park has been so great that it has become one of the most popular tours for visitors to London.

There are excellent three-hour tours, led by multi-lingual guides, for anyone wishing to see the Olympic Park take shape. (Details at www.toursof2012sites.com).

Britons knew they had a lot to live up to when they won the bid to host these Olympics, not least because the Beijing Olympics were, in every way, such a spectacular success. How do you beat something like that? What would the stand-out feature be for these London Olympics?

So the Olympic committee decided to make the Olympics as green as possible. They are in the process of turning this former industrial area into one of the biggest green urban spaces in Europe. The Olympic Park will live up to its name as it will create a green backdrop for the Games and a new green space after 2012 for people and wildlife living in and around the area to enjoy.

The southern part of the park will focus on retaining the festival atmosphere of the Games, with riverside gardens, markets, events, cafés and bars. The northern area will use the latest green techniques to manage flood and rainwater, while providing quieter public space and habitats for hundreds of existing and rare species, from kingfishers to otters.

Around 2,000 semi-mature trees have been hand-picked to form the roots of the park’s green spaces, which will be enjoyed by spectators and become a home for wildlife. There will also be a further 2,000 trees planted on the Olympic Village site. More than 300,000 wetland plants will also be planted in the park. It will help create a colourful riverside setting for the 2012 Games.

The park will be highly accessible. The gradients of the paths will be accessible to everyone and views will be maintained of the new venues and landmarks in the surrounding area. “Henman Hills” will be created so visitors to the park during the Games will be able to watch live action on large screens.

Outside of the Olympic Park, the 2012 Games will use a mixture of newly built venues, existing facilities and temporary facilities, some of them in well-known locations such as Hyde Park and Horse Guards Parade. Mindful of the problems that plagued the Millennium Dome on the Greenwich peninsula, the organisers want to ensure that there will be no white elephants after the games.

Some of the new facilities will be reused in their Olympic form, while others will be reduced in size and several will be relocated elsewhere in the UK. The plans will contribute to the regeneration of Stratford.

The Olympic Park will be renamed the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in 2013, following the site’s re-opening after the Olympics and Paralympics, after Queen Elizabeth II, who will celebrate her Diamond Jubilee in June 2012.

And here’s the kicker: When it’s all said and done, the entire Olympic effort will have cost about £10bil— about half of what the Chinese spent on their Olympics.

Over the past five years, this depressed corner of London has experienced a phoenix-like rejuvenation and hopes to benefit economically from not just the upcoming Olympics, but from the continued use of these facilities which will hopefully serve to sustain the local economy long after the closing ceremony next summer.

I hope this is not too mean to say, but when we look back at most international sporting events like the Olympics (and I include the Commonwealth Games here), we see billions poured into flashy new facilities that were purpose-built — and then they were practically abandoned and left to rot, at a great cost to taxpayers.

It looks like Britain’s Olympics will be different — very different — not least because the facilities are multi-purpose and the green theme acknowledges the world’s increasing green awareness. To “bling out” the Olympic Park in this day and age without being environmentally sensitive would be in bad taste.

So, in the end, the British government has found a way to integrate the Olympic facilities into the sporting and non-sporting community and make them a lasting legacy of the games long after the excitement of the Olympics has settled into happy memories.

o Visit www.london2012.com or www.visitbritain.com for details. Psst! Tickets for the Olympics will be on sale from March 15.

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