Olympic London

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On July 27, billions of people will watch a cast of thousands performing film director Danny Boyle's London 2012 opening ceremony. But the start of the games is less a beginning and more an end to the city’s long preparation.


When London put forward its bid to host the 2012 Games, the aspect that made a real impact on the International Olympic Committee was an emphasis on regenerating deprived areas of the city and creating a lasting legacy for its residents. In the seven years since London’s bid was won, 2.5kmÇ of former industrial wasteland in Stratford, East London, has been transformed into a stunning park containing the Olympic stadium, six other venues (including Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre), and the Athletes’ Village.

The Village will house 17,000 eager competitors and later become 2,800 much-needed homes for London’s ever-increasing population. Another 3,000 units at the neighbouring East Village are being part-financed by Qatari Diar. Naturally, an effect of all this development has been to turn some run-down areas into highly desirable places to live, enticing young professionals away from hipper postcodes in Clapham or Stoke Newington and bringing coffee shops, delis, and cool hangouts in their wake.

International retail group Westfield has also played a significant role at Stratford, creating 37,000 new jobs for erecting and staffing a new mall. Some 70% of visitors to the Olympic Park will pass through Westfield Stratford City, and can expect to be met not only by endless shopping opportunities from high street outlets and designers such as Prada, Mulberry, and Breitling, but also great art and design integrated into the building.

Regenerative ripples extend beyond Stratford. London has never been a city to stand still, and a new wave of skyscraper-building capitalises on the rush of Olympic energy. By far the most impressive is the majority Qatari-owned Shard, opening in June. Already the tallest building in the European Union, this elegant new landmark dominates the skyline and is set to become a destination for Londoners and visitors alike. Shangri-La Hotels are making it their third European site, with 170 deluxe rooms and 25 suites, an exciting ‘food theatre café’, where you can watch chefs in action, and an infinity pool looking out over the city skyline. For anyone not lucky enough to stay at the hotel, a 360° public observatory will rival the London Eye for the best views in town.

Even transport is getting in on the act. During the Olympics and Paralympics, ticketholders will be whisked from St. Pancras International station to Stratford on the high speed ‘Javelin’ train in just seven minutes. Work is also progressing on the Thames cable car. This bold new scheme will ‘fly’ people across the river between the O2 at Greenwich and Docklands ExCel Centre – established venues that will don the Olympic mantle this summer.

Yet the Olympics effect isn’t confined to economics and infrastructure. Permanent artworks in and around the Park capture the sense that, for London, the Olympics is about more than sport. It’s about making a connection with people and emboldening them to reach for greater things. Possibly the most obvious example of this ambition is the ArcelorMittal Orbit sculpture.

Commissioned by Mayor Boris Johnson to “arouse the curiosity and wonder of Londoners and visitors”, and designed by Anish Kapoor, the Orbit is a 115m-tall continuous looping lattice of tubular steel. It’s already been dubbed the ‘Helter Skelter’ by Londoners. From the viewing platform (or the planned restaurant) at the top, reached either by an elevator or climbing the walkway, visitors will be able to gaze over the park and city, and – perhaps – the sight of these grand projects will inspire architects, engineers, artists, and athletes of the future.

The Studio East project at Westfield has already started nurturing East London creative talent. Under the watchful eye of, among others, Tracey Emin, Roland Mouret, and Erin O’Connor, artist Tatiana Echeverri Fernandez received a commission for her first large-scale outdoor installation for the shopping centre, and if the lighting looks special it’s because the dramatic gold ring and fairground lights combination were created by designer Lee Broom.

To round everything off, the citywide London 2012 Festival is the culmination of the four-year Cultural Olympiad’s programme of events leading up to the Games. Running from June 21 to September 9, it’s a packed schedule of quality theatre, art, music, literature, and dance from some of the UK’s biggest stars.

Visitors feeling dazzled by the sporting and cultural riches on offer can either head for department store Selfridges which, with its rooftop tea garden and Olympic survival backpacks designed by Anya Hindmarch, Vivienne Westwood, and Paul Smith, are creating an oasis of peace; or look out for one of the Mayor’s London Ambassadors. Eight thousand of these volunteers will be positioned at strategic points across town all summer.

South East London resident Paul Speller leapt at the opportunity to be involved in the scheme. “I’m really excited about this year in London as there’s so much going on, and it’s all right on our doorstep. I always enjoy sharing my love of and knowledge about London, and that’s the Ambassadors’ role!”

From Paul’s station near Tower Bridge, many of London 2012 Festival’s most eyecatching works really are on the doorstep. Tate Modern is running the first major retrospective of Damien Hirst’s work and opening a spectacular new gallery space in the former power station’s oil tanks. The Southbank Centre chose to celebrate with words, inviting poets from every competing Olympic nation to read at their Poetry Parnassus. Cross the Thames to the National Gallery to see the most complete display of Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings ever gathered, or venture a little farther still for the British Museum’s blockbuster Hajj exhibition. It’s been a long haul for London, but this summer the waiting will really pay off.

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