Allow me to rain on London’s Olympic parade. Just a drizzle, a bit of dampness.
I loved every moment of the Games. I am thrilled for Team GB’s sensational and well-deserved gold medal haul. The Games themselves were a marvel of efficiency. The transportation system did not buckle. There was no disaster. The monsoons that had soaked England for much of the spring and summer mercifully stopped by the time the Games opened on July 27.
So what didn’t I like? It was the Olympic Park itself. I found it sterile, ugly for the most part, even if it did have at least two elegant, eye-catching buildings – the velodrome and the aquatics centre. The park’s big structures, separated by vast open spaces, gave the whole place an oddly Soviet feel.
It was the antithesis of London itself. London is one of the world’s most vibrant cities. It is culturally and ethnically rich. It buzzes with energy and diversity and ideas. The world comes to London. The world went to the Olympic park too, but buzz factor was sealed inside the stadiums and arenas. I never detected it beyond them, at least in the Olympic park itself.
Where I did find excitement and a sense of place – let’s call it Englishness -- was in the venues outside the Olympic park. Whoever decided to put the beach volleyball arena in the Horse Guards Parade, smack in the heart of London, with Buckingham Palace and Big Ben forming the backdrop, was a genius. The rowing and paddling lake at Eton Dorney, about an hour’s drive west of London, was also a treat. The canoes and kayaks sped past lush green fields dotted with sheep.
The reason the Olympic Park is where it is had little to do with sport and the spectator experience and a lot to do with urban renewal. Ken Livingston was London mayor when the city was awarded the Games in 2005 and his idea was to use the event to rejuvenate the economic, social and health disaster zone in East London, in and around Stratford City. The area had been bombed heavily during the Second World War and suffered deindustrialization and grinding poverty after it. Some 15-billion pounds was pumped in Olympic development, such as the athletes village which is about to become housing, and transportation infrastructure.
It will be years before anyone knows where the urban renewal project will work, but it probably will, given London’s rapidly growing population and the effort to ensure that the Olympic site is not left stranded. It is now connected to London and the rest of southeast England through a web of rail, subway and road links.
The downside of using the Olympics to trigger urban renewal is that the site had no London feel, as if it had been plunked in the middle of an Iowa cornfield.
Toronto has had made various attempts to win the summer Olympics and one day its efforts will succeed. Toronto too is a rich, vibrant city and it would be nice if the Games were woven into that experience, not entirely divorced from it. Urban renewal is fine, but I’m not sure it’s in the Olympic spirit.