x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Olympic legacy to run and run

The Anniversary Games last weekend revived memories and the spirit of the UK's triumphant sporting extravaganza last year. But the area that was home to the event is also the site of a huge regeneration project.

London's Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is being transformed into a major recreational space. A large portion of the park was opened to the public this week. Matthew Lloyd / Getty Images
London's Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is being transformed into a major recreational space. A large portion of the park was opened to the public this week. Matthew Lloyd / Getty Images

Team GB's Olympic heroes Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Christine Ohuruogu returned to the scene of their 2012 Olympic triumphs last weekend, as London's Olympic Stadium hosted a two-day Anniversary Games.

A year on from the 2012 games and nostalgia for the hugely successful event and enthusiasm for its stars remains high.

The 120,000 tickets for the first two days of the Anniversary Games, which also featured the world's fastest man, Usain Bolt, posting a season's best time, sold out in 75 minutes.

"We could have waited until 2014, but we know people want to get back in," says Peter Tudor, the director of venues at the London Legacy Development Corporation.

But the re-opening of the stadium was more than simply an opportunity to revive the golden memories.

London's Olympic bid was largely successful because it promised a lasting legacy in east London, to provide facilities and help to generate a deprived part of the capital.

Now, just 12 months later, people will start to see what that Olympic legacy might consist of.

The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the 500-acre site in which the Olympic stadium sits, is being transformed into "the largest recreational space created in Europe for 150 years". Monday marked the formal opening of about a third of the park, which will be free to enter from dawn until dusk, each day.

A whole weekend-long festival - Open East - took place at the same time as the Anniversary games, arranged to welcome visitors back to the North Park, by the velodrome. The park has been planted with 4,000 semi-mature trees and masses of shrubbery, which are currently being frantically watered as London and the UK basks in a heat wave. The River Lea winds through the North Park, creating a reed-edged focus.

There is the Tumbling Bay Playground for children of all ages, which has an interactive water feature where children can create pools, dams and streams. A new adventure playground, with rope ladders and tree-houses will be a big attraction as will four cafes, one of which will be staffed by people with disabilities. Right now, though, a lot of the park remains a building site.

"We will be fully open in spring next year but construction will continue," says Mr Tudor."By then we will be building 800 houses on the site of the basketball arena and the stadium will still be being worked on."

The events - and the construction - will continue even after that. There will be a world-class cycling event in the Velodrome next year, Rugby World Cup games in 2015 and the IAAF World Championships in Athletics in 2017.

Mr Tudor hopes the ongoing transformation of the park, which has cost £297 million (Dh1.67 billion), will continue to bring people back. Of the Olympic venues, several temporary structures have been removed but some of the best will remain. West Ham United Football Club will begin turning the stadium into its Premier League home from 2016, having beaten north London rivals Spurs in a long legal battle.

The Aquatic Centre, designed by the Iraqi/British architect Zaha Hadid, is preparing to open to ordinary swimmers next year with ticket prices at £4.50.

The "wings" - which the architect says she never liked but which were added to accommodate seating - have been removed.

The Copper Box arena - which seats 7,500 - will become a new home to London's Lions Basketball team and will host occasional boxing bouts and badminton.

Next Easter the rest of the park will reopen - the velodrome and the open-air velo park. The ArcelorMittal Orbit, complete with revolving restaurant at the top, will also open next year and will provide a new wedding venue for the capital.

The London Legacy Corporation is under pressure to show benefits from the games. This month, the government published a report claiming a £9.9bn economic benefit from the Olympic Games.

Economists were highly sceptical of the claim, which added up every contract signed by businesses that attended a conference during the games, plus large sums for inward investment and contracts won by British companies for the Rio games in Brazil and other sporting events. The totting up appeared to show the Olympics had practically paid for itself as the cost of the event to the public purse was £8.7bn.

But in reality, the long-term economic legacy of the games will now depend on the regeneration efforts in and around the Olympic Park. David Cameron, the prime minister, said the games "had delivered a strong social legacy", when he visited the park recently. But what he and local mayors of both government and opposition parties will be hoping is it delivers permanent jobs and investment in a deprived part of the city.

To this end, there have been some successes. Westfield, a property developer, built a huge shopping centre at Stratford, which has provided many jobs, while the 1 million square foot media centre is being transformed into a new digital hub for media and tech companies. Half of it is already pre-let to BT, the telecoms company that begins its first sporting broadcasts from there next month. Loughborough University and Hackney Community College are also confirmed tenants. About 4,000 people could be working there within the next two years.

Also, Lend Lease, an Australian developer has started work on a 4 million sq ft office development known as the International Quarter, next to the Olympic Park. This will be one of the biggest new office developments in London since Canary Wharf, the Docklands estate that was started in the 1980s. The International Quarter has outline planning consent and will have impeccable environmental credentials.

"Communities develop between the buildings, not in the buildings," says Mr Tudor. "That's what we want. These amazing venues will become public sporting facilities and then the fence will come down and everyone - whether they are into sport or not - can come in and just enjoy the space and have a picnic. The Olympic Park came to east London to create work for the people here. Now we want to build a park that works for east London."