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Let the Games Begin London (Part 1)

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All eyes are on London As the greatest sporting event in the world unfolds this summer. Stephen Guy tells you what to expect—on the field and off it

A Summer Like No Other’ promises the slogan. ‘The biggest festival the UK has ever seen’ echoes another. "We want this to be the greatest show on earth," says the chairman of the London Olympics, Lord Seb Coe. London is fired up to throw its largest, most ambitious, most disruptive and expensive party in its history. It’s the final countdown to the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics.

Description: the final countdown to the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics

the final countdown to the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics

The challenge facing the party planners after the UK pipped Paris in winning the Games in 2005 was how to make the London Olympics distinctive, something unique to London. Beijing 2008 was hallmarked by its spectacular opening ceremony, Sydney 2000 for its street party atmosphere, Barcelona 1992 for regenerating the city. The answer is to serve up alongside the sport the biggest arts and cultural festival in the history of the Olympics, powered by the creative energy and diversity of the world’s most international city. In the process, East London, where the Olympic Park is sited, has gained a sparkling new identity and grabbed attention away from the West End.

London’s new Olympic quarter

Description: the Olympic Park in East London

the Olympic Park in East London

Historically, the eastern reaches of London were the city’s poor relation and the settlement area for waves of impoverished immigrants over the centuries. In the grand scheme of things, the eastern fringes were out of mainstream radar range except to artists seeking cheap studio space.

But at a stroke East London’s fortunes dramatically changed when the proposal to build the centre piece Olympic Park in Stratford became a reality, propelling East London into the national spotlight. Not so long ago Stratford was known for its shabby station and shopping centre, a theatre and a high street stranded in a hostile one-way system, with the whole district surrounded by semi-derelict industrial hinterlands.

Description: Anish Kapoor to design iconic landmark for Olympic Park

Anish Kapoor to design iconic landmark for Olympic Park

That former landscape is now the stylish and already iconic Olympic Park set within 250 acres of landscaped grassland, trees and gardens, and with three natural rivers flowing through it. It is one of the largest urban parks constructed in Europe in the last 150 years. The park is furnished with outstanding and award-winning architecture, such as Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre, the elegantly sweeping Velodrome and Anish Kapoor’s 115m-high Arcelor-Mittal Orbit observation tower, a bright red swirling roller coaster of a sculpture. At one point between the buildings there is a stunning vista of distant city skyscrapers. Nestling up to the Olympic Park is a gigantic new Westfield shopping mall boasting nearly 400 shops, the biggest in Europe, they say. Together, these mammoth developments have completely reinvented the area. Olympics-Westfield-Stratford have blurred into a single identity, modestly called Westfield Stratford City. Ask a Londoner about the Olympics and they are as likely to associate it with the words ‘Stratford’ or ‘West-field’ as ‘athletics’.

Newly opened Westfield doubles up as the gateway to the Olympic Park. The vast majority of sports fans will arrive via Stratford station (technically there are two, Stratford and Stratford International—the latter an optimistic misnomer as no international trains stop there) and will have to filter through the mall to get to the Olympic Park. Stratford is now a major travel hub and only seven minutes away from central London on a fleet of non-stop Javelin trains. In the old days, the journey took 45 minutes.

Description: Newly opened Westfield doubles up as the gateway to the Olympic Park

Newly opened Westfield doubles up as the gateway to the Olympic Park

Westfield is already a major hit with shoppers and I’m told it gets jam-packed in the afternoon and at weekends. So when I went for a recce, I arrived early in the morning and it was quiet and calm. Surprisingly light and airy for a shopping mall, much of it is outdoors with loads of cafés and restaurants lining the walkways. It’s clearly intended as a destination to hang out as well as shop. So when you visit the Games, don’t forget your wallet. I do wonder though how Westfield will cope with the Olympic throng when overcrowding is already said to be a problem. Be prepared for a crush.

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