The official logo of the London Olympics. Photo courtesy of Andrea Vascellari.
Written By: Jennifer Smith
When Julian Cheyne and his fellow tenants at the Clays Lane housing estate in east London were told in 2003 that their estate might be demolished to make way for the upcoming 2012 Summer Olympic Games, Cheyne found his community divided.
“We went through the various processes of trying to argue against it,” Cheyne says. “But inevitably, I’m afraid communities are not of one mind about these things. There were people who were quite happy with the idea of the estate being demolished.”
Before its demolition in 2007-2008, Clays Lane was nestled within an industrial area of east London, providing a home to about 420 residents, according to Cheyne. In the wake of the demolition, Cheyne estimates a few churches and about 200 businesses were also forced to move, affecting about 5,000 jobs. Of course, the area’s traveller community was displaced as well.
“In itself, it didn’t affect a lot of people,” Cheyne says of the demolition. “There were people who lived just up the road that didn’t realize our estate existed.”
Even so, Clays Lane represents the feeling surrounding the London Games in general. Since London won the bid to host the games in July 2005, sentiments have been divided on whether or not the Olympic games will help or hurt London in the long run, especially in regards to the hefty spending in times of economic woe.
Initially, snagging the Olympic bid was seen as a cause for celebration amongst Londoners, including then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, who called winning the bid “a momentous day.”
Indeed, it would make London the first city to host three Olympic games, but in the wake of ever-increasing Olympic spending, some residents aren’t so sure this legacy is worth the cost.
Namely, Cheyne and other concerned citizens decided to take action with the creation of Games Monitor, a network of people dedicated to “raising awareness about issues within the London Olympic development processes.”
Some of the most contentious issues surrounding Olympic spending concern transportation and security. The city dedicated $10.2 billion dollars to transportation improvements over the past seven years to prepare for the influx of tourists, but even still, London’s citizens bemoan the inevitability of transportation coming to a grinding halt at the height of the games. Meanwhile, part of these transportation improvements came in the form of special traffic lanes, about 30 miles of them, specifically designed to shuttle about 80,000 Olympic elites such as dignitaries, athletes and sponsors from event to event while about 8 million London residents deal with congested streets and subways. Already, images of BMWs zipping around the city while ambulances linger in traffic jams have caused a stir, and the London Organizing Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games’ decision to ban ambulances on non-urgent business from using the special lanes certainly didn’t help.
In terms of security, the spending continues with more than $1 billion dedicated to security for the London games in comparison with Sydney’s pre-9/11 security costs of $179.6 million. When a worker reportedly smuggled a fake bomb into Olympic Park in May, many residents questioned the efficiency of such expensive security measures, the most controversial being the British Ministry of Defense’s plan to outfit London rooftops with missiles.
Still, there’s something to be said for the fact that all eyes will be on London this summer. Theoretically, the games will boost the prestige of the country and increase tourism, which could also mean a very encouraging upswing in the job market.
In his take on whether or not the Olympics will help or hurt Londoners, Neil Jameson, the lead organizer of London Citizens and the executive director of Citizens UK, says the Olympic legacy could mean happier days for London’s workers in terms of higher wages and sustainable investment in local schools and health care.
Yet the biggest question in regards to the London Olympic legacy remains: what happens after the athletes leave? Will the $3.1 billion spent on site preparation and infrastructure go to waste as facilities fall into disuse? Will the newly installed surveillance technology continue to be used (or abused) by local governments? Will the games prove to be a boon for local businesses that for a time enjoy prime real estate on the world stage?
Cheyne maintains that those answers have yet to be seen but offers some firsthand insight into the claims that the building of Olympic Park has “regenerated” east London.
“This area had parks, housing, people living in it …” Cheyne says of east London, the former site of Clays Lane and the target of Olympic development projects. “It had perfectly pleasant industrial estates as well. That’s not to say there weren’t eyesores, but I heard it talked about quite literally as being full of shopping trolleys. It’s just this extraordinary marginalization of the area in order to make out like you’re doing someone a great favor. There’s an enormous amount of misinformation out there about what this project is and what it’s achieving.”