ARTS & CULTURE

Olympic Park Construction Nears End As Questions Remain About Site's Future

07/05/2011 06:34 pm ET | Updated Sep 04, 2011

With just about a year to go before the 2012 Olympics begin in London, the city is grappling with the kind of scandal it had hoped to avoid in the nearly decade-long prelude to the games.

An employee of the Olympic Park Legacy Company has been suspended amid allegations that she worked as a consultant for the football club, West Ham, that ultimately won the bid to use the Olympic Stadium after the games are finished. Now the club is suing the Sunday Times, which first reported on the row.

The controversy is all related to one of the central challenges facing the London Olympics: to build a successful venue for next summer, but also, to borrow an old adage, to not "build a church for Easter Sunday."

The Olympics are, in some sense, the biggest of Easters — putting on the games requires the construction of a Hyde Park-sized collection of athletic facilities, to accommodate the thousands of athletes, competing in dozens of sports, and the hundreds of thousands of spectators who will travel to England next July.

While some of the new buildings will retain their functions after the Olympics, including the Aquatics Centre - designed by Zaha Hadid and due to be finished at the end of July - others will be radically changed. The basketball arena, which is already built and seats 12,000, will be completely disassembled after the games are over. (An official involved in the Olympic planning said the Rio 2016 planning committee is considering purchasing and transporting the arena.)

And even the swimming facility will change considerably. The 50-metre pool will remain, but the temporary seating wings — which add space for 15,000 spectators — will come down, leaving room for 2,500 people.

What the designers and politicians and, in some sense, all of London hope is that the entire Olympic Park can successfully morph itself after the games and, more audaciously, help the whole of east London morph along with it.

"The approach of the entire last five or six years," said Ricky Burdett, a professor of urban studies at the London School of Economics who's been involved in the planning of the 2012 Olympics, "was to think about what can happen in 30 years, not just in two weeks. That was the vision set in 2005 when the bid was won and that's what it is now."

The vision has more to do with infrastructure — adding drainage and power and lighting not just for the Olympics but also for the decades to come — as anything else. Some 3,000 houses have already been built for the Olympic Village and they will remain after, along with a large mall and a major new school run in a charter-like manner. Burdett said the "gold standard" is Barcelona, which successfully extended the life of the facilities used for its 1992 Olympics and built an entire urban center around them.

But to be sure, many concerns remain in London, as they do in any major urban project. Some are particularly sensitive, among them the fact the football club West Ham United FC is set to move into the Olympic Stadium after the games are finished. Leaving aside the latest row, the club was also relegated from the Premier League recently and so it will garner much less attention and television and advertising revenues than before.

For now, though, it's a race to finish the construction so there is time for the facilities to be tested and preparations for the games to be made.

Aside from the Aquatics Centre, almost all the athletic venues are finished. Notably, the velodrome, the first to be finished, has received positive reviews for its striking design by the British architect Michael Hopkins.

Construction workers on site now number about 11,000 each day -- down from the peak of 12,635 -- and that figure is declining daily as the Games near.

Eden Black, a spokesman for the Olympic Delivery Authority, put it directly: "We are on track to deliver an excellent platform for the Games," he said. "Although we are not complacent as we push ahead on the final straight.”

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