Olympic Spirit Comes to East London

Is that a rollercoaster, daddy?’ a young boy, his face pressed firm against the plate glass, points in the direction of a towering, twisting hulk of clay-red metal in the middle distance. ‘No son, it says here it’s a piece of art’, his father replies, reading off an inscription on a nearby viewing panel.

Designed by artist Anish Kapoor, the 115 metres high ArcelorMittal Orbit (so-named after the Indian steel magnates who contributed much of the £20million cost) isn’t just any old piece of art – it’s the largest public work ever commissioned in Britain and the centre point of London’s Olympic village. Unfortunately Kapoor’s effort still looks like a grandiose Coney Island Cyclone, albeit one with an Olympic motif and an observation deck that promises an unparalleled eye-full of the East End.

Until the Orbit opens later in the year, however, the best views of the 500-acre Stratford Olympic site are not to be found inside the heavily cordoned off village but from the London 2012 shop in the adjacent Stratford Centre. Housed in a branch of John Lewis — the games’ ‘Official Department Store Provider’ no less — the store is filled with all manner of gimcrack embossed with the famous five rings, but the viewing gallery at the rear is free to visit and the vista is genuinely spectacular.

‘Parts of the Olympic village are ugly but parts of it are beautiful too,’ says Simon Cole, a resident of nearby Hackney and my guide through the Olympic site and its environs. It is late afternoon — the official Olympic tours long finished for the day – by the time we rendezvous inside the vast, cream-coloured Stratford (think Dundrum on steroids). The Stratford was purposely built so that it’s nigh-on impossible to visit the Olympic site without walking through: it’s estimated that 70% of Olympic visitors will pass along the centre’s abrasively air-conditioned halls.

Wayfinding inside is a nightmare – our tour was delayed for fifteen minutes as my guide and I were waiting outside different branches of the same newsagent. Finally we meet, just in time to see the sun setting over the vast Olympic park from the John Lewis viewing gallery.

Framed in the background by Norman Foster’s iconic gherkin, the eye is drawn, almost inevitably, to the shimmering silver Aquatics Centre. Designed by the famed Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, this bold, undulating building was created to mimic ‘the fluid geometry of water in motion’ – it’s here that Irish swimmers such as Grainne Murphy will be hoping to excel this summer.

At the heart of the park is the circular Olympic stadium. Track and field events will take place inside stadium, which will have a capacity of 80,000 during the games. As Cole explains, the stadium has proved controversial – and not just because of the on-going legal battle between Leyton Orient, West Ham and Tottenham Hotspur football clubs over who will inherit it after the games. Dow Chemical is to sponsor the protective wrap that will encircling the 900-metre circumference during the games – the company is claimed to have links with the 1984 Bhopal disaster that killed more than 15,000 people in India.

‘Personally I think it’s a real shame,’ Cole says of Dow’s prospective involvement. Cole, a native of Sunderland who sports a Sex Pistols-inspired Hackney Tours t-shirt, is a keen student of the East End’s radical history – as we stare out across the Olympic site he points out a red-brick complex close to the stadium. This, he explains, is the erstwhile site of the Bryant and May match factory in Bow, where, in 1888, match girls rose up in a famous strike against the severe health complications that arose from working with white phosphorus.

Nowadays the old Bryant and May building is a gated community, an exclusive address home to popstars such as Katy B. Opponents accuse the Olympics’ backers of attempting to perform a similar transformation in Stratford – more than 3,000 flats, which will house Olympians in the summer, have already been sold after the games, at rates far in excess of what most people in traditionally down at heel Stratford can afford.

Stepping out onto Great Eastern Road, the thoroughfare separating the Stratford Centre and the Olympic park, feels disorientating in the same way that walking in LA does. All around are buildings so large and impersonal that the humble pedestrians is reduced to a pin prick, cars whiz by at furious speeds, a flashing LED sign advertises the Stratford Centre’s in-house casino, behind which peek out a pair of old-style high-rise flats. People are thin on the ground, save the ubiquitous security guards around the village and a few day trippers with tickets for an evening swimming meet in the Aquatics Centre.

English psychogeographer Iain Sinclair, a trenchant critic of the Olympics project, has called the games an excuse for the ‘privatisation of public space’, that have ruined ‘a wonderful wasteland’ which once existed in the marshes around the River Lea. Proponents – most notably London Mayor Boris Johnson and Prime Minister David Cameron – argue that the games will boost the economy and national pride at a time when Britain is experiencing the most prolonged period of austerity in generations.

The reality, as ever, is somewhere in between. The costs of the games have spiralled to over £11 billion, almost £2 billion over budget, and the event’s legacy is uncertain – but there is no denying that, even in its unfinished state, the Olympic park possesses a thrilling, shock-of-the-new quality.

Standing at the View Tube, a series of nattily recommissioned shipping containers on the Greenway cycle path, the whole site opens up before my gaze. Past the National Stadium and Kapoor’s hula-hoop, beyond the Aquatics Centre and the waves of the temporary water polo auditorium, sits the spectacular fan-like velodrome. Nicknamed ‘The Pringle’ – and described by author Andrew O’Hagan as ‘like a cyclist’s helmet made of conker-brown wood’ – the velodrome is a triumph of art and functionality. Nearby a giant LED sculpture of the word RUN sits on the outside wall of the handball arena.

But the largest building of all is not a sporting arena or a grandiloquent lump of metal – it’s the media centre, a gigantic white hangar that will house over 20,000 journalists during the games. ‘You can fit two jumbo jets inside it,’ Cole assures me, with a look of mild disapproval.

Cole describes his own view of the Olympics as ‘typically postmodern’: ‘there will be benefits but there will also be losers,’ he says as we pass by a block of newly built condominiums. A group of youths with swimming club logos emblazoned on their tracksuits walk in the direction of the Aquatics centre. Across the road, an office sits empty, the majority of its windows broken.

The East End is still the poorest part of London but the area is changing fast. Near the Olympic park perimeter fences is the shiny new East London Porsche dealership. A few hundred yards further down the road we pass a ramshackled family-run car repair shop.

‘If it wasn’t for the Olympics, I wouldn’t really come to Stratford’, Cole says as we near the end of our tour. It’s a sentiment many Olympic tourists will probably share, but there’s an undeniable, if distinctly ambiguous, allure to a corner of East London that will come alive in July.

For more information on Hackney Tours visit http://www.hackneytours.com/

This piece originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, 24 March