Last week I arrived back in London after 10 days on the road. Normally I shuttle back into town on the usually efficient Heathrow Express but this time, with three colleagues in tow, I decided it made more sense to take a taxi – for cost and logistical reasons.
With just a week to go until the start of the Games, the road into London was remarkably clear and as we approached the outskirts there were small glimpses that the biggest sporting show on Earth was about to descend on the capital. Aside from little banners fixed to lamp posts and Olympic rings painted onto designated lanes, the main giveaways were the rather grotesque billboards belonging to official sponsors – one from a large petroleum company that had an accident recently in the Gulf of Mexico was particularly disturbing.
As we zipped along the Cromwell Road I spotted another clue that suggested something big was about to happen. Oh, wait there’s another one. Oh, and another. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I asked my colleague Andrew to pinch me. Could it be? Yes, in the space of three blocks I counted three officers walking the “beat”. Granted, they weren’t real bobbies that people from Dallas might want to have their photos taken with. They were in fact community support officers, who are sort of like crossing guards for adults but they were a show of some sort of force, nonetheless. At this point the driver asked us how we’d like to get to our office?
“Ummmmmmmm, quickly?” I responded with some of hesitation.
“Fancy going via the park?” he asked.
“Sure,” we responded. And thank goodness we did.
As we made a right at the Albert Memorial we saw a large white tent with various logos and signs running around it. We weren’t quite sure who it belonged to until we’d almost passed it and noted it was a Sochi promotion pavilion. It all seemed rather elaborate for the host city for the next Winter Olympic Games but we decided it no doubt featured a skating rink, snow machines and sales offices to buy condos in Russia’s newest playground.
A bit further along another massive white vinyl structure came into view. Who did this belong to? Again, we could make out the signage right away but then we saw a crooked sign announcing this big, gleaming tented city was the African village. Now this was unfortunate as the white tent city sort of worked for Russia’s winter games but the same kit made the African village look like a refugee camp under the management of some UN agency.
Three hundred metres along we were greeted by another white vinyl tented affair. Who was living under this big top? Ah, it was the official Olympic souvenir shop. With its purple and pink signs, riot barriers across the front and clinical appearance it looked about as welcoming as a rectal examination centre.
As we rounded Hyde Park Corner we were greeted by more white vinyl structures with various logos and signs slapped on the side. Was I supposed to be pleased with the crisp uniformity? Or disappointed by the temporary nature of these generic, workmanlike structures? I opted for the latter.
For the better part of three years we’ve been hearing about the legacy games but as I’ve been touring London I’m wondering what’s going to be left behind aside from the Olympic Park itself. In a city desperate for new venues for exhibitions and conferences, for little Sunday morning markets and quiet places to relax and read, the Russian village should have built with birch trees from forests surrounding St Petersburg, the African village should have been constructed with packed earth and bamboo, and the ugly souvenir centre could have used timber from Wales.
Instead, London’s been blighted by thousands of square metres of uninspired stretched vinyl. At least it’s only temporary.