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Feature

Mind the Games

A look at how an olympic host city gets all dressed up for the big event.

“Don’t die during the Olympics,” read the headline splashed across the Newham Recorder, a small local newspaper in the northeast London borough this February.

Just before the article’s release, the Newham Council had warned residents about travel restrictions and congestion around the Olympic Village during London 2012. Soon, rumors about the difficulties of hosting funerals during the Olympics started circulating.

“If you’re going to die, you'd better do it before the Games, or try and hang on till afterwards,” one funeral director, John Harris from T. Cribbs & Sons, was quoted as saying.

If anybody needed an indication of the extent of pre-Olympics frenzy, that might be it.

Planning ahead is not a bad idea, of course. After all, between July 27 and August 12 this year, 10,500 athletes from more than 200 countries are expected to descend on the city for 17 days of competition in 26 sports and 302 medal events.

London is the only city in the world that has hosted the Games three times — most recently in 1948, three years after the end of World War II. Some people believed it would be impossible to pull off the Olympics in war-devastated England, but the British were determined. Foreign competitors recall bomb-ravaged roads and competing against a home team of British war heroes and housewives (all in homemade sportswear) who had been training in their suburban back gardens.

The 1948 competition was dubbed the “Austerity Games” because the costs of war had so depleted English coffers — a far cry from the £9.3 billion spent preparing for London 2012.

Apart from the colossal budget, there have been various standout qualities to the London Olympics preparations: some expected, some unexpected and others simply quirky.


Sign me up

With thousands of roles to fill, the McDonald’s Corporation (a sponsor of London 2012) spearheaded a groundbreaking volunteer recruitment drive — whittling down 240,000 applications to 70,000 volunteers, called “Games Makers.”

Volunteering for a minimum of 10 days work (plus at least three additional days for training), the Games Makers will be in charge of everything from carrying torches to cleaning toilets to collecting tickets. They come from all walks of life, and many have been placed in specific roles based on their individual talents.

“I was shocked. I thought my application would be thrown into a general pile, but now I’m hosting the President of France.”
Max Mason, restaurant owner

For example, Max Mason, owner of the sausage restaurant The Big Bang in Oxford (above), says he applied to “hand out brochures and help with parking.” But his charity work and linguistic skills gained him a call from the Olympic head office, asking him to be a diplomatic assistant to the International Relations Team.

“I was shocked,” Mason says. “I thought my application would be thrown into a general pile, but now I’m hosting the president of France.”


Building for the future

Like many hosts of previous Olympics, London is hoping to regenerate the site of its Olympic Village for the long term. Stratford, in the eastern corner of London, has long been thought of as a mecca for young artists and creatives living in warehouse studios.

Previously littered with discarded household waste and referred to locally as “stinky Stratford” for ages, the area has now seen 15 venues built from the ground up, plus £35 million spent on renovating existing buildings into Olympic-worthy structures. Surrounding the village are beautiful wildlife parks, shopping centers, high-tech office blocks and some of the most cutting-edge sports facilities in England.

This massive urban overhaul is likely to leave “an enduring legacy,” as London’s original pitch document to host the Games called it. Plus, this legacy will include the most contemporary disability access that money can buy — thanks to the full integration of both the planning and design for the Paralympics into the London 2012 agenda. This year’s Games have the potential to transform attitudes across the United Kingdom toward those with disabilities, simply by leaving behind a disability access–dominated environment in Stratford.


Olympic-themed frivolity

The British people, who usually shy away from gimmicks and overt displays of patriotism, have surpassed themselves. Olympic-themed parties have become en vogue, especially for those who did not succeed in the great ticket rush of 2011.

Institutional bakeries such as Greggs, as well as cake mail-order sites and the famous London Hummingbird Bakery, are all taking orders for Olympic-themed cupcakes and five-ring interconnected doughnuts (in Olympic colors, of course).

Recreating Olympic sports during the parties is another favorite. Rumors have spread among the wealthy in the county of Surrey that some of the bankers living there dug up parts of their 200-acre grounds in order to install AstroTurf pitches and Olympic-size swimming pools, and even employed gamekeepers to measure out and mark distances in their grounds for 1,500-, 400- and 100-meter races.


Getting from here to there

The domino effect that the Games themselves will have is impossible to calculate, but Londoners are bracing themselves for big changes. One of the most obvious has focused on London’s transport systems.

The London Overground and Docklands Light Railway have both constructed new stations and platforms to create greater connectivity to the Olympic venues in Stratford. Nowhere in Greater London is more than a 15-minute walk from an Overground rail station.

The aim is for all Olympics visitors to utilize public transportation, including bus routes and the infamously late London Underground subway system — which, on some lines, might well operate 24 hours a day.

The press reported that most cab drivers will be exiting London and watching the Olympics from the safety of their television screens. But a small offshoot of entrepreneurial cabbies has pooled resources and installed individual video screens so that passengers can watch the Games live.

According to organizer Dave Murray, “when the timetable of events comes out, all my boys will be memorizing the sports, times and locations so that people can hop in a cab, say what they want and let the cabbie do the rest.”


Soaring home rentals and flourishing business

Not surprisingly, housing rentals in Stratford, the borough of Newham and surrounding key London landmarks have skyrocketed. “We are [too] overwhelmed with business at this point to comment on how much rentals have gone up,” said a rentduringthegames.com spokesperson months before the events began. “Call back when it’s all over. When it’s way over.”

Goran James and Gareth Crow, students at Queen Mary, University of London, live in adjoining bedsits (one-room apartments) within the university’s residence halls near Stratford. A late-night online advertisement when they were feeling particularly cash-poor led to renting out Crow’s bedsit for the entire Games to an Olympic fan from China.

The 10-square-foot bedsit is being rented for £500 per week in July and August, when it usually costs £80. Crow will simply move in with his friend and split the profit.

The Olympic-fueled boom extends from housing into many businesses. For example, the inpredictability of English weather has provoked an entire pop-up industry of custom-made umbrellas and raincoats, since the Olympic Stadium itself has no protection from the rain, wind and storms that inevitably befall English summers.

Yet signs of British business wariness are still evident, especially considering the lingering effects of the recession. Nonetheless, research by The Daily Telegraph found that 41 percent of companies in the tourism and hospitality industry expect London 2012 to generate increased demand.


Keeping it safe

When the London Underground bombings occurred in 2005 — the day after London won the bid to host the Games — the city was put on an even higher alert to ensure the safety of all participants and observers during the Games.

As the first step, the Olympic security contract was awarded in 2008 to G4S, a firm that patrols many of Britain’s prisons and detention centers. But it took the minister for sport until March 2012 to make a full assessment of the security requirements needed. As a result, he increased the initial number of guards patrolling the Games from 10,000 to 23,700 and increased the security budget from £282 million to £553 million — making the London Olympics the largest U.K. security and military event since World War II. Preparations have been made for more than 150 different security risks.

For 17 days this summer, nearly 9 million ticket holders and billions of TV viewers will surely marvel at some of the most obvious preparations that London and its people have undertaken.

Yet only beneath the surface — in speeding cabs and cramped bedsits, in the faces of smiling ticket holders and a sausage-king-turned-presidential-host — can the full extent of things done in the name of national pride and the love of sport be seen and experienced.