LONDON — “Be proud. You’re part of it,” the billboard reads as I enter the Olympic Park.

As I walk down the narrow path, created by construction boards barricading off the park’s unfinished areas, the gray sky blankets the Park. We are on the east side of London, which was chosen as the location of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games to help revitalize an industrial area that has become decrepit over time. Now, shiny, modern buildings and structures jut into the sky, beckoning the start of the Olympic Games and, hopefully, the start of a revitalized East London.

My mind drifts from the glistening buildings back to the slogan. In the sea of colorful billboards and ads engulfing the city, it seems like just another message with the bright London Olympics 2012 logo seeking the attention of passersby. Yet something about this message caught my mind, and won’t let go.

I want to know how Londoners read that message: Is it with a sense of pride, honor and gratitude for having the world come to them for the summer Olympic Games? Is it with sarcasm, wondering why such an imposition was placed upon them without their consent? Or is it something else, something that I as an American student can’t entirely understand as I was thrown into a place that’s been working toward this summer for over seven years?

***

The slogan stayed with me throughout the first two weeks of May as I joined 25 other University students on a study-abroad journey in London to explore the organization of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. Developed through the School of Kinesiology, the program, “Behind the Scenes of the London Olympics,” allowed students to take an Introduction to Sport Management course in the winter semester, which featured a segment on the history, organization and business of the Olympic Games. After completing the course, a small group of students, including myself, left the U.S. to put our knowledge into practice in London.

From April 30 to May 12, we boarded the carriages of the London Underground each morning and traveled to various businesses and organizations affiliated with the Olympic Games. From sponsors of the games, such as VISA and Deloitte, to committees executing the games, such as the London 2012 Organising Committee and the British Olympic association, we heard from the individuals who’ve been working toward this summer since London won the Olympic bid in 2005.

Building the summer

May 1. Our first full day in the city began with a tour of the Olympic Park.

Two figures on the horizon in the Olympic Park compete for attention: the Olympic Stadium and the Orbit. While the Olympic Stadium may not have the architectural awe of Beijing’s “Birds Nest,” the stadium itself boasts an impressive feature: its ability to shrink.

The stadium’s design hints at one of the main goals of the London games: legacy. A main component of London’s bid to win the games, legacy focuses on the aftermath of the Olympics. Instead of building venues to stun the world and NBC audience, London is focusing on what comes after the games have finished. What will these venues be used for? The stadium demonstrates such forward thinking.

Though the stadium will seat 80,000 people throughout the Olympic and Paralympic games, the upper tier can be removed to create a smaller stadium with a capacity of 25,000, according to the London 2012 website.

Sport Management Prof. Mark Rosentraub said this sets the London games apart from the last summer games in Beijing. He explained while the Bird’s Nest in Beijing has become “literally a birds nest,” London can reuse its smaller Olympic stadium after the games finish by hosting one of six Premier League football clubs in the city.

“China had a problem. They didn’t care that they didn’t have any spectator sports to fill the stadium,” Rosentraub said. “That’s not going to be a problem in London.”

Fellow Sport Management Prof. Stefan Szymanski, who has lived in London all his life before coming to the University to teach last August, wrote in an e-mail interview that the legacy planning of the Olympic Park hasn’t been as smooth as predicted. Controversy has erupted over which football team will call the Olympic Stadium pitch their home.

“London sold itself as the ‘legacy’ games, but did not create the Olympic Park Legacy Authority until 2009, by which time all the major decisions had been taken,” Szymanski wrote. “The failure to settle the legacy of the Olympic stadium before the games is a scandal.”

Also featured on the Olympic Park skyline is the Orbit. To describe the Orbit is to describe an abstract work of art; there is no correct way. Imagine a red roller coaster snaking around a tower. Then, add two observation decks and you have the Orbit. Formally called the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the 377-ft tower cost 22.7 million pounds to construct and is made of 2,000 tons of steel, according to The Telegraph. While many say the Orbit could be London’s version of the Eiffel Tower, dissent from Londoners about the art sculpture has left the fate of this Olympic legacy unsure.

A question of change

Szymanski feels the Orbit and the features of the Olympic Park will have little impact on the main footprint of London.

“The facilities will provide benefits to people living within a 2- to 3-mile radius of the site, but beyond that, London is a huge city and the Olympic site is a dot on the map,” Szymanski said.

One view of the Orbit comes from Matthew Palutikof, a third-year student at University of Exeter who lives about 30 minutes outside of London. He expressed distaste upon seeing the Orbit when he toured the Olympic Park, and said the structure is too abstract.

“It just makes the Park look a little bit like a scrap yard … The stadium is fairly elegant and then right next to it you’ve got this big hunk of ugliness,” Palutikof said. “You shouldn’t be (building) a piece of art when you need to stand in a room in silence for 10 minutes to understand it. You should have something that instantly looks really attractive and impressive.”

Though not a fan of the Orbit, Palutikof, who’s interning in D.C. for the summer, said his acquaintances that live near the Olympic Park in Stratford have noted a positive change in the area since London won the bid.

“(Ten years ago) you wouldn’t want to walk around Stratford in the day and let alone in the night. Now, there’s a big shopping center, … the village looks very, very good and all the Underground metro stations have been redone,” Palutikof said. “If you went 10 years back that would have never happened, people were running to get out of East London.”

From Szymanski’s perspective, however, the improvements and renovations in East London as a result of the games don’t do the work needed to really revitalize the area.

“East London covers a huge area and is badly run down,” Szymanski said. “The Olympic site covers a couple of square miles and will not impact the economics of most of the region.”

Szymanski researches Olympic Games, which contributed to his viewpoint as a Londoner. For him, hearing the news that London wanted the 2012 summer games made him consider the amount of money needed to execute the games.

“I was actively involved in arguing that this was not a good way to spend public money from 2003 on,” Szymanski said.

As an economist, Szymanski said he hopes that after the London games, Olympic committees will recognize the vast amount of money U.K. taxpayers spent to host the games and the little economic benefit they received in return.

“These will probably be the most quantified games in history, and when it becomes apparent that the economic benefits are negligible, I hope the IOC (International Olympic Committee) will finally re-think this and reduce the scale to something more manageable for the host city/government,” he said. “But I’m not holding my breath.”

In a time of recession in London, Palutikof is optimistic about the economic benefits the games may have for the city.

“Sometimes a sporting event can provide a bit of hope and distraction for people who might be unemployed,” Palutikof said. “(The Olympic Games) have cost 8 billion pounds and I heard it’s going to raise something about 13 billion pounds, so it’s a good investment and it gets the country behind it at a difficult time.”

Jason Winfree, an associate professor of Sport Management at the University, said many host cities hope for economic improvement after the games, but rarely does this actually occur.

“Spending in a city limit might go up slightly, but … then it kind of comes back down,” Winfree said. “People are hoping for this long term impact and it doesn’t show up.”

More than the games

While economic costs are one aspect of living in the host city of the games, some Londoners are also concerned about an influx of visitors to their city. Specifically, the amount of traffic on the London Underground. Palutikof, who worked in Parliament last summer and witnessed firsthand the amount of tourists in the area, says there will be an increase in visitors to the city that will add pressure to the already saturated area.

“The people I spoke to in East London felt inconvenienced by mainly the amount of people coming in,” Palutikof said. “London’s under a lot of pressure anyways and then if you add all these fans coming from around the world to watch … it’s going to be under a lot of pressure.”

He added that he’s glad he isn’t working in London this summer, and his friends living near the Olympic Park are trying to get out of the area to avoid the inconvenience of Olympic crowds in August. Rosentraub, however, doesn’t predict traffic as an issue in London, which he refers to as a world city with regularly high numbers of tourists.

“It is one of the most visited cities every year,” Rosentraub said. “All that will happen is the same number of people will be there and instead going to the Olympics.”

Kinesiology junior Nicole Pentis will be among the masses in London during the first three days of the game. Pentis is studying abroad at Loughborough University, located one and a half hours away from London and home of the Team Great Britain Olympic preparation camp before the Olympic Games. Pentis said the Olympics were part of her decision to study abroad at Loughborough.

“It was a debate between England and Australia, but the final push for England was the Olympics,” Pentis said. “Study abroad is already once in a lifetime, but Olympics you can’t pass up.”

Pentis’ friends on campus, who live locally, have expressed mixed reviews about the games.

“Some are super excited and have five tickets to different events, some are volunteering and some are worried about traffic,” Pentis said.

Palutikof explained that the events leading up to the Olympics have attempted to instill Olympic excitement across the U.K.

“The torch is going around to really small villages on its route and a lot of people were excited to see the torch in places near where I lived,” Palutikof said.

The Olympic Torch Relay passed where Pentis studies each day in Loughborough on July 3.

Stepping Back

But as the Olympic flame weaves its way closer to the Olympic Park, I still find myself thinking of the slogan I viewed over two months ago on my own journey into East London: “Be proud, you’re part of it.”

Stepping back and considering my own opinion of the Underground, the Olympic Park and East London area, it’s difficult for me to decide how it feels to be “part of it.” In fact, it may be difficult for anyone. Because “it” has yet to be determined. While seven years of organizing, planning and development aim for a perfectly executed Olympic Games, the “it” won’t be known until after this summer and beyond. Starting July 27, what London has been working for these past five years will run its course. And come Sept. 9 when the Paralympic Games culminate, the true games will end, but that is only the beginning for London’s Olympic legacy.

Szymanski says Londoners are excited to showcase their city, but he agrees the legacy of the games remains unknown.

“Londoners are fairly certain that London is (the) greatest city in the world, so they would tend to think that they are doing the IOC a favour,” Szymanski wrote. “Most people I know are just curious to see how it works out.”

And so far, the planning of the Olympic Games has given someone like Palutikof a deeper appreciation for when he watches the games this summer for the technicalities behind the Olympics.

“I think I’ll start to appreciate that in the end, it’s not just a sporting event,” Palutikof said. “It’s a real economic infrastructure operation and you’ve got to get people behind it. The sport is only the surface, and underneath you’ve got all this other stuff that, I guess if London didn’t have the Olympics this year, I wouldn’t have appreciation for.”

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