Have the Olympics gotten too big?

London residents today lost a bid to stop rooftop missile deployments. Many Britons are questioning Olympics they say are most notable for super-sized costs and security.

Ben Arnoldy/The Christian Science Monitor
This summer’s London Olympics have tried to attract investment to the East End, a poor part of the city, including the newly opened Westfield Stratford City mall.

Sometime after 11 miles of electric fence went up, and local shops went under after the biggest shopping mall in Europe arrived, and missile batteries appeared on rooftops, East Londoners' enthusiasm waned for the Olympic Games that are coming to their doorsteps.

Residents living around the new sports venues – not to mention the freshly finished hotels and store fronts – packed into a church recently to discuss how to oppose the missiles. But aside from the unease over living in close proximity to such major weaponry, a wider bitterness permeated the 200-member audience.

When London bid for the 2012 Games, British officials dazzled the Olympic committee with the idea of using the event to lift up and redevelop the down-at-the-heels East End. With just days to go before the opening ceremony, however, some of the most strident critics of the Games are East Enders, many of whom have felt sidelined by security officials and corporate interests that have transformed this long-neglected corner of town.

Boos sounded when one speaker sheepishly admitted to looking forward to the Games. Resident Len Aldis summed up the prevailing mood: "The spirit of the founding of the Olympic Games has been lost."

Britain as a whole, meanwhile, is ambivalent about the Games, in contrast to the joyful eruptions in 2005, when London learned it would make history by hosting its third Olympics. Now, only 44 percent say the country should have offered to host them; and in an age of austerity, the potential price tag to the public of $17 billion – nearly triple the bid estimate – does not sit well. The muchness of it all leaves some asking if the Olympics have gotten too big, and too tied to the ambitions of big business and big government.

"The Olympics is two weeks of games and a week of Paralympics. And for that you are going to … land yourself in monumental debt?" says Iain Sinclair, a noted East End author.

'Lockdown London'

Security preparations are a major part of the overruns and the concerns.

London 2012 will trigger the largest peacetime mobilization of British security forces in modern times, involving 50,000 troops, police, and private contractors. The number of soldiers exceeds Britain's deployment in Afghanistan.

An aircraft carrier will be parked in the Thames, and Typhoon fighter jets will be deployed in west London. On top of citywide cameras, police have access to unarmed drones for surveillance. Security screeners will confiscate liquids from spectators before they enter venues, and officials are warning of significant lines.

The Home Office insists, however, that the effort will be in keeping with a British tradition of understated security despite resonances with the US-led global war on terror.

"Any military resources will support but not supplant our police-led plans. Visitors to the UK can continue to expect to see the 'bobby on the beat,' not soldiers on the street," says James Brokenshire, minister for crime and security, by e-mail.

But, he says, "the UK is hosting the biggest and most high profile event in living memory" – so security agencies are leaving nothing to chance. 

Last week, authorities detained a suspected British Islamic militant of Somali origin who violated a court order by traveling multiple times to transit stations near the Olympic park. 

Britain has faced down greater moments of terrorist danger from the Irish Republican Army, says security expert Richard English at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

"It's not so much that the threat is raised [with the Olympics], but the visibility is raised," he says. Even a small attack would be instantly seen around the world and magnified.

Such a situation is tricky for the government, he says. If officials foil attacks, no one will notice and Parliament will wonder why so much money was spent. If an attack gets through, security agencies will be grilled.

The East End 'missile crisis'

No detail of the Games has more irked locals than the plan to post antiaircraft missiles around the city, including atop an East End apartment tower.

The plan came to light when the Ministry of Defense informed residents with a leaflet. Brian Whelan, a journalist living in the tower, publicized the issue and filed a lawsuit – only to have his landlords move to evict him.  

"I'm being victimized for what I did," Mr. Whelan told the recent gathering of residents, which the ministry chose at the last minute not to attend. "I am not sure how they are going to face a terrorist threat if they can't even face us."

The legal bid by residents to stop the missile deployment was quashed today by a British high court that ruled the weapons presented "no real threat" to the residents. The decision clears the way for the missiles to be deployed within days. 

Attendees at the recent gathering, including the local member of Parliament, voiced concerns about the lack of local input. Fliers announced an upcoming protest themed "Whose Games, Whose Olympics?"

Speakers mentioned the exclusive rights for McDonald's to sell food, Coca-Cola to sell drinks, and Visa to sell tickets. One person cited a Financial Times article quoting a government official as saying: "The Olympics is a tremendous opportunity to showcase what the private sector can do in the security space."

A loss of local identity

On a walk around the East End, the author Mr. Sinclair suggests that the internationalism on display with these Olympics is "massive corporate branding" and "the internationalism of the money markets."

The government plan to fix up the East End has relied on attracting private capital to the long-overlooked region. The introduction of big corporations, however, has raised anxieties about loss of local identity.

Sinclair points down the main street of Stratford near the Olympic Park. The street used to feel like a small English town, he says, dotted with old pubs and small businesses. Now, new housing blocks line the street, with a Holiday Inn Express perched in the middle.

"This street now could be in a suburb of any American city," he says.

He describes the bygone Stratford (pop. 20,000) as "scrappy," with artists living in former warehouses and some successful small businesses. Many locals have left, he says, driven out by rising rents.

Sinclair talks over the noise of construction trucks doing last-minute work on the Olympic Park. Sinclair says the reclaimed area had industrial scars but also overgrown orchards that enthusiasts were beginning to replant.

He ends the walk in front of Stratford's revamped transit station, and points up past an elevated footbridge. Rising castle-like is Europe's biggest urban mall, newly opened by Australia's Westfield Group.

"You come out of this station and you can't access the Olympic site without having to walk through that," he says. "The first thing you'll see on the right-hand side is an enormous casino."

New jobs in 'derelict' spaces

The perspective is different on another walking tour accompanied by Jamie Hodge with the Stratford Renaissance Partnership, a consortium of organizations with a stake in the area's redevelopment. As he walks through the mall, he, too, notes that most Olympic spectators are going to walk this route, "which is why you can see [luxury retailers like] Liberty, Prada," he says, pointing. "It'll be interesting to see how many will stay."

The mall employs 10,000 people, at least 2,000 of whom were previously unemployed, according to the government's London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC).

But shopping there is mostly beyond the reach of locals, says young resident Rob Winkel. Instead, the trains bring shoppers from outside.

Still, jobs hold the promise of lifting up residents. The LLDC says the reuse of the four permanent Olympic venues will provide 8,000 to 10,000 jobs. And the new hotels are taking in nearby college students, training them in the hospitality industry and offering them lasting jobs.

"Marks & Spencer, Holiday Inn, they are now telling businesses coming in that you can hire local people [and] they are a fantastic workforce," says Paul Brickell with the LLDC. He hopes the coming of Siemens will similarly reassure other high-tech firms.

The little guys

On the walk, Mr. Hodge points out a set of abandoned buildings surrounded by shattered glass and graffiti. "You see here: urban dereliction. This is what a lot of the site was."

Could redevelopment of such spaces be done with smaller local firms rather than big multinationals?

"If it were up to me, I would have local stores, but we don't live in a world where investment is dictated by [them]," he replies. "Do I like the fact that the biggest McDonald's in the world is being built in the Olympic Park? No."

As Hodge walks down Stratford's main street, he points out several small local businesses sprouting near the Holiday Inn. One is a Victorian theater that had been a dangerous nightclub. Locals have refurbished it to offer live shows and boxing. A nonprofit artist studio and an upscale Moroccan restaurant have also opened.

But there are signs of loss, too. A furniture store is closing because of higher rents. Hodge is sad to see the greasy-spoon Pie Crust Cafe shuttered.

One of the old businesses that survives is Cafe Mondo, recently reopened after renovations. Proprietor Antonio Zeolla owns the building, insulating him from rent hikes.

Times are tough, though. When Cafe Mondo first opened in 1997, no one in Stratford knew what a cappuccino was. Now he's competing against nearby Westfield mall.

But he's still happy with the redevelopment. "The best thing is putting the area on the map," he says. "Stratford now, everyone knows where it is, from all over the world."

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