The $14 billion Summer Olympics: Why does London even want them?

Unlike recent past hosts of the Olympic Games, London has nothing to prove to anyone. Yet it has paid handsomely to hold the Games – for reasons that go beyond mere prestige.

Charles Krupa/AP
If the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube were the symbols of the Beijing Games, then the nameless basketball arena in London's Olympic Park is, in many ways, the symbol of the London Games.

As London prepares to throw the world a $14 billion party, it seems fair to ask the question: What does it get out of the bargain aside from some shiny medals, pleasant memories, and an excess of David Beckham bobblehead dolls?

Salt Lake got to show that its Mormon community was open to the world. Turin got to show that it was not the Detroit of Europe. China got to give the world a glimpse of the superpower-to-be. And Vancouver got to show the world that Canadians are not, in fact, Americans.

But London? It hasn't had anything to prove to the world since Waterloo, and the supposed economic benefits of hosting the Olympics have long been dubious. Some experts say the Olympics are a net gain, boosting trade and global prestige. Other experts say those experts are bonkers. One thing that seems certain is that the cause of the current global malaise is not a shortage of Olympic velodromes.  

So have cities like London, Paris, Madrid, and Tokyo – who have all bid for the Games at some point in the past decade – simply taken leave of their senses? Why does any city without a global chip on its shoulder want the Olympics, with all its traffic jams, stadium projects, and cosseted International Olympic Committee barons?

London's answer to that question gives a hint at what the Olympics are becoming, as well as how hosting the Olympics could potentially leave a lasting and positive impact on a city that doesn't really need them.

In a word, the answer is: infrastructure. True, the average citizen does not go to bed on Christmas Eve dreaming of tearing open "improved infrastructure" the next morning, but for city officials, its four syllables are a siren song. While Salt Lake, Beijing, and the rest saw the Olympics as a ticket into an exclusive club – the cost of buying dearly desired global cred – London wants to show the world how to use the Games to resuscitate forgotten parts of a city.

Olympic Park is not remotely near anything a tourist would recognize as London. It is in Stratford, which over the years had become London shorthand for "industrial blight." And the Olympics were a unique lever to effect a profound transformation.

"The single massive positive impact of the Olympics is the clearing and redevelopment of a vast, unusable space," says Tony Travers, a professor at the London School of Economics who has followed the Olympic process here. "It is now all cleaned up and ready to use for a city with a fast-growing population."  

Without the Olympics, Professor Travers doubts whether the land would ever have been reclaimed. At the least, he says, it would have taken as many as 60 years. The reason for that is as obvious as the $14 billion estimated budget for the London Organizing Committee of the Olympics Games.

Originally, officials had promised a $3.9 billion Games, with $1.6 billion of that to reclaim the Stratford land. In 2006, environmental analyses made it apparent that it would cost $8 billion to reclaim the land alone. But with the Olympics already secured, there was no choice but to do it.

In doing so, London has added a new chapter to the Olympic history book. It is trying to carve out a new standard for the Summer Olympic Games hosts – one might call it the anti-Beijing model. The Games are used to further specific urban redevelopment visions, and everything else gets a minimum of fuss.

The new train system to serve Olympic Park and beyond? That's high speed and state of the art. But the Olympic Stadium? Plans for it to be encased in costly LED screens were scrapped. After the Games, it will be downsized and handed over to West Ham United, a local professional soccer club. The wings of the "Stingray" – the aquatics venue – will be removed to leave a cozier stadium that can be used by the community as well as for competitions.

The basketball stadium? It's a 12,000-seat Hefty bag, basically. It is not permanent and will disappear when the Games end, as will most of the venues. The Olympic Park resembles nothing so much as a World's Fair for scaffolding enthusiasts – hardly the Beijing Olympic park, which was built as part of a $40 billion budget and looked as though finished with a sculptor's tool. 

To be sure, the construction that's meant to be lasting – the remaking of East London neighborhoods – has come in for some criticism. Some local residents see it as gentrification for the benefit of corporations, wealthier outsiders, and politicians hoping to make a mark on the city. 

Travers, meanwhile, is not sure that London was immune from the one-upsmanship that has become so ingrained among the world's leading cities. Put another way: Do you think London wasn't at least a little pleased at snatching the Olympics out from under the nose of Paris – the presumed front-runner in the bidding for the 2012 Games?

True, getting the Games venues done well and on time is a check mark for British project management. After the debacles of building the Millennium Dome and renovating the nation's signature soccer stadium, Wembley, the Olympics can only help restore global trust in British can-do.

"You’re going to see beyond doubt that Britain can deliver," said Prime Minister David Cameron in a speech at the Olympic Park Thursday. "We’ve delivered this incredible Olympic Park on time, on budget, and in real style."

And he touched on the new infrastructure, too: "Forty-six thousand people have turned a wasteland the size of Hyde Park into an extraordinary city town within one of the world’s most exciting cities."

But getting a leg up on Paris (not to mention New York, Madrid, and Moscow, who also wanted the 2012 Games) also had to have made the $14 billion price a little easier to swallow.

That, and the new velodrome.  

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