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London getting up to speed for Olympics

Shira Springer/Globe Staff

The Basketball Arena is an example of organizers’ practical approach: It will be taken apart and its pieces used elsewhere.

LONDON - In corporate offices with panoramic views, members of the London Olympics Athletes’ Committee took their time testing mattresses. Lying down on eight different samples, committee chairman Jonathan Edwards was an Olympic gold medalist turned Goldilocks. He wanted just the right combination of cushion and firmness for Olympic Village beds when more than 15,000 athletes from more than 200 countries arrive in July.

“It was hilarious, great fun,’’ said Edwards.

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And part of the serious business of staging the London Olympics. With the Games expected to cost British taxpayers $15 billion to $17 billion, no detail is too small for scrutiny. Edwards and the Athletes’ Committee followed mattress testing with menu testing.

“We don’t want athletes to think, ‘Oh, I’ll have a crap performance because I couldn’t sleep or because there wasn’t a wide enough choice of food or because the transport wasn’t on time,’ ’’ said Edwards.

“Professional athletes are ruthless in the pursuit of being as good as they can be. That’s the same kind of approach we’ve had as an organizing committee.’’

Spoken by a man who looks as fit as he was when he set the triple jump world record in 1995 and won Olympic gold at the 2000 Sydney Games. And not a surprising approach, considering that two-time gold medalist and 12-time middle-distance world record-holder Sebastian Coe chairs the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games.

As the city rounds into Olympic form, the ruthless pursuit of a successful and memorable Summer Games is evident. Solid preparation kept the London Games on track while the world economy tanked, radically transforming East London and delivering striking venues such as the curved-roof Velodrome (nicknamed “the Pringle’’). With the Opening Ceremonies less than 140 days away, London appears far from the mad dash of previous Olympic hosts.

Still, in recent months, the public, the media, and government officials have criticized transportation plans, ticket distribution, and cost overruns. With ambulances effectively banned from “Games lanes’’ designated for VIPs, recent news articles reported patients’ lives could be at risk during the Olympics. Earlier this month, the London Assembly, an elected group primarily charged with being a check on the London Mayor, accused Coe of running LOCOG like an “oligarchy,’’ being “obsessed with secrecy,’’ and lacking transparency when it came to ticket sales. The great concern was a less-than-promised amount of affordable popular-event tickets for the British public.

Coe denied the charges, but the London Assembly’s pointed comments added to the pessimism and skepticism surrounding the Games at home. Worried about security and about Olympic crowds bringing an already congested city to a standstill, some Londoners plan to leave the area and charge high rents for their residences.

While no one does dour, sharp-tongued complaints quite like the British, hand-wringing and headlines about logistics and economics have become part of every Olympic process. The “gloomadon-poppers,’’ as London Mayor Boris Johnson has called the critics, have created a rite of passage for the host city - essentially a quadrennial occurrence. At Barcelona and Athens, there were concerns about extreme delays in venue construction. At Los Angeles and Beijing, there were concerns about pollution and politics.

London organizers realize it may take the start of the torch relay May 19 in Land’s End, England, to excite the public and to truly quiet the “gloomadon-poppers.’’ Or it may take the Opening Ceremonies July 27 or the first big British win. Until then, it helps to have an athlete’s mentality and experience.

“This is not a particularly scientific or managerial way of looking at it, but you just have to get stuff done,’’ said Coe. “When you’re an athlete, you recognize that most of the year, you’re training, you’re grinding out the mileage.

“Thousands of hours are hidden away just focusing on a minute-by-minute basis on what you’re doing, and you’re doing it for the one or two moments where you’re going to be tested maximally. That’s very, very similar in what we’ve done here.’’

Reusable facilities

From LOCOG headquarters high above Canary Wharf, floor-to-ceiling windows frame a vast cityscape and the Olympic Park. Cranes and the spiky crown atop the Olympic Stadium draw the eye.

With eight venues spread over roughly 500 acres, the Olympic Park represents the grandest vision and greatest financial investment of these Games. And the view from LOCOG offices reminds organizers of their immense undertaking, of all the planning needed to host the Summer Games in Europe’s second largest city.

“If you said, ‘OK, you can go back 6 1/2 years and have another go at doing it better,’ would I like to have another try?’’ asked LOCOG CEO Paul Deighton. “I’d take where we are in a heartbeat, particularly if you look at the economic circumstances that we’ve found ourselves delivering these Games in. That is about as scientifically as I can define how happy I am.

“We’ve done all the things as well as you reasonably can, given how big and how complicated it is and how uncertain everything is. The new venues are on time and on budget, and that’s part of the project which has a very long gestation period, so you don’t want to get behind on that.’’

The priority on completing venue construction on time - even ahead of schedule, in some cases - is evident during a tour of the Olympic Park. While it is still a hyperactive site, much of the remaining work is landscaping.

Amid high fences, truck traffic, and ultra-tight security, venues already have hosted major events. To mark 200 days until the Games, the British government held its first cabinet meeting of 2012 at the Copper Box. During the Olympics, the venue with copper siding will be home to handball and fencing.

Organizers expect the Aquatics Centre, Basketball Arena, Olympic Stadium, and Velodrome to become familiar, iconic images during the Games.

The $423 million Aquatics Centre sits at the southeast corner of the Olympic Park, and its thoroughly modern, wave-like design will serve as a gateway for visitors. Many will enter the Olympic Park via a bridge that passes over the venue. Nearby, the $764 million Olympic Stadium features metal triangles sprouting from its roof.

In keeping with usual pre-Games scrutiny, both venues have been criticized for their design and cost. The Aquatics Centre came in over budget and over two months behind schedule in part because of its ambitious design. But perhaps the most troubling issue for the venue surfaced last week. British backstrokers found themselves confused, swimming somewhat crookedly, because of offset roof lighting at the Aquatics Centre.

The Velodrome and Basketball Arena anchor the northern end of the Olympic Park. With its rippled, all-white exterior reflecting the sun during the day, the Basketball Arena is reminiscent of the Water Cube at the Beijing Olympics. But the Basketball Arena stands as one of the largest temporary venues ever built for the Games. After the competition, the venue will be deconstructed, with its parts to be reused elsewhere, possibly at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

The temporary Basketball Arena highlights the organizers’ desire for smarter, more practical venue construction, ideally avoiding problems that plagued previous hosts with sites fit for the Olympics but not for future use. In addition to the temporary Basketball Arena, the Olympic Stadium and Aquatics Centre will be downsized for smaller crowds.

Other competition sites will make use of existing facilities such as Wembley Stadium (soccer) and Wimbledon (tennis) or temporarily transform places such as Greenwich Park (equestrian), Horse Guards Parade (beach volleyball), and Hyde Park (triathlon, marathon swimming).

“We’ve built very few new venues for these Games,’’ said Deighton. “Where we’ve built them, we’ve worked very hard to build them in the way that gives them the best chance of having a very viable long-term future.

“Where we had neither an existing venue nor could we justify a long-term build, we’ve constructed something on a temporary basis.

“I think it creates a blueprint for how these events can be done in the future. It also allows us to show off London in a brilliant way.’’

Just beyond the Basketball Arena, within walking distance of Olympic Park venues, the Olympic Village rises. The new apartment buildings feature 2,818 units with views of the city and venues.

For organizers, the location of the village was as critical a decision as its conversion to affordable housing after the Games. Once again, the experiences of former Olympians Coe and Edwards provided direction.

“Making sure the athletes were competitors and not commuters was important,’’ said Coe. “The training venues are all within striking distance of the village as well.

“What people consistently forget is that athletes spend more time in their training venues and in the village than they ever do in the competitive arena.’’

Added Edwards, “Our focus as an Athletes’ Committee has been on their performance, as opposed to the experience. In all our decisions, we’ve prioritized wanting to get the best out of the athlete. They certainly want to get the best out of themselves, so we don’t want in any way to hinder that.’’

Excited and nervous

In early January, a gymnastics test event resembled a five-ring circus. While gymnasts practiced routines on the floor, bars, vault, and balance beam at the North Greenwich Arena, Deighton passed through a gauntlet of foreign media interviews.

He stood on a small outcropping above the action, allowing cameramen to capture the full sweep of the venue. The CEO described the large scale and complexity of the operation, talking about how LOCOG will add 100 to 200 new employees per week from January through June, how the “mass mobilization’’ for the London Olympics requires 100,000 contractors and 70,000 volunteers.

And he highlighted the critical role of test events.

Since last May, test events in more than 30 sports have taken place, putting facilities and staffers through their paces and providing organizers with critical feedback.

The test events typically focus on one venue, one sport, one competition at a time. Still, that has allowed LOCOG to see everything from how security screening lines flow to how “back of house’’ communication works during live events to how different sports look and feel in new and temporary venues.

As he watches the test events, Deighton said, he keeps in mind “it’s how you fix things that matters.’’

Test events are also the easiest places to find public enthusiasm for the Games.

“It’s getting more and more exciting every step of the way,’’ said John Stevens of Bexley, England, a volunteer at the gymnastics test event. “You get regular bites of information about how well we’re on track. They keep counting down and we’re in that frame of mind now.’’

In the coming months, as the countdown continues, organizers hope that excitement builds and spreads across the city and the entire United Kingdom. Yet that excitement will be tinged with nervousness as final preparations proceed.

“It’s a mixture of exhilaration and excitement at the opportunity, but also fear that it might not go as well as you hope it will,’’ said Edwards. “That’s the truth of anything in life that you prepare for over this length of time.

“You’re desperate for it to be a huge success, to make the country proud, to leave a legacy. And you get that close and you hope that it’s all going to come together.’’

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.
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