Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Fun and Games

The news that the man masterminding the construction of London’s Olympic site had quit, raised a lot of questions. The one question no one seems to have asked is, why on earth was an American hired in the first place? Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who would have had my vote for getting the project done on time, must be spinning in his grave. OK, I know he was half French but all his work was done in Britain. Surely there must have been a suitably qualified British engineer who could have tackled it.

One can hardly blame Jack Lemley for wanting out. He has a reputation to uphold, I believe, and as these Olympic projects, rather as do small children’s games, often end in tears, he was probably wise to get going while the going was comparatively good.

It always puzzles me why cities vie for this sort of self-inflicted punishment. You would think that London, already in possession of one white elephant, euphemistically referred to as The Millennium Dome, would have had a bellyful and happily passed the deal along to Middlethorpe in the Mire or somewhere. I suspect the mayor Paris, on hearing he had been chiselled out of the honour by some dubious voting, would have cracked open a bottle of champagne or two and put the anti-hysteria tablets back in the medicine chest.

The Greeks are to blame. In 776 BC they started playing games, in a sort of family reunion amongst themselves, at Olympia. Wisely, they excluded married women from these, only young girls were admitted, which must have made the business far more attractive to the male competitors. Hunting the virgin was a popular event.

It was a thousand years before the Roman emperor, Theodosius I, decided that, now he was running the place, the games were a bit namby pamby and he put the block on them. Apparently he felt that, unlike Roman games, no deliberate bloodshed was involved and thus, in his view, they were a bit of a bore. They still are to many.

Peace reigned in the international sporting world until late Victorian times when a French Baron, who was not an athlete, contrived to resurrect the idea for some reason, and they kicked off with an event in Athens. Since then, the games have grown out of all proportion, providing ample opportunity for nationalistic pique, tantrums and providing the performance enhancing drug industry with an international showcase for their wares.

The mouldering relics of the stadiums that taxpayers have contributed to over the years, still litter the globe, only one or two having fulfilled much useful purpose once the sweating athletes have left.

It’s just as well they’ve stuck with calling them Olympic games, though. The Stratford E15 Games does not have the same ring about it. London’s determination to turn the singularly unlovely reaches of their East End into a concrete paradise is a commendable attempt in the order of making silk purses out of extremely homely sow’s ears. Early this year I visited the London Book Fair, which was held in one of the more desperate and out of the way exhibition halls now in London, the Excel Centre. Getting there was half the fun on the Docklands Light Railway, from which one gets a fine view of scenery that Dickens would have recognised since nothing has changed since his day, by the look of it. And en route one can view the Millennium carcase, which does look like a prostrate white elephant. By 2013, if this blot on the landscape hasn’t been demolished or fallen down, you will also be able to view it in company with the crumbling concrete of the Olympic Stadium.

Albert Speer, Hitler’s protégé, was not much of an architect but he was an excellent organiser, and could undoubtedly have got the job done for London on time. He completed the Reich Chancellery in one year, right on schedule. Probably just as well, for Hitler was even more tetchy than Ken Livingstone.

But he did make an astute observation concerning modern ferro-concrete construction. That it would not last. Only solid stone could survive the ravages of time.

Today one can still visit the remains of the stadium at Olympia.

I wonder if, in two thousand years time, there will be anything to see at Stratford?

Perhaps visitors will still be able to have a jolly nice trip on the Docklands Light Railway. I expect the muddy waters of the Thames will still be visible along with a few bits of rusting rebar as well, if they’re lucky. Also, if they haven’t been killed off by the chemicals in the soil here, there might still be a few sprigs of that eponymous wild flower struggling to survive. They call it London Pride.


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