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The 2012 Olympics are being promoted under the slogan ‘everyone’s games’, but if plans to change the route of the marathon go ahead, residents of East London will be entitled to feel a little left out.
The Evening Standard reported last week that LOCOG, the Olympic organisers, intend to replace the original course (which finished with runners going through the East End towards the Olympic Stadium in Stratford) with a route beginning and ending at The Mall, after looping through historic sights in central London. (The original route travelled south of Hackney through Aldgate and Whitechapel, but the row raises the question of LOCOG’s attitude towards all the host boroughs.)
Representatives of the affected areas have reacted angrily, arguing that LOCOG’s plans betray the Olympics’ aim of regenerating east London. Tower Hamlets undertook a £10m revamp of Whitechapel High Street as part of the ‘High Street 2012’ project, intending it to be the culmination of the marathon route. Along with Newham, the borough is now seeking talks with LOCOG, disappointed to have found out about the plans through the media. The basketball and walking events (the latter was set to be in Victoria Park) have already been moved out of Tower Hamlets.
Many people believe that sponsors have been influential in lobbying for a change to a backdrop they believe is more suitable for TV audiences, and MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, Rushanara Ali has accused LOCOG of being ‘embarrassed and ashamed’ of the East End. Lord Coe has hit back at the critics, claiming that the matter was ‘a purely operational issue’, and that the switch was designed to minimise inconvenience to competitors and spectators during the games’ many concurrent events. Describing the accusations as ‘ludicrous’, he said: ‘It has nothing to do with iconic landmarks; it has nothing to do with the East End and it has nothing to do with broadcasters’.
But how believable is this? The original marathon route was confirmed in 2005, when it was described by Coe ‘a course that will inspire a new generation of athletes and runners’. Why have the organisational problems only recently become so pressing? Why were they not foreseen when the original plans were drawn up?
Dr Tim Williams, the co-author of the ‘Olympic Strategy for Tower Hamlets’, believes that the regeneration case formed a ‘fundamental plank’ in winning the 2012 bid. And there’s certainly a powerful argument for giving the East End, in the words of former Olympics minister Tessa Jowell, a ‘front row seat’, in acknowledgement of the key role it played. But it’s not just about begrudgingly returning a favour to residents of the area. The planned change of route betrays a mindset that doesn’t really understand what makes London great.
Although its landmarks are famous the world over, the capital is about more than Big Ben, St Paul’s and Buckingham Palace. London is unique because its grandeur sits at close quarters with a scruffy and down to earth charm. There are two complementary sides of the city, and a good course would include both of them. To circle repeatedly through the ‘iconic’ central landmarks would be to present a stereotyped and false face to the world. Much of the East End is not pretty. But it is an integral part of London and deserves to be represented on the world stage.
This is not glamourising deprivation. Many parts of east London are poor, and some are dangerous. But anyone who dismisses it out of hand has clearly not spent much time there. No other area can better showcase London’s mixture of the magnificent with the mundane, its restless creativity, its rich history, and its continual status as a melting pot of cultures and traditions. We should be proud of it. The 2012 bid centred on the opportunity to regenerate deprived areas, and on London’s identity as a modern and inclusive city. It would be perverse to prevent the course of one of the major events passing through a location that would emphatically demonstrate both of these points.
The original marathon course took in plenty of landmarks while also heading beyond the main tourist thoroughfares. The finish in the East End symbolised the renewed potential of the area. If LOCOG go ahead with the planned change, they will not only be turning their backs on the boroughs whose ‘vibrancy’ and ‘diversity’ were trumpeted to help them to win the bid. They will also be rejecting the chance to provide a genuine portrayal of a historic, complex and forward-looking city in favour of souvenir shop clichés.