On its 130-day, 20-country relay to Beijing, the Olympic torch recently flitted through London. Although repeatedly threatened by protesters of China's human-rights record, the flame managed to stay lit throughout a symbolic journey around the capital that began in the northwest at Wembley Stadium, the site of London's Olympics in 1948, and ended in the southeast at the giant O2 Arena, just across the Thames from the Olympic Park, where the torch will return for the 2012 Games. Behind the 11-mile-long, 10-ft.-high (18 km long, 3 m high) blue fence that rings this bit of East London, known as the Lower Lea Valley, lies what will soon be Europe's largest construction site.
These 607 acres (246 hectares) were home to industries that for 400 years fed off the now vanished docks. Currently, 1.3 million tons of the area's soil is being washed of the oil, tar, arsenic, lead and other contaminants left behind; 5 miles (8 km) of neglected waterways are being revitalized; 30 bridges and 13 miles (21 km) of road are being built; overhead power cables are being pulled down and relaid belowground alongside new water, gas and sewage lines. When all is done, four permanent sporting venues, including an 80,000-seat main stadium and a sinuous Zaha Hadid--designed Aquatic Centre will rest on a landscaped carpet of green.
The cleanup is long overdue, but London has far more riding on 2012 than its reputation for putting on a good show. "It's not just 16 days of the Games. It will allow London to make the infrastructure improvements that will keep it globally competitive," London Olympic Organizing Committee boss Sebastian Coe told Time. Winning the Games was so important to London's future that the organizers sent Posh and Becks and Tony Blair, along with 30 kids from London's East End, to lobby the selection board of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Arguing for Paris, the odds-on favorite, then French President Jacques Chirac turned up and criticized British cuisine.
If all goes to plan, the Games will not only create 11,000 jobs and 9,000 homes within the park but will also kick-start a regeneration of the Lower Lea Valley that local officials hope will deliver up to 50,000 jobs and 40,000 new homes in the boroughs fringing the park, which include some of the most economically blighted areas in the U.K. "It's an unparalleled opportunity for city-making," says Tom Russell, head of the Olympic Legacy Directorate of the London Development Agency (LDA). Russell and his team must now turn their grand vision and hopes for a legacy of economic renewal into a business reality. The London Olympics will be spectacular, he promises, "but the truth is, Paris or any of the other competitors could have done the same. What marked London's bid out was our notion of a long-term legacy."
One way or another, legacy has been a deciding issue for the IOC's choice of host city ever since the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, which is remembered for its profits (and the botched investigation of a notorious bombing) but for little else benefiting the city. By comparison, the Sydney Games of 2000 seemed like a triumph of competition over capital and a giddy affirmation of Australia's sporting heart. Oh, and the Aussies spent $4.8 billion on the city to make it so.
Sydney would vindicate the IOC's decision, made in 1993, to seek the genuine article. "The IOC's problem was that the human touch was going to be lost to commercialization," says Holger Preuss, a professor at the Institute of Sport Science in Mainz, Germany. "So it gave the 2004 Games to Athens--took them back to their roots."
The Greek capital got bad press for being slow to start building and was left with a couple of white-elephant stadiums. Even so, the advantages of a winning bid usually outweigh the pitfalls, says Preuss. "If you're not staging the Games, you don't get worldwide promotion, you don't get $2 billion from the IOC and a million extra visitors." And on top of the brand--image boost, Athens managed to leverage its Olympics into $5.8 billion worth of new road and rail infrastructure and urban renewal--a remarkable achievement in a city noted for civic futility.
But in the legacy stakes, that puts Athens only third on the list of four most recent Olympic host cities, according to research commissioned last year from the London East Research Institute (LERI). Top spot on the legacy list--and the model most often invoked by London mayor Ken Livingstone and other 2012 organizers--goes to Barcelona, which used 1992 to revivify the city's infrastructure and several miles of decaying seafront and to convert old industrial land into housing projects and commercial space. By accelerating an estimated 50 years' worth of infrastructure investment into eight, Barcelona refashioned itself from charming decrepitude into one of Europe's top tourist destinations.
London is hoping for a different sort of rebirth in the Lower Lea Valley, which includes the grimy eastern boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Newham. The Olympic Park is just one bead on a necklace of development aimed at shifting the capital's center of gravity to the east. Mounting the 2012 Games will cost an estimated $20 billion, but that amount is dwarfed by the combined costs of related projects like the new urban center for Stratford, which abuts the Olympic Park, and the Crossrail Underground, which will connect West London to East London by 2017. These and more than 25 other transport-infrastructure-improvements are part of the Thames Gateway project, a 40-mile (64 km) corridor of regeneration stretching east of the city that is likely to cost some $90 billion over the next decade.
And there are other costs. To clear the Lower Lea Valley, the LDA had to pay $1.3 billion for 2,200 land and property interests and, in some cases, use compulsory-purchasing orders to relocate hundreds of businesses and residents. LDA's Russell says the process has sometimes been painful: "It was really difficult for people with legitimate interests in the area to find themselves being bought out compulsorily."
Will the sacrifices be worth it? That's a tricky call with four years left before the Games even begin. Real estate investors will be hoping for a reliable return, though current estimates for the resale value of the Olympic Park land after 2012 range from $1.6 billion to $6 billion. But they're not the only people with a stake in London 2012's legacy. East London's residents are bearing most of the risk of the Games, says LERI co-director Iain MacRury, and success will be determined by political and economic forces far beyond the Lower Lea Valley. When things go wrong or happen too quickly, MacRury warns, the result "can land like a spaceship at the end of your street that has nothing to do with you."