There’s good news and bad at the London Aquatics Centre in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park this month. The bad news - there will be no public access to the gym, fitness classes, competition pool, training pool, diving pool or crèche. The good news - this inconvenience is occasioned by the hosting of the European Aquatics Championships, the last big marker before Rio 2016. The last time this event took place in Britain was 1993.
Once that wave of around 900 world class competitors has passed through the fluid geometry of a venue designed by the late and lamented Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, local schoolchildren and families will be able to resume their daytime and weekend routines of Aqua Splash and lessons at the Better Swim School and Tom Daley Diving Academy. Since it re-opened in April 2014, minus its bolted-on stands, the Aquatics Centre has had more than a million visitors, with more than 2,000 local schoolchildren using it through school swimming lessons every week.
Here, it seems, is an ideal legacy model for the post-Olympic venue - a blend of public use and elite competition that is embraced by the public. With a week remaining before the European Championships, which start tomorrow, less than 25 per cent of tickets - of which there are 51,000 across 33 sessions, with starting prices of £20 ($29/€25) for swimming, £15 ($22/€19) for diving and £10 ($14/€13) for synchro swimming - were still on sale.
Once public swimming resumes under the hypnotic wave-like roof the charges are on a par with other local leisure centres - one-off sessions start from £4.95 ($7/€6) for adults and £2.50 ($4/€3) for children.
The Aquatics Centre is one of five permanent sporting venues that remain from the heady days of 2012. First to re-emerge, less than a year after the Paralympics Closing Ceremony, was the Copper Box Arena, original host to handball, parts of the modern pentathlon and goalball.
Since it reopened in July 2013 it has become home to the London Lions basketball team, the London GD Handball Club and Leyton Netball Club. This arena, with retractable seats for up to 7,500 spectators, regularly hosts basketball, handball, volleyball, netball, fencing, badminton, gymnastics, boxing and a range of concerts.
March 2014 saw the re-opening of the Aquatics Centre and also the Lee Valley VeloPark. The latter offers public access to track cycling, road racing on a floodlit one mile circuit, BMX riding on a remodelled Olympic track and mountain biking on eight kilometres of added trails.
The 6,000-seat arena continues to attract the best of international cycling - in March it hosted the International Cycling Union (UCI) Track Cycling World Championships.
The £30 million ($43 million/€38 million) Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre was opened to the public in June 2014, with two hockey pitches, four indoor tennis courts and six outdoor courts available all year round.
The NEC Tennis Wheelchair Masters has been held there. The 3,000 seater hockey stadium, which can be expanded to a capacity of 15,000, hosted the 2015 European Hockey Championships and is due to host the men's and women's Hockey Champions Trophy in July this year, plus the men’s Hockey World League round three in 2017 and the women's Hockey World Cup in 2018.
As for the main Olympic stadium itself - well, this week West Ham United play their final match at Upton Park - home for 112 years - before moving to take up tenancy there from 2016-2017.
Last year, the reconfigured Stadium hosted several Rugby World Cup matches and this summer it awaits another two days of International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) Diamond League action as a precursor to hosting the 2017 World Athletics Championships. Concerts are also being scheduled.
Legacy uses for all of the permanent venues at the Olympic Park were established within a year of the Games ending - a first for a host city.
The Press and Broadcast Centres, now known as Here East, will become a creative digital hub generating 5,200 new jobs.
The Water Polo Arena, Basketball Arena and Riverbank Arena, used for hockey, were all built as temporary venues and have all been removed. The site of the Water Polo Arena will become a new cultural and education district on the Park with new branches of the Victoria & Albert Museum and theatre Sadler’s Wells and a new campus for the University of the Arts London's College of Fashion.
The site of the Basketball Arena will become a new housing neighbourhood of 828 homes, Chobham Manor, and the Riverbank Arena site will become East Wick, another neighbourhood of 700 homes.
The Athletes’ Village has been renamed East Village, offering 2,818 homes - 49 per cent affordable and 51 per cent private rent - and is now almost fully occupied.
Plans are underway for the development of “Olympicopolis”, a new education and cultural district, bringing together world-class organisations to showcase art, dance, craft, science, technology and design.
The only flaw in the overall picture concerns the ArcelorMittal Orbit tower alongside the main stadium, designed by Carsten Holler and Anish Kapoor, which has so far failed to make the profit originally envisaged for it.
In order to help rectify that, the world’s longest tunnel slide is being installed and is due to open next month.
So even if the Orbit’s a white elephant now, it may be moving from the red into the black by offering rides.
Overall, the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) predict that this new part of the capital will create 3,000 jobs, attract 1.5 million visitors a year and generate £2.8 billion ($4 billion/€3.5 million) of economic value for the local and national economy over the next 25 to 30 years.
All this is at the polar opposite of the Olympic legacy scare stories – all the more scary for the fact they are true. Starting with the Daddy of them all, Montreal 1976.
Dick Pound’s take on the Olympic efforts of his home city was characteristically wry. The former International Olympic Committee (IOC) vice president and President of the World Anti-Doping Agency commented: “It was not very well managed as a financial project. And we have a fabulous stadium, but I think it cost more than all the covered stadia in North America put together.”
A debt that was quoted at the time as being $1.48 billion (£1 billion/€1.3 billion) has taken 30 years to be paid off by local taxpayers. The stadium, known as the “Big O”, has long been alternatively known as the “Big Owe".
That said, it, and many of the other permanent venues from those Games, are now being put to profitable use.
While Beijing’s magnificent Bird's Nest Stadium presented itself anew last summer to host the IAAF World Championships, the centrepiece to the 2008 Olympics has been in scant use over the last eight years, existing mostly as a tourist attraction at the times when it has been open.
Local schoolchildren do swim regularly in the Water Cube, but many of Beijing’s other venues, permanent and very costly, are not being used.
The 2000 Sydney Games have made more conspicuous use of Olympic facilities, and benefitted from a pioneering approach to creating temporary venues.
It took a while for the authorities to sort out what the main Olympic stadium was to be used for, but by 2011 Alan Marsh, chief executive of the Sydney Olympic Park Authority, was lauding a Stadium which played host to 45 events a year, including rugby league, Australian Rules, football, rugby union and cricket, as well as acts such as AC/DC and the Rolling Stones.
“Almost 6,000 events a year and 12 million people passing through the Park in 2011 would seem to be a significant measure of success, with both numbers expected to grow further in the future,” added Marsh. “These activities generate in excess of AU$1 billion (£510 million/$737 million/€646 million) in economic activity for New South Wales annually and this number will continue to grow as more businesses move into the Park and even more events are held at the Park.”
Four years on from Sydney, however, the Athens Olympics failed to learn any of the obvious messages. The notion of temporary venues was conspicuously not embraced - and the images of dilapidated and largely deserted stadia in the two main Olympic hubs of the Greek capital stand as grim testament to that misjudgement.
Some believe the costs of a Games that only reached the starting line at the eleventh hour - variously estimated from £4.75 billion ($6.8 billion/€6 billion) up to almost £21bn ($30 billion/€26.5 billion) - with Hellenic Olympic Committee head Spyros Kapralos suggesting it was closer to £6.5bn ($9.3 billion/€8.2 billion) - helped precipitate the economic crisis in which Greece still finds itself.
Whatever the truth of that, more than a decade on from the second Athens Games the major venues created have begun to resemble some of the more ancient ruins high on the Acropolis.
This history, happy and unhappy, informed both the planning of the London 2012 Games and the decision to establish the LLDC in April 2012 to oversee the physical legacy of the Games as soon as the main event was over.
That task was made easier by the depth and intensity of planning that took place in the seven years between the winning of the Games and the staging of them, as Emma Boggis, head of the London Legacy unit within the Cabinet Office from September 2012 to June 2014, recalls.
“Before the Games began there were clear plans for what would happen to each of the venues,” Boggis, now chief executive of the Sport and Recreation Alliance which represents more than 300 National Federations and related organisations, told insidethegames.
“Everything within the Olympic Park was set up with the constant thought of ‘what will happen afterwards?’ Setting up the LLDC as a separate body with a very clear focus on delivering the legacy after the Games was another key element.
“And the post-Games changes were made at such a pace that it demonstrated there was a clear purpose for the physical legacy.
“I think the legacy has over-delivered in terms of the pace and the scale of the changes envisaged. Some of the features you will now find within Queen Elizabeth Park, such as the educational and cultural area within the “Olympicopolis”, were only aspirational targets before the Games.”
There is a general disinclination among those involved with the London 2012 legacy to point the finger at mistakes that may have been made by previous Games organisers. But Boggis accepts that some harsh lessons have been there to be learned.
“At some other past Olympics,” Boggis added, “you had a sense that they said ‘okay, done the Games, what next?’ There was a bit of a pause. But in London they were stripping things down almost as soon as the Paralympics Closing Ceremony was over.”
It was acknowledged within the London 2012 planning that the 1992 Barcelona Olympics offered an inspirational example of using the Games to promote the host city as a tourist destination. The 2000 Sydney Games also proved fruitful as a model in more than one way.
“Sydney was probably the last Olympics which London 2012 found useful in terms of planning,” Boggis said. “It was not just their policy on temporary venues, but also their volunteering system.
“The Gamesmaker concept was based on what Sydney had done. Beijing 2008 were simply able to throw money at everything.
“Because several of the venues - the Copper Box, the Aquatics Centre and the VeloPark - were operating again quite quickly it kept people in the habit of going back to the Park, and every time there was something different happening.
“One of the key elements of the planning was deciding which venues would be permanent and which temporary. London had the leading edge on using temporary venues.
“For instance, it would have been great to have had a permanent water polo venue, but there wasn’t a business case. There just wasn’t a need for it.
“And where you had a temporary venue, you had the opportunity of creating something new afterwards.
“The other major physical legacy factor of the London 2012 Games was the development of infrastructure around the Stratford Olympic site, including the construction of Stratford International station. It was said at the time that 50 years of renovation had taken place in the seven years between getting the Games and staging them.
“Clearly there have been some issues with the ArcelorMittel Orbit tower. Some people hate it, some people love it. I quite like it, I must say. But part of its purpose is about its placement and visibility as a London landmark. But if that’s the only problematic element within the Olympic Park, I don’t think it has turned out too badly.”
The Orbit tower was originally forecast by the LLDC to make a profit of £1.2 million ($1.7 million/€1.5 million) but it ran at a loss of £520,000 ($750,000/€658,000) in 2014-15 while being used primarily as an observation tower.
The £3.5 million ($5 million/€4.4 million) ride being constructed - and due to open on June 24 - will measure 178 metres in length and 76m in height, with the descent taking about 40 seconds.
Ben Fletcher, Director of Communications at the LLDC, told insidethegames: “At the moment the Orbit is not making a profit, and we are not suggesting otherwise.
"The issue is that the original projections were made at the time the Orbit was commissioned in 2010, and they were at too high a level. But taken by itself, getting almost 125,000 visitors in the first year of opening was a fantastic achievement for the Orbit.
"That’s why we have invested in the slide. Once that is in place we are very confident that we will reach the figure of 200,000 visitors a year, which is what we need to make it profitable.
"And we expect to be able to pay back the cost within five years. The signs are very promising. In just over a week we have sold many thousands of tickets, and we will be making a major announcement soon.”
Fletcher also believes the Orbit’s long-term fortunes will be boosted now that the main stadium is ready to be fully used.
“Having events on at the stadium is a big driver of visitors to the Orbit, but the Stadium has been closed for long periods of time during alterations for the incoming tenants, West Ham United,” he said.
“When the stadium is properly open this year we have a series of concerts planned, a Diamond League athletics meeting, and then West Ham moving in. All this will have a dramatic effect on the footfall for the Mittal Tower.
“So yes, we have had a few rough edges to sand off. But I think there is a very good argument for saying that the vision of the London 2012 legacy in terms of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park has been realised.
“Looking across the project, the Olympic Delivery Authority, our predecessors, made the right choices.
"For instance, the velodrome was originally going to be smaller and less architecturally exciting. But after the success Britain had at the Beijing Games, we realised how much interest there would be in cycling at London 2012 and expanded our plans to match the scale of that interest.
“It has been a huge success at a time when Britain has fallen in love with cycling. The year 2012 was a renaissance in British cycling.
“Now, if you want to cycle on an Olympic track you can do so. But if you want to do it at the weekend, make sure you book two to three months earlier, because it is so popular. The venue also does BMX and mountain biking. You have to queue to get in.
“The Aquatics Centre sits alongside what will eventually be London’s biggest office development. In five to 10 years’ time there will be 20,000 people working there. And one of the main draws is the proximity to the architecture around it.
“One of the things we have really learned about regeneration is that you need sporting venues and housing in the park, but you also need something else. It is almost like building a new city in the park. So with this added commercial, cultural and university aspect, we are creating a city.”