Who will gain from Olympics legacy?
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LONDON -- One of the enduring stars of the London Olympics isn't an athlete but a structure: The swooping, wavelike aquatics center designed by Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid and built at a cost of $422 million instantly became one of the city's iconic buildings.
About a mile away, however, sits a far less glamorous athletic facility: the Atherton Leisure Center, used by residents of the hardscrabble neighborhood adjacent to the Olympic Park. The center's pool -- the only public pool in the area -- was closed last year after local officials decided not to spend roughly $390,000 to repair the roof.
It didn't escape notice that the Olympics aquatics center cost more than 1,000 times that amount.
"It's an irony that in an Olympic year, they chose to close the nearest public pool to the Olympic Park," said Mubin Haq, the policy director for Trust for London, a charity.
As London celebrates the end of triumphant Summer Games -- marked by sold-out venues, a groundswell of patriotism and a medal count that exceeded most Britons' wildest expectations -- the Olympic legacy in its own neighborhood is less clear.
Organizers won the games in part on a promise to catalyze the redevelopment of the city's long-suffering eastern boroughs. Billed as the most sustainable Olympics ever, they include plans to open the 500-acre park and its world-class facilities to the public, generate jobs and housing, and complete the cleanup of an area that's historically been one of England's poorest.
Residents, however, are skeptical about what will happen once the world spotlight fades.
They note with some bitterness that the games took place on their doorstep, yet they were largely locked out because of ticket prices that exceeded what many here earn in a month.
They mutter about the giant billboards plastered on public housing projects and the gaudy treelike sculpture outside their old shopping mall -- erected at a cost of some $4.7 million -- which they suspect were meant to shield Olympic visitors from the shabbiness of an area where unemployment is higher and life expectancy lower than the national average.
"The community is being decimated, and yet it's weird what the council chooses to spend its money on," said Adele Ratenbury, an 11-year resident of the Newham borough, adjacent to the Olympic Park.
Then there's the story of the Atherton pool, which closed several months ago after the discovery of asbestos caused a dramatic rise in anticipated repair costs.
The London Legacy Development Corp., the nonprofit agency charged with overseeing the Olympic Park after the games, says the aquatics center will reopen -- like much of the park -- in spring 2014 and will be available for public use. But it's also slated to become a training facility for elite swimmers and may occasionally host international competitions, meaning the public could be restricted from using it at certain times.
"We don't really know what's going to happen to it," said James Lowe, a 25-year-old Newham resident who used to swim in the Atherton pool. "It would be cool if we as the public could use it. Till now I've only seen it on TV."
First Published August 13, 2012 12:00 am