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2012 Olympics: Amid economic uncertainty, London aims for a different experience

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London — How do you make people forget a red-glowing bird’s nest as an architectural centerpiece? Endless rows of multicolored lights streaking through a gleaming, decked-out Olympic Park? How do you follow a government-run Olympic Games in which no expenses were spared — especially when you don’t have expenses to spare? ¶ If you are Sebastian Coe, the famous former British miler who is now heading the committee in charge of next summer’s London Games, you don’t try to top the 2008 Games in Beijing. Instead, you attack the Olympic challenge like you did all of those gritty middle-distance contests in the late 1970s and early ’80s. They required tactics as much as pure speed, and sometimes weren’t quite as fast as expected, or as pretty. “It’s been a very similar mind-set to that I had as an athlete,” said Coe, who set five world records and won two Olympic gold medals. “We were never afraid to do it differently. We were never afraid to challenge orthodoxy. That’s not the same as running headlong into risk . . . it’s just being prepared to see things slightly differently.” In just under 10 months, the world will be the judge of whether Coe, 55, succeeded in getting London to the finish line in good time, and with the appropriate aplomb.

Hit with the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression, Coe and fellow organizers have sought to emphasize London’s particular assets — historic, cultural and sports-crazed — to create an Olympic experience that won’t resemble the high-wattage spectacle that lit up Beijing, but which they hope will be smashing in its own way. Coe’s vision has been guided by the belief that the Games should function more as an inspirational starting point than a fabulous final chapter.

“London in no way tried to replicate what Beijing could deliver with a high budget,” said Kevan Gosper, an International Olympic Committee member from Australia. Coe “realized his country had a huge history through sport, and he’s drawn on it expertly.”

Said Coe: “I think that’s helped us punch through what has been a horrible marketplace. Most people joined us because they shared our vision. . . . I wanted to do [the London Games] with the same forensic eye for detail [as in Beijing], but be different.”

Less money to spend

Beijing’s government spent an estimated $40 billion on the 2008 Summer Games; London organizers have relied on a $15 billion government investment for capital projects — each designed to benefit the city, particularly blighted parts, long into the future — while seeking an additional $3.2 billion from private sources ($1.1 billion from local sponsorships, about $900 million from ticket sales and $1.2 billion from merchandise) to pay for the staging of the Games.

Despite the economic crisis that hit two years after London won the right to hold the Games in 2005, 92 percent of those monies have been raised, with the rest expected as the final allotments of tickets and merchandise go on sale in the coming months.

The sound economics mean next summer’s Games, though less flashy than Beijing’s, won’t re-claim the Austerity Games moniker given to the last Olympics in London in 1948, which took place just after World War II and relied mostly upon existing facilities.

The almost-finished 17,500-seat swimming venue showcases state-of-the art touches, stunning architectural lines, and huge wings covering some 15,000 temporary seats. The new Olympic stadium, whose top ring was fashioned out of surplus gas pipes, will offer seating for 80,000 during the Games, but will shrink after — it has 55,000 removable seats. A sleek 6,000-seat velodrome will remain in use for Britain’s active cycling community after the Games.

Organizers have been determined to avoid the “white elephant” plague that has afflicted nearly every Olympic Games since the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, with mammoth constructions left empty and largely useless once the Games leave town. Some of London’s venues, such as the basketball complex, will be dismantled entirely. The handball arena, which was constructed with recycled copper, will turn into a multi-use community facility. The media and broadcasting buildings will go, replaced by housing developments as part of the regeneration of East London that has been a critical element of the venture.

“Days of building big simply because the last Games were big are over,” Coe said during a 2007 speech in London. “. . . We want to create a Games that will have a lasting influence on the way people think and behave. In short, a Games that changes lives.”

Coe hired Paul Deighton, a highly regarded investment banker, as the organizing committee’s chief executive to make sure his vision didn’t bankrupt the organizing committee, or even break budget, then began ticking off dreams.

Coe “is a perfect fit with Paul Deighton,” said Gosper, who has been involved in Olympic administration for more than 30 years. “I’ve never seen a better double than those two.”

Coe, 55, has run the pre-Games planning with the same endurance and effervescence he poured into a track career that brought him four Olympic medals at the 1980 Games in Moscow and 1984 in Los Angeles, associates say. He looks as fit and bright-eyed as he did then, his face bearing the pink glow of nearly daily hour-long runs in the unusual sunshine that has baked the region for the last month.

“I’m a runner,” he said, “who doesn’t race anymore.”

Never stop running

Indeed, Coe’s pace has hardly slowed since his retirement in 1989. His stature as one of his nation’s most famous sportsmen has helped him generate popular enthusiasm and political support for this Olympic effort in the same way it smoothed his path into politics — in 1992, he ran for Parliament as a member of the Conservative Party and won a seat. He later served as chief of staff for William Hague, then opened a business; now, he is a vice president for the world track and field federation (IAAF).

Colleagues say his diverse background — Olympian, orator, sport insider and businessman — allowed him to manage opposition to the Games and the occasional mishaps.

For sure, not everything has gone according to plan. There have been conflicts about the post-Games use of the Olympic stadium, which cost some $775 million to build. Fans in Britain and worldwide have been frustrated at their inability to secure Summer Games tickets, which have sold out at breakneck speed, leaving many ticket-seekers empty handed. Providing airtight but not oppressive security in a city with seemingly endless points of access will be a primary worry until the Closing Ceremonies, especially in the aftermath of the riots that flummoxed London police earlier this year. Many expect transportation problems.

At least one of the challenges, however, highlights what Britain believes it can uniquely bring to the staging of an Olympic Games. The ticket scarcity proves what Coe long suspected and which he hopes will elevate the Games experience: Britain is filled with true fans of sport expected not only to fill venues to capacity but also to crowd into the streets and pubs to watch on small and large screens.

That did not occur in Beijing, whose brilliant Olympic park felt like a ghost town early in the Games, before the Chinese government resorted to busing in students and others to fill up empty seats and boulevards. Even in Sydney in 2000 and Athens in 2004, tickets — though scarce in some events — could be had.

“You don’t need to encourage too many people in my country to party,” Coe said. “We do like to party.”

Counting on Olympic stars

One key to maintaining early enthusiasm, Coe said, will be the success of the British Olympic team, especially stars such as swimmer Rebecca Adlington, cyclist Chris Hoy, tennis player Andy Murray, heptathlete Jessica Ennis and others. At the 2008 Summer Games, Britain put forth its best performance in a century, winning 47 medals, good enough for fourth overall in the medals table.

Australian Olympic Committee President “John Coates told me, you gotta understand the whole tone of the Games is set in large part by the ability to deliver big domestic moments,” Coe said. “It’s that atmosphere that seeps into the streets.”

Coe is also counting on the sport-savvy public at large to embrace and celebrate other moments of athletic excellence, regardless of the source. One of the world’s most diverse cities, London at any given time is filled with students, artists and visitors from around the globe. A 2005 survey found more than 300 languages spoken among London’s 8 million residents.

Deighton, a former Goldman Sachs partner, said you can’t put a price on that sort of splendor.

“It’s not that you try to be different,” he said. “You just do what you do well, and share it with the rest of the world.”

© The Washington Post Company