So far, the Olympic Park had left me with mixed feelings. Brilliant architecture was mixed with not-so-great efforts, as you can read here.
I kept on walking along the pedestrian pathways, marveling at the size of the place. It really beggars belief that this very site, five years ago, was – literally – a dump, the illegal dustbin for half of East London, if not for whole. The Olympics’ positive shockwaves hadn’t really been felt in the westernmost fringes of the city, where I live, but they sure changed this place for the better. For once, I surprised myself thinking, I had found a place in East London where I could contemplate moving.
The Athletes village, now being converted in much-needed quality housing, cast a benevolent eye on me – or so I decided to interpret it – while I paid a brief visit to what has won the non enviable title of loneliest post-Olympic infrastructure. I’m talking about the Copper Box.
Built to host the handball games, the Copper Box – previously known as Handball Arena – is now trying to reposition itself as a location for all kind of sporting activities without much success, at least judging by the fact that it was the only Olympic venue to be boarded up and shut down during my Sunday visit (the Stadium was indeed closed as well, but it’s a building site at the moment).
I personally like the Copper Box. I like its simplicity, the fact of looking similar to the cooling tower nearby, and the nostalgic in me saw many similarities between it and the Olympic Palasport in Turin, Italy, where I spent many nights clubbing. Like a shy child, the Copper Box sits in one corner, trying to raise a bit of interest by sporting a gigantic, chromed sign reading “RUN”. But few seemed to notice, even those running or cycling, because they all were heading towards the star of this place: the Lee Valley Velopark.
And here it is. If I had to choose a symbol for this Olympics, this would be it: a sort of a hybrid between a flying pancake and a manta ray sitting on a prime position, alone at the top of a low hill where everyone can see it. It’s one of those buildings perfect in its geometries, unspoilt by all those technical elements – pillars, pipes, antennas, metal fire staircases – that always seem to appear after an architect steps away from his concept and leaves it to the structural engineer to make it happen.
I approached the building, designed by Hopkins Architects, with a bit of unease; how to portray its vastness, smoothness, lack of angles and seeming infinity? Well, after a while I decided not to try. I’m not a professional photographer and, if you’re interested, there are many a beautiful photo sets for this building around. What I did, rather, is to notice how heaving with activity this place was.
Amateur cyclists were making good use of the track outside, whilst a youth no older than 15 was doing practice laps on the BMX track, under the watchful eye of his coach (you got to be 15 and convinced of your own indestructibility to be doing BMX). The car park, instead, was filled with cars. Mostly were estates or MPVs, all with the rear seats collapsed down: an ominous sign, as I was to discover.
And here I was, in the temple that saw Chris Hoy get his MBE and Team GB bagging 7 out of 10 gold medals being awarded in here. It also was the place of the famous controversy with the French cycling team, who were quite blatantly the Brits of cheating (despite the latter using, of all places, bike wheels made in France itself). This is a sacred place for Britain’s new religion: cycling.
Britain has some very fine roads to indulge in this practice but, at the same time, is also quite unsafe, especially within the city boundaries. I know it very well, having cycled to work for about one year before a hit with a Range Rover at a roundabout suggested me to get back to the dear, old Tube. Despite that, and despite all the deaths that, unfortunately, keep on happening on the roads, more and more Brits flock to enjoy the pleasure of wheels and pedals. What I saw unfolding in the Velopark made it even more evident.
At least three different teams, from different corners of the South East, had congregated under the curved roof of the velodrome. A dozen of cyclists were busy doing practice laps, toiling up the steep parabolic chicanes (and, believe me, those bends are steep) while friends and families chatted, looked on and, in general, were busy being part of a community.
I grabbed a coffee and sat there too, admiring the almost hypnotic circuiting of the Lycra-clad runners. They were mostly in their forties, but one guy struck me for being very young, certainly too young to have even started driving lessons. I tried to think how it must’ve felt, for him, to be able to train in the hallowed grounds that saw so many great cyclists reach glory. And there it struck me that the this – inspiring, providing examples and infrastructures – is the legacy of the Olympics; this, and not how pretty the buildings are.