Sport suffers by the Lee as Olympic security zone expands

A lovely walk, if you were allowed there…

It’s reasonable to suggest that to make a global spectacle omelette, you need to crack a few eggs. The London 2012 Olympics will be one mightily large dish, presented on a multimedia platter and sampled by some 4bn across the world. But when the Games mean the loss of your own amenities, it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.

Two days ago I wandered down the towpath that runs along the Lee Navigation from Homerton, joins up with the River Lea by the national stadium, then continues to the notoriously cycle-unfriendly Bow Interchange roundabout.

Company came in the form of German journalist Christian, from Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany’s biggest broadsheet. The path is a familiar one I’ve taken many times before on my tours, but not for a couple of weeks.

Today it looked different: the colourful canal boats had all gone and the security guards had new uniforms: dark green outer layers and bright green inner layers making them look more like park rangers than security guards, doubtless as intended.

Most had the usual ‘these uneventful days are the longest of my life’ expressions, but a couple of friendly young Polish guys were stopping the walkers and joggers and the cyclists that use this popular stretch of path that as a commuter route to Canary Wharf. Did we know the path was closing tomorrow? Until after the Olympics? It had been advertised, had I not seen it?

The high grey electric fence is festooned with signs warning of its powerful current; patrol dogs; controlled access to waterways; CCTV; the prohibition of mooring here or parking there.

If you like primary colours and officious notices, then this is heaven for you. I confess I hadn’t looked specifically at the posters advertising path and road closures in the area – or ‘changes’ as they’re euphemstically referred to. I was taken aback.

So now the towpath joins the Greenway in being another victim of the Olympic security zone. A myriad of CCTV cameras and a 6m electric fence – that reminds me of mesh stretches of the Berlin Wall – is apparently not enough; the waterway will form an additional buffer zone around the western side of the Park.

Looking south, I saw the Bow Quarter buildings, site of the original Bryant & May factory where the famous 1888 Matchgirls Strike took place. Missiles will soon be placed on the roofs, against many residents’ wishes. Later on, I watched a crowd of soldiers looking under vehicles at the Pudding Mill Lane site entrance and recalled the helicopter carrier moored at Greenwich.

The towpath closure is annoying, but in itself, it’s not the end of the world. It’s not as frustrating as the closure until September of the ‘spiritual home of Sunday league football’ which is Hackney Marshes.

They don’t have a specific date, a receptionist told me; which adds to the feeling of some – like the garage owner who was waiting to hear when and how access to his Hackney Wick forecourt would be restricted – that they’re at the whim of a faceless Olympic organisation that takes precedence over everyone and everything else.

The towpath closure is also not as frustrating as having the vital space that is Leyton Marsh dug up for the temporary basketball courts that supposedly couldn’t be placed anywhere else. A white plastic blot on a beautiful landscape and precious resource.

But when you can’t run where you normally do, can’t take the walks you normally would and feel like you’re in some sort of military Green Zone rather than East London – this is intensely frustrating and alienating. The Olympics are, after all, supposed to bring benefits to the local community, though the authorities will probably say the main improvements will manifest themselves in the long-term.

My position is simple: the Olympics are a mixed bag, there is good and – very definitely – bad. People do indeed fear change and we’re not always the most positive nation here. But we’re all familiar with the ‘way of the world’ and we are savvy to the propensity of business and power to look after themselves and of ‘promises’ to be forgotten when there’s serious money to be made.

We won’t really be able to assess the Olympics real worth to London till we’ve observed the legacy. Certainly for now, as many locals gripe – rightly or wrongly – that this is someone else’s show, there is a sense of something alien being foisted on East London.

At a recent performance of Rimini Protokoll’s “100% London” at Hackney Empire, half of the 100-strong cast indicated they’d have liked a vote about hosting the Olympics. And when it starts to impinge on real everyday physical activity by non-athletes – the kind that the state is spending a fortune trying to promote – that’s quite the sporting irony.

If the soldiers that appeared yesterday would allow you down the now-closed towpath, you’d end up at the Thames. Christian had been over the water in Greenwich researching his big Olympic story.

He told there are plenty of people in Greenwich who are very unhappy at losing most of their park for the summer (July and August) and slices of it for much longer. And who wouldn’t be? Those slices of green are sanctuaries for a lot of us in this beautiful – but sometimes overwhelming – city.

There will be those in the UK provinces watching the Games who’ll complain that they’re crying out for the investment and attention that the capital is getting.

But the jury is still out about what all that will mean or East London; and for the moment, we’re losing our green spaces. And if anywhere needs them, it’s this wonderful – but packed – city of 8m.

To read about what the Olympics mean for London, from a critical standpoint giving access to a variety of sources and voices, check out Games Monitor. Also, you can follow @OpenOurTowpath on Twitter.

Stop press: as of Fri 6th July, there is a lot of reaction to this closure and an demonstration is planned for noon on Sunday 8th, where the Eastway meets the canal. See the “#olytowpath” hashtag on Twitter.

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