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Wrap it up: Olympic stadium gets cloth curtains

It's all wrapped up. London organizers have sealed a deal with U.S.-based Dow Chemical Co. to restore an innovative curtain to encircle the Olympic Stadium for the 2012 Games.

Olympic officials had scrapped the "wrap" late last year because its price tag of 7 million pounds ($11.4 million) had been deemed too expensive at a time of economic austerity. Architects and artists had decried the decision, suggesting the look and image of the games would suffer.

But now, the wrap is back — even though it's not the same one originally promoted. Dow Chemical, the Midland, Michigan, conglomerate, agreed to pay for the visual centerpiece of the Olympics, which now looks more like curtains than a single sweeping cloth. The move comes even though Dow, the official "Chemistry Company" of the Olympic movement, will be barred by Olympics guidelines from etching the firm's logo onto the curtains during the competition.

London organizing committee chief Sebastian Coe said the contract meant the project stayed "within the Olympic family."

"This was also a way of protecting the public purse," Coe said.

Neither Dow nor Olympic officials would disclose the cost of the contract, though the project appeared to have been downscaled from the original notion.

The new wrap is comprised of 336 individual polyester panels — each approximately 25 meters (89 feet) high and 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) wide.

An artist's rendering of the project showed a series of disconnected strips hanging from the edge of the stadium skeleton — which is unlike the sweeping single piece of cloth shown in earlier versions of the structure.

The wrap was an intricate element of the stadium's design. Inspired by stage sets used for outdoor events, its creators designed the wrap to touch the earth lightly and define the space between the outside concourse and the stadium itself, said Rod Sheard, a senior principal of Populous, the London 2012 stadium architect. Its minimalist approach matched the rest of the structure — light, airy, and fluid. It captured the imagination.

"The wrap is fundamental to the image of the venue," Sheard said in an email Wednesday. "It transforms the light, almost delicate diagonal frame supporting the roof into an object rather than just a skeleton and it is this 'object' which will be the most viewed building in the world at next year's opening ceremony."

Sheard said the new design takes advantage of wind movement. The design has been tested on the site and verified in wind tunnel tests.

Under the deal, Dow will not be allowed to put its logo on the wrap, since venue advertising is prohibited at the Olympics. Dow will be allowed to use its logo as the project gets under way — on construction billboards and such — and during test events, but not once the games begin. Installation is set to begin in spring 2012.

But Dow is still likely to reap huge benefits from such an arrangement, said Ellis Cashmore, a professor of culture, media and sport at Staffordshire University — even if the chemical giant's three letter name is nowhere to be seen. That's because word will spread about the decision and it will become clear that it was Dow's project.

"It will be spoken of," Cashmore said. "There is prestige attached to the fact. That can be put in your corporate advertising."

What's more, indirect advertising can be more effective than emblazoned billboards with the company logo. It's all about having your company associated with images and issues that the company wants to project. In the case of the Olympics that means youth, health, vigor — and big dreams that come to pass.

"The most effective form of advertising is when people don't know its advertising," Cashmore said.

Dow officials stressed the project would be sustainable — that when the curtains came down, there would be some use for them. Some of the options being considered include transforming them into refugee tents or emergency shelter accommodations.

George Hamilton, vice president of Dow Olympic operations, said the project dovetails with the chemical giant's involvement as a top tier sponsor for the movement, and its efforts to showcase the use of its products in "90 percent of the things you touch every day." Plus it gave an out to Olympic officials trying to decide how to restore the critical element to the stadium's design.

"This wrap itself was looking for a solution," Hamilton said.