Column: Damn the money, Olympics renew east London

In August of 1944, when the tough east London neighborhoods of his childhood lay smoking in bombed-out ruins, a Nazi German V1 rocket packed with one ton of high explosives "fell just where you're sitting," David Gold says.

Comfortably seated in the bar of the 117-year-old east London soccer club, West Ham, which he now co-owns, Gold is not trying to be melodramatic.

He is simply making a point: This part of London has long had more than its share of foul luck, and it was high time that changed. The 2012 Summer Games are helping do that.

The Olympics are focusing the world's eyes on what used to be a derelict, polluted patch of industrial land near Gold's childhood home but which now is a shining advertisement for east London: the immaculate, landscaped Olympic Park with purpose-built sports venues that smell like a new car. So damn the expense.

"What is happening is immense for east London," Gold says. The Olympics are "bringing the pride back to this part of the world."

Those London Mayor Boris Johnson once described as "Olympo-skeptics" have beaten a steady rhythm of complaint about the $14 billion Britain is spending in an economic recession on games many people couldn't get or afford tickets for. And Britain being a vociferous democracy, critics aren't locked up and shut up as they were in Beijing in 2008.

The Big Brotheresque Olympic security — up to 13,500 soldiers, plus police, security guards, fighter jets, helicopters, warships, surface-to-air missiles and even a "sonic weapon" crowd-control device that emits a dissuasive, ear-piercing beam of sound — also doesn't come cheap and, to some, is a scary reminder that Britain is a target for terrorists.

Street graffiti artists complain their work has been painted over in London's Olympic beautification. Police around the Olympic Park have been given powers to disperse "anti-social" teenage loiterers. Oficers have clamped down on prostitutes and cleaned out their calling cards from London's famous red telephone boxes. And plans to whisk Olympic VIPs and athletes through London traffic on reserved lanes sit uncomfortably in a class-conscious city where opponents dismiss the games as a corporate-sponsored shindig for the rich.

"The Olympics are being used to beat people over the head with," says Joe Alex, who owns a small house next to the Olympic Park and claims that games-related property development, "like social cleansing," is squeezing and pricing modest families out of the area.

"There's a real seedy underbelly. Corporate Olympics have taken over the whole thing," he says. "I don't know anyone who knows anyone who has a ticket."

But finding east Londoners who are thrilled is easy, too. When you look at east London's history, it is not hard to understand why.

The British capital has, in some ways, long been a city divided. Wealth, political power, bridges over the Thames, posh shops and night life were concentrated in its west. The east was where the city sent its filth — in engineer Joseph Bazalgette's sewage network — and crammed in its poor.

It was home to the massive shipping docks that Adolf Hitler's Luftwaffe bombed ferociously because they handled one-third of Britain's imports. When Buckingham Palace in the west was bombed in 1940, Queen Elizabeth II's mother, the late Queen mother, was famously said to have been almost glad that she could now "look the East End in the eye" and share its suffering.

East London was where stinking industries clustered and where Jack the Ripper slashed and horrified, where Stalin, Lenin and Trotsky visited and where India independence leader Mohandas Gandhi stayed in 1931, preferring to live among the working people and smoke stacks than in a West End hotel.

For those in the west, "the old saying was that you never went east of the Aldgate Pump," a public fountain marking a rough boundary between the city proper and its East End, says Brian Grover, an east Londoner who works at the Museum of London Docklands.

His childhood memories are of swims in the Thames so polluted "we all had boils, ear aches," and of recovering cans of fruit discarded by cargo ships in the flotsam and jetsam of the river.

"You'd always find loads of stuff, amid the dead dogs," Grover says.

East London was also where those from other parts of the city often had no wish or need to go. Gold, the West Ham chairman, joked in this interview that the A13 highway that cuts horizontally through the east into the city's financial heart was enlarged and improved over the years "so people could get through the East End of London faster because nobody actually wanted to stop here."

Gold's father, a small-time criminal, was in and out of prison. After training as a bricklayer, Gold went into business selling erotic books and magazines and, later, developing what is now the Ann Summers empire of sex toy and lingerie stores.

"I clawed my way out of this place and never wanted to come back," he says of east London. "I do now."

Gold hopes to move West Ham into the Olympic Stadium after the games. He was a boy of 7 when the V1 rocket cratered the field and blew off a roof at the soccer club's current Boleyn Ground stadium, further east from the Olympic Park and opposite what was then his house.

"Since that time, my earliest memories of the East End of London is that nothing has been done," he says. "Virtually no investment, no infrastructure."

"And along comes this amazing, amazing, amazing event that has transformed and will transform the East End forever," he said of the Olympics. "The key to the whole thing here, the whole emotion of this, is what they leave behind. And what they leave behind — fingers crossed — is a whole regeneration of a very deprived area."

The West/East divide was true in the other direction, too. For some east Londoners, the west was a world, not a bus ride, away. It was where some went rarely to see the Christmas lights, buy smart clothes or luxury goods they couldn't find in the east but not a place where they necessarily felt at home.

"I didn't know what west London was until I was 16," says Jean Jeffrey, who was born in Guyana in South America and moved 47 years ago with her Portuguese father and Indian mother to the East End. A council employee, she now runs a viewing platform that overlooks the Olympic Park, proudly explaining the changes brought by the games to visitors and busloads of school children.

"I used to feel quite embarrassed about living in east London, even as an adult. I don't anymore because I can see things happening," she says. "It's our time now and that balance is changing now — that balance from west to east."

Stratford, on the edge of and gateway to the Olympic Park, must now be one of the best-connected urban neighborhoods in Europe, served by multiple railway and Underground lines and high-speed trains named after famous British athletes. Government officials talk up Stratford as being part of a so-called "Arc of Opportunity" cutting downward through east London to the Thames.

Not all the changes one sees, like the luxury apartments and gleaming office towers built on the former Thames docks that closed in the 1960s to '80s and became derelict, are Olympic-related. But many who work and live in east London believe development wouldn't be so noticeable without the games.

They "put rocket boosters under it," says Jonathan McShane, an elected councilor in Hackney, one of the east London boroughs hosting the Olympics.

The 600-page candidate file London delivered to the International Olympic Committee when it was bidding for the games said change would still come to east London even without the Olympics but would be "slower, more incremental and less ambitious."

East London's River Lea and adjoining waterways where people drowned unwanted pets, ditched car tires, bicycles and shopping carts, and where Gold swam as a boy — "My mum found out and she went absolutely potty because she was fearful I'd get some terrible disease" — has been cleaned. It cuts through the Olympic Park.

In his memories, "I can see the area, the slums, the railway sidings and the ugliness of the whole thing," Gold says. "Now when I go there, wow, any city in the world would be proud of what is being achieved here. It's not like you're building this instead of building hospitals. We'll still be building our hospitals, we'll still be building schools. This is extra and above, and the legacy is invaluable."


John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at) or follow him at