LONDON – Think of it as "Colorado Springs East" — a training spot for U.S. Olympians in London.
A sparkling new 21 million-pound ($33.2 million) gym at the University of East London is just about complete and will host the U.S. Olympic team during the games. In a few weeks, it will be ready for everyone from stars like swimming's Michael Phelps and basketball's Kobe Bryant to U.S. athletes who are still relatively unknown, offering them privacy to lift, stretch and practice.
"We've worked closely with the (U.S. Olympic Committee) and we've tailored the package to suit," said David Cosford, the university's sports director. "We're very, very serious about sport."
Some 570 U.S. athletes and hundreds of support staff will use the university's campus, gym and sports facilities before and during the July 27-Aug. 12 games. While U.S. athletes will sleep in the Olympic Village near Olympic Park, two train stops away, U.S. Olympic staff can bunk in the university's dorms and set up their own sports science, medicine and media centers.
American track and field athletes also plan to train in the central city of Birmingham before the games.
The gym is a key new structure for the University of East London, a modern conglomeration of glass and steel built in an area historically known for slaughterhouses, toxic waste dumps and once-thriving but long-derelict shipyards. Its Docklands campus sits astride a canal and across from London City Airport, where jet engines boom jarringly at regular intervals.
The university offers 25,000 students courses in digital communications, arts, architecture and business in a practical curriculum geared toward getting jobs.
It worked hard to make the facility comfortable for Olympians, the sort of place you can drop your 45-kilogram (100-pound) free weight on the ground without causing a fuss or stop in for a workout en route to a major competition in Europe. A top U.S. sponsor, 24 Hour Fitness, supplied some equipment.
"We're interested in a partnership that lasts beyond the games," said Mark Jones, a spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee. "We want to leave a legacy."
Prior to this, East London students lacked a gym. The goal was to create a gym with exceptional facilities that would be affordable and accessible, where anyone in this working-class community can train like an Olympian.
"You could pick up a bar that Michael Phelps had used the week before," Cosford said with a trace of awe.
The building is open and airy, smelling of fresh paint, hardwood and clean plastic. There are two massive gyms, big enough for multiple basketball courts. The shiny hardwood floors are crisscrossed with lines marking the courts for other sports as well — like volleyball and badminton.
The center is set to open in the spring, so students will get a chance to use it before the games. The mirrored studios overlooking the basketball floor will host yoga, dance or spinning classes while the ground floor offers treadmills, elliptical trainers and stair machines. Student tournaments will be held in the two vast arenas.
All those hoops folded up across the ceiling might strike some people in Britain as odd, as basketball is not a huge sport here. England Basketball, the sport's governing body, is hoping that the London Olympics changes that, particularly since the American team is such a huge draw.
USA Basketball insists they can't wait to check out the gym. Craig Miller, the spokesman for the team, loves the notion of a new gym because improved building technology makes running up and down on a new court less jarring on athletes' knees.
"It's going to be a great facility for us and for the university," he said.
The impressive facility will actually serve three roles: Olympic training ground, university fitness center and anchor for a troubled community. It is a major project for the London neighborhood of Newham, where the Olympic Park is based.
The Newham All Star Sports Academy is already penciled in for 24 hours a week of court time, except during the Olympics. The club gives kids and youths an alternative to the crime, gangs and drugs that scar the area, offering programs aimed at keeping them out of trouble while teaching them teamwork.
Until the new facility was built, the program moved around to wherever it could find space. Director Natasha Hart shuffled her 450 members from school gym to school gym based on availability, always mindful of keeping practices on schedule to prevent overtime charges.
Having a regular home gym just means ... everything.
"Everyone is going to know," she said. "The game is here."