Historic landmarks to host Olympic parties in 2012

More than a year before their athletes duel on the track, in the pool and on the playing fields, Olympic committees from around the world are engaged in a fierce competition in the host city of the 2012 Games.

It has nothing to do with running, jumping or throwing. No medals are at stake.

Yet plenty of prestige and money are on the line as national Olympic committees scramble to snap up some of London's best-known landmarks for their hospitality houses and pavilions during the games.

From Marble Arch to Alexandra Palace to Somerset House, Olympic bodies have picked historic venues to host fans, athletes, sponsors and VIPs — and throw a party or two.

"We could show them a palace in the morning and a warehouse in the evening," said Zanine Adams, an official from the Visit London agency who helps find properties for national Olympic committees, sponsors, sports federations, TV rights holders, media companies and other organizations.

The layout of London and location of the main Olympic complex raise particular challenges for committees seeking a home away from home for a three-week period in the summer of 2012.

The Olympic Park — home to the main stadium, aquatics center, velodrome, media center and other venues — is located in a redeveloped area of Stratford in east London, far from the bustling tourist sites and entertainment centers of central and west London.

Some Olympic bodies are basing themselves in the east, along the River Thames, while others are opting for the more fashionable areas in the heart of the capital. Being close to transportation hubs is among the key factors in the hunt for venues that could be worth more than 100 million pounds ($1.6 billion) to London's hospitality industry.

"The No. 1 thing is location, size and (foot traffic)," Adams said in an interview. "Some are looking at two spaces, maybe a quirky space in east London and hospitality space in central London. It could be an existing venue, temporary structure, piece of land, private house or public house."

Size requests vary widely, from public entertainment venues that can host up to 20,000 people a day — such as the ever-popular "Heineken House" run by the Netherlands Olympic Committee — to more intimate locations for 50 people a day.

One thing is certain: The most lavish Olympic venue will be Russia House, which will serve as a big promotional showcase for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.

"They will want to create an impact here," Adams said.

Russia has spared no expense at recent Olympics, taking over the entire Science World museum in Vancouver at last year's Winter Games and turning it into an exhibit for sponsors and Sochi-related activities. It was brash and a bit gaudy — and pulled in 5,000 visitors a day.

For 2012, the Russians first inquired about renting the Royal Albert Hall, the famous music and arts venue in South Kensington. They were turned away because the hall will be in use for the annual summer Proms concerts that have been a fixture since 1941.

Russia has now turned its sights on another landmark — Marble Arch, the white marble monument at the entrance to Hyde Park. The arch, designed by John Nash in 1828, is traditionally used for ceremonial processions of the royal family and the King's Troop and Royal Horse Artillery.

While no details have been publicly released, the widely reported plans call for the construction of a purpose-built temporary mock Russian palace under or next to the arch.

Planning permission would be required for the multimillion-dollar project, and a formal application has yet to be submitted to Westminster Council.

Police are concerned the Marble Arch plan could cause transport chaos and pose a safety threat in the busy Hyde Park area, according to a report this week in the London Evening Standard.

Adams, who is not involved in the Russia House negotiations, said she expects the venue to have a different look and feel from the one in Vancouver.

"I don't think it will be as decadent as it was in Vancouver," she said. "I think they've learned a few valuable lessons from Vancouver. They will be much more consumer focused. They will make a big splash, not in terms of cash, but in terms of engagement in consumer experience."

Another showpiece will be Brazil House at Somerset House, a neoclassical building sitting between the Strand and the River Thames, just a stone's throw from Waterloo Bridge. The original palace was built in 1547 for Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset. Today, the public courtyard features dancing fountains in the summer and a skating rink in the winter.

It will be an ideal central location for Brazil to remind the world that the next Summer Games will be held in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, the first Olympics in South America.

Adams said Brazil plans to use the house for private events for the first couple of weeks before unleashing a "samba" experience ahead of the handover from London to Rio at the closing ceremony.

"Just before the closing, there will be one-off carnival events that showcase 'Here comes Brazil,'" Adams said. "It will be fab."

The location for USA House hasn't been finalized yet, but possible sites include venues near Hyde Park, Covent Garden and the Royal Albert Hall.

The American house tends to be more discreet than others, partly for security reasons.

"We're not trying to hide it," U.S. Olympic Committee spokesman Patrick Sandusky said. "It's more of a place where sponsors, donors and athletes can rest and retreat after a long day. We don't use it as an external marketing tool. We don't need to be too ostentatious."

Sandusky said the U.S. is looking for a venue that can accommodate about 1,800 people a day. A typical USA House is a bit like an upmarket sports bar, serving American food and beer and offering athletes and their families a place to chill out.

Olympic sites that have been finalized include:

— The Dutch/Heineken House at Alexandra Palace, a massive North London venue for music, sports and other events for more than 130 years. The palace hosted the first public TV transmissions by the BBC in 1936.

— France House at Old Billingsgate, the 19th century Victorian market building located on the Thames next to the Tower of London.

— Swiss House at Glaziers Hall, built as a warehouse in 1808 and adjoining London Bridge between Southbank and Borough Market.

— German House at The Museum of London Docklands, located in early 19th century Georgian warehouses on the Isle of Dogs near the Canary Wharf development.

International and domestic media groups are also searching for prime locations, though no contracts have yet been announced. One sports marketing group has already booked the Orangery, a former royal conservatory set in the manicured gardens of Kensington Palace.

"There is so much diversity and unique spaces to go with," Adams said. "People can come with an idea of what they want in the morning and fall in love with something else by the time they've left."