Don’t worry. Jonathan Edwards hasn’t fallen on hard times since winning gold at Sydney in 2000. Rather, Locog is using his expert knowledge to help with the delivery of the £1bn Olympic village, right down to the fixtures and fittings
Picture the scene: Jonathan Edwards, Tim Henman and Dame Tanni Grey-Thomson sitting around a boardroom table, arguing about door handles. That’s what you might see if you took a wrong turn at Locog HQ and stumbled into one of the bimonthly athletes committee meetings. It’s a requirement of the International Olympic Committee that there is an athlete representative on the board of the local organising committee, but for London 2012, the organisers have taken it one step further and assembled an entire subcommittee to guide all decisions from the design of the venues to the logistics of the Games themselves.
We’re trying to find a compromise solution. We recognise there isn’t a blank cheque so we can’t say the athletes can have what they want
Chairing the athletes committee and sitting on the main board is Edwards, one of Britain’s most successful athletes and holder of the world record for the triple jump. He has agreed to give Building an athlete’s perspective on the Olympic village, a standing item on the agenda. “If you take the field of play, it’s standard across the world. A track is a track and it’s strictly governed by international federations. The village is the one area where there’s a huge amount of variation across host cities,” he says.
It turns out competing at the Olympic Games isn’t all about Chariots of Fire-style striving, or even the rampant, er, fraternising that is rumoured to take place as soon as the swimmers have finished. (Edwards drew their ire in 2000 by publicly telling them to give it a rest, though he claims he was misquoted.) It’s also about being crammed into student-style accommodation with a bunch of strangers, trudging miles to find your room, tripping over other people’s kitbags and queueing for the bathroom.
“It’s inevitably a compromise living in a village,” says Edwards. “We’re making it as little of a compromise as possible. It’s quite simple things - the quality of food and that you can access your apartments quickly. We have lots of chat about lifts, how big they are, how frequently they go.”
Edwards himself competed in the Games in 1996 at Atlanta and in 2000 at Sydney, where he took silver and gold medals respectively. He retired from athletics in 2003 at the age of 37, and has been involved with the London 2012 Olympics since the bid stage. Aside from his world record, he is perhaps best known for presenting Songs of Praise until 2007, when he publicly admitted to losing his Christian faith. Edwards is softly spoken, impeccably mannered and, though rangy, nowhere near as tall as you’d expect of a man who once triple-jumped 18.29m. As he strides around the Stratford site office, he seems to command a certain deference among the project team. These days, he is as much a television personality as an athlete, stylishly smart casual. And he doesn’t reckon he can jump very far at all - “only about 15m”.
He and the other athletes on the committee are now using their experiences of previous Olympics to make living in the village as painless as possible. “In Sydney, it was like a residential housing development; Atlanta was more like student accommodation. The biggest challenges are space and storage in the rooms, and ratios of bathrooms. More often than not you’re sharing a room and some are a little on the small side - you turn around and you’re nose to nose. Food and catering and the layout of the dining hall are important, and you need a good choice of food. You don’t suddenly want to try the food of the particular culture you’re in - you just want something that you can trust.”
At the Olympics in 2012, there will be 17,000 athletes in the village, housed across 11 residential blocks, each with between six and eight buildings on a relatively compact site. This will minimise the trekking needed between sleeping, eating and competing facilities but runs the risk of feeling claustrophobic. The size of the development has been scaled back twice since 2008 from 4,000 homes to 2,818. Edwards says the bid promise of a bed for every athlete has been maintained but that fewer officials will be able to stay: “With an athlete’s hat on I wouldn’t say that was a bad thing, it makes the village less crowded.” The athletes committee has also “pushed hard” for some of the operational facilities to be taken out of the village to increase space.
The village In numbers
- Comprises 11 residential plots made up of six to eight buildings in a rectangular layout around a 2,400m2 courtyard
- Will provide accommodation for around 17,000 athletes and officials, and in legacy 2,818 new homes for Londoners. Nearly 1,000 of these will be three and four bed family homes. 1,379 have been purchased by the Triathlon Homes consortium for affordable housing after 2012
- Buildings contain a total of 76 lifts to ensure full accessibility.
- Facilities include: the world-class Chobham Academy education campus with 1,800 places for students aged between three and 19; and 10ha of new parks and open space
Discussions can, by the sound of it, get pretty detailed. “It’s just tiny things,” says Edwards. “What furniture there is in the rooms, heating systems … For some, it’s blackout blinds, or locks on doors.” This is where the door handles argument comes in. Although the athletes committee is only focused on the village’s use during Games time, they are restricted by the demands of the legacy use and the budget. Athletes allotted a single room understandably want more secure locks on their bedrooms than your average homebuyer will post-2012. “We’re trying to find a compromise solution. We recognise there isn’t a blank cheque so we can’t say the athletes can have what they want.”
An artist’s impression of the fit-out during Games time looks pretty spartan, though even this may be overselling it. “You’re looking at a bed, lockable cupboards, chairs. You might have a nice picture on the wall …” A beanbag? “I don’t know if you’ll have a beanbag, but you’ve got a bed.” So a bed, a rug … “A rug? Maybe not a rug … You have to make compromises, so it might be a choice between rugs, or extra train or bus drivers. From an athlete’s point of view, we’re wondering about the quality of the mattress. That would be a fairly critical thing. We’ve appointed a preferred provider and they will get what’s best at the best price,” he adds, dashing visions of him and Henman squabbling over Dreams brochures.
Edwards appears to be very sensibly keeping out of any design discussions beyond his immediate brief. The 17 architects behind the 11 residential blocks are a diverse mix including Glenn Howells, Ian Simpson and Make. But with only the structural shells in place, it’s hard to picture how this rich variety will gel in the finished development. The strongest impression from the viewing platform at the centre of the village is the sheer scale of the site - so at least the mix should prevent it resembling a monolithic Soviet-era housing estate. Edwards demurs from commenting beyond: “There’s only about three or four buildings with cladding on at the moment and it looks fine. I think it’s a really nice design.” Is he into architecture? “I like aesthetics, but I wouldn’t say I was into it. It’s quite fun.”
What he’s most enthusiastic about are the large landscaped courtyards between blocks and the winter gardens linking the buildings, 10ha of new parks and open space in total. “This is going to be a lovely area,” he gestures at a CAD image of the village’s central park.
“One thing the athletes are very concerned about is the maturity of the planting. You see these pictures, and then when you actually get there there’s just, like, little saplings.” No danger of that in 2012. There will be more than 2,000 trees in the village and half will be semi-mature, with some up to 12m high.
During the Games themselves, Edwards will be there presenting for the BBC, which could give him an uncomfortable front row seat should anything go wrong. What he’s really worried about though is losing his world record. “I’ve got my fingers crossed it doesn’t happen. I’ve had it so long it feels like it’s mine.”