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'The real challenge is not what we think of it today but what we will think of it in 2025,' says Sir John Armitt. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

London is counting down the days until the opening ceremony – 171 to be precise – but the man charged with delivering the Olympic stadia and infrastructure is more concerned with the distant future.

The buildings are in place – albeit at a cost of more than three times the original £2.37billion budget – and although battles remain over the future of the athletics stadium, the chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority is thrilled by the transformation of Stratford.

Sir John Armitt, who already has his Olympic medal after he was knighted in the New Year’s Honours list, says: “The big opportunity was to take 600 acres of wasteland, a very heavily contaminated, rundown part of the east side of the city and transform it into what is now going to be a new, magical place in London for the next 100 years.

“The real challenge is not what we think of it today but what we will think of it in 2025. Then we’ll say, ‘Yes, hosting the Games was not just the excitement of the greatest show on earth but a real opportunity to give Londoners a place to be proud of and tilt the balance slightly away from the West to the East.'”

He agrees with Lord Coe, chairman of the Games organising committee, that without the Olympics this would not have happened and he has no time for those who argue that the £9.3bn cost cannot be justified, particularly in these economic times.

“You can always say, ‘Well, this money could have been spent differently.’ It’s rather like the debate around [the rail project] High Speed 2. I was involved in High Speed 1 [the Channel Tunnel construction] and all the resistance to it.

“Interestingly, if you go down and talk to those living in the villages of Kent, they don’t even think about it any longer. We are a small country. We love our environment and debate long and hard, longer than some other countries. That is why we took such a long time to build the Channel Tunnel.

“Some of our most famous poets objected to the development of the railways going through the Lake District, some of the most famous writers of the Victorian age were concerned about the Industrial Revolution. What we do today is often painful for us but it benefits our grandchildren.”

The 66-year-old, who has spent his entire working life in construction, believes the Olympic site has finally nailed the lie that this country, unlike France, does not do ‘grand projects’.

“I don’t accept that this country has a bad record for grand projects,” he says. “Terminal Five, the actual building of the Dome, the Channel Tunnel rail link, which I was heavily involved in, came in on time and on budget.”

Mention Wembley to the Arsenal fan and he does concede that was one project which let the side down but he quickly moves the conversation back to the Gunners to get the British construction flag flying again.

“Wembley was a very difficult project which didn’t go well,” he says. “But as an Arsenal supporter, I look at Emirates Stadium: on time and within budget. Nobody really talks about the Emirates. Wembley over budget and late inevitably gets the headlines and we tend to say, ‘We don’t do these things well.'”

Armitt accepts that one major reason for 2012’s success was the budget increasing two and a half years after the Games were won.

“Oh. I don’t disagree with that at all. There was that opportunity post the award of the Games for people to sit down and say, ‘Right, now we’ve won it, let’s really get a full and proper understanding of what it is that we’ve got to do and what is a sensible budget.'”

For Armitt this was not deception but a necessary part of a winning bid strategy. “I’ve spent my life as a contractor and people are always optimistic when they’re bidding for things.

“Alastair Morton, chairman of the Channel Tunnel, made the observation once that, if you wanted to actually get a decision made about any really major events, then you did not want to alarm the horses.

“The funding was in crisis. One of the fortunate things was having a significant contingency that we could fund the Village from. So we said, ‘Right, we’re better using public money in the short term and then recovering it from the private sector in the longer term when the market’s better.'”

Half the Village has now been sold to a housing association, the other half to Delancey, the commercial developers. “The key thing is we got our money back,” says Armitt.

This has given him such a sense of optimism that he refuses to be worried by the effect bad weather could have on spectators – “if it rains, some of the people close to the edge will get wet, but the enthusiasm, I’m sure, will be undimmed” – or the storm over the post-Games use of the stadium.

After a messy legal fight between West Ham and Tottenham the whole tender process has restarted with 16 bidders expressing an interest in leasing the stadium.

“I can’t quite understand why people are getting so excited about the fact that a final deal has not been done on the stadium,” he says. “I’m optimistic because West Ham are clearly very keen and what is encouraging about the position is that the stadium will remain in public hands.”

Having ruled out a ‘Stade de France’ model, where the seats roll back to convert from a football mode to athletics, Armitt is comfortable with the decision to build an 80,000-seat stadium that, after the Games, can be taken down to 25,000.

“We had made a commitment to the IOC that there will be an international athletics stadium so we said, ‘Let’s ensure that is the legacy which we create.’ And that’s what we’ve done.”

Armitt insists the Olympic Stadium will be able to do for spectators what Beijing’s Bird Nest could not.

“Beijing’s is architecturally imposing and fascinating but from the outside. The stadium we’ve built has the same capacity as the Bird’s Nest but is much more intimate.

“It works incredibly well on the inside. It is so simple.”

What is more, says the civil engineer, with evident pride: “We used only a quarter of the steel the Chinese did, an excellent example of efficient British engineering.”

      

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