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For London, what will Olympic legacy be?

Friday - 8/10/2012, 9:42am  ET

Associated Press

LONDON (AP) - London 2102.

It was only a typo, stenciled on an Olympics tennis umpire's chair, but it raised an interesting question. What will be the legacy of this year's games _ economically, socially, culturally?

In a 2,000-year-old city that has been home to many, many stories, will the games, decades from now, merit their own chapter _ or merely a sentence or two? Once the gold-fueled nationalism fades and the bill comes due, will they be seen as a success?

If you live in London's gritty East End, where much of the $14 billion in Olympics-related infrastructure improvements have been made, the answer could very well be yes.

The 560-acre Olympic Park replaced a rusting, toxic no-man's-land with state-of the art venues, some constructed by world-class architects. After the games end, the site will be closed to undergo another metamorphosis.

When it reopens in 2013, many temporary Olympic structures will be gone, replaced by fields, playgrounds, waterways, cycling lanes and picnic areas, as well as scaled-down athletic and cultural venues and new mixed-income housing.

"Initially, I was skeptical about the effect it would have on the local community, but over the years it has become apparent that there's been a lot of attention paid to the legacy of the Olympics," said Dan Tsu, the founder of Lyrix Organix, a group of rappers and hiphop artists who work with underprivileged youth in Stratford and Hackney, the neighborhoods adjacent to Olympic Park.

Tsu said both have been plagued by crime, unemployment and neglect. Those will doubtless improve, but the neighborhoods will also have to adjust to gentrification and higher real estate prices.

"It is difficult for any community to deal with something that uproots them. There is a very strong sense of community here," he said. "But I've realized that the area needed regeneration and investment."

Elsewhere, the impact of the games will be more diffuse, if it is felt at all.

Britain hoped the Olympics would lead to a surge in sports participation that would allow it to shed its distinction as the fattest nation in Europe, but whether that will happen remains to be seen.

Fighting a recession and slashing debt, Britain has already cut the budget for Sport England, the community sports organization, by a third. It has scrapped a plan to get 1 million more people playing sports by the end of this year.

So the games may not have shrunk Britain's waistline. But they do seem to have bolstered the national mood.

Famously reserved Londoners have found themselves besieged by cheerful, purple-clad Olympic staff helping direct tourists. Even the subway, or Tube, normally a silent netherworld of grimaces and thousand-mile stares, has become the setting of friendly medal-tables banter between perfect strangers.

One longtime London commuter, Oliver Ortiz, was having trouble digesting the experience.

"Wow," he said days later, smiling. "Someone's actually talking to me on the Tube."

Britons who put their noses up at other countries' overt displays of nationalism _ think football-field-size flags, fighter-jet flyovers and celebrity-rendered anthems in the United States _ have suddenly found themselves caught up in a surge of pride at their athletes' phenomenal showing. Britain has not had such a haul of Olympic medals since 1908.

Gone is the handwringing about whether the Olympics would be a fiasco. Talk of unemployment, belt-tightening and national decline has been pushed aside. But will it last.

Not a chance.

"It'll be grim and dim by the time September comes around," said Maximilian Glodde, a 23-year-old who was sharing his lunch break with Ortiz in north London's sun-drenched Talacre Gardens on Thursday.

Already, bad news is knocking at the door.

In its quarterly inflation report this week, Britain's central bank scaled back its forecast for 2012, saying the economy will flatline over the year, down from the already measly 0.8 percent growth forecast three months ago.

"Unlike the Olympians who have thrilled us over the past fortnight, our economy has not yet reached full fitness," said Mervyn King, the bank's governor.

And economists warn not to look to the Olympics as a savior. In fact, the long-term costs can prove a serious burden. Just ask Athens, and some other hosts of Olympics past.

Greece blew past initial estimates and spent more than $11 billion on the 2004 Summer Games, plus more money to rush infrastructure projects to completion at inflated costs. Many economists say the expense has contributed to the country's financial crisis. And today more than half of Athens' Olympic sites are barely used or empty.

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