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London 2012 venues showcase UK construction

By Avril Ormsby

LONDON (Reuters) - Many sports fans gasped in awe at Beijing's Olympic stadiums four years ago, wondering how Britain could possibly match those spectacular buildings such as the bird's nest and water cube.

But the man in charge of construction at London 2012 never had any doubt the city he loves so much could provide its share of iconic venues, even if he did not have the same budget.

John Armitt, chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA), responsible for Games infrastructure, said this summer's Olympics would be a great advertisement for Britain's construction industry, with future host cities already looking to tap into its knowledge and skills.

"Remember, those wonderful buildings in Beijing were often designed by British architects and engineers, and so there was never any doubt that we would be able to create equally exciting buildings," he told Reuters in an interview.

One of the centerpieces of the Olympic Park in east London will be the 86 million pound ($134.76 million) Velopark with its curved roof in the shape of a Pringles crisp, while the 253 million pound aquatics centre shows off all the skill and ingenuity of the Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid.

Armitt, a civil engineer, has been asked by the government to produce a report that will serve as a blueprint for future British construction projects, helping companies learn from what has been achieved and gain from future contracts at home and abroad.

But Britain's success in delivering seven billion pounds worth of Olympic infrastructure on budget and on time is nothing new, he said, sitting in his office in the financial district of Canary Wharf - pictures of the Olympic Park replicated by the real thing outside, just visible through the haze.

"British contractors, consultants have been delivering infrastructure around the world for the past 200 years," he said, pointing to their role in building most of the world's railways.

"What this enables them to do is reinforce those credentials in the overseas markets. The Olympics is an opportunity for us to build our self-confidence as a country."

But 2012 is not just about venues. Nor is it only about the number of gold medals won or new heroes born.

The government's second purpose in hosting the Games, after a sporting spectacular, was to regenerate a once deprived and run-down part of London where unemployment and social deprivation is among the highest in Britain.

The 66-year-old Armitt, one of Britain's highest paid public sector workers, is aware of that added responsibility and a potential place in history.

"I accept totally that the real question will be in 2020 -can we stand out there and say, 'Wasn't it great that London held the Games in 2012?' he said.

"That will be the ultimate test of what we've done."

"SHOP WINDOW"

But the government's desire to use the Games as a "shop window", creating local jobs and promoting sustainability, also allowed the ODA to do things differently.

Armitt, smartly dressed in a blue suit and silver tie, said he was proud the Park would not only feature sports venues in legacy but "a bit of everything", including housing, a school and clinic, which will benefit London for the next 100 years.

About 46,000 people have found work on the construction site, with targets for locals and the previously unemployed, and 95 percent of contracts have gone to British companies.

This justification has become more important over time.

London won the right to host the Games in 2005 during an economic boom, but Britons have since had to cope with a recession and have seen public spending cut to tackle a record peacetime budget deficit.

Public faith also took a knock when the Olympic budget was trebled to 9.3 billion pounds.

With 96 percent of the venues now built, the main worry for organizers are transport and security.

It would be disappointing for the one-time chief executive of Network Rail, the state-backed infrastructure company, if the Games were remembered for transport problems rather than stadiums and medalists.

"You could have the most wonderful stadiums but, in fact, if you, as a spectator, miss the beginning of the 100 meters because things have gone wrong on the transport system, that's what you will remember," he said.

Armitt joined the ODA in 2007 when organizers were unwilling to spend any more money on making the main stadium more flexible in its design so it could cater for soccer and athletics with retractable seating and more corporate hospitality.

That is something Armitt regrets and which has since led to a difficult and protracted process to find a tenant.

Another thing that could have been handled differently, with hindsight, he said, was the removal of the wrap on the main stadium to save seven million pounds.

Dow Chemical's offer to replace it has drawn Indian anger over the company's link to a deadly gas leak in Bhopal in 1984 in which as many as 25,000 people died at a pesticide factory owned by a subsidiary of Union Carbide.

Dow bought Union Carbide in 2001. The Indian government wants Dow to pay an additional $1.7 billion compensation for Bhopal, but Dow has refused, saying it has no responsibility for the accident and that Union Carbide settled liabilities.

"Clearly given what's happened with Dow and the row, probably if you'd had your time again you would say, 'Let's find a different way of saving seven million pounds'," he said.

But with Armitt's work at the ODA almost drawing to an end, and having received a knighthood at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace, he did not express any great urgency to seek a similar big project.

Armitt, who has worked on the second Severn river crossing, said he would not apply to be boss of the planned High Speed 2 rail link between London and Birmingham despite recent press speculation. ($1 = 0.6382 British pounds)

(Reporting by Avril Ormsby; Editing by Ken Ferris)

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