May 24, 2013
Damp debut for new London stadium
London's Olympic stadium hosted its first competitive events on Friday with British student athletes enjoying their outing under the floodlights despite damp, cold and gusty conditions.
If the crowd was tiny, some 1,500 spectators lost in a vast expanse of empty black and white seats in the 80,000 capacity arena, those present knew they were witnessing a milestone of sorts.
"At the moment, I'm the track record holder," grinned Chris Wakeford, competing for the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff, after winning his 400m hurdles heat in a night's best of 52.83 seconds.
"Obviously there's a huge hype around it because it's in the Olympic Stadium," he added. "You don't really know what to expect until you walk out there.
"It's unlike any competition I've competed in before because you warm up on a track away from the stadium and then you're brought into it...and the stadium opens up in front of you, and there's a crowd and spectators, it's a good atmosphere."
It will be even better on Saturday when the British Universities and Colleges (BUCS) outdoor championships merge into a special event with celebrities and some of the nation's Olympic hopefuls on track.
Some 40,000 tickets have been sold, snapped up in 20 minutes, for the official opening of the 500 million pound ($807.92 million) Stadium with 2,012 hours to go until the opening ceremony on July 27.
World athletics chief Lamine Diack will be a special guest, taking his seat alongside London 2012 chairman Seb Coe.
"It's a big and rather personal moment for me," said Coe, whose enjoyment of the occasion would doubtless be even greater had it not clashed with his favourite club Chelsea playing the FA Cup final at the same time.
"I'm responsible for the delivery of 26 great sporting occasions (at the Games) but...this is personal," the 1980 and 1984 Olympic 1,500m gold medallist told reporters ahead of the event.
Less than a decade ago, when the bid was being hatched, the area around the stadium in east London was a rundown and neglected wasteland.
"There's massive pride. It's barely thinkable that eight years ago I was standing in that park pointing out to the IOC that where they saw that 50 foot pile of rotting fridges was where the Olympic stadium is," said Coe.
"'You see that polluted river down there, alongside that is going to be the Aquatics Centre'; I did feel as though I was a timeshare salesman on the Costa Brava," he added with a smile.
Saturday's event also ticks a vital box, a bureaucratic hurdle to be overcome before Usain Bolt or any other of the world's fastest men and women can entertain a capacity crowd.
The stadium currently has a safety certificate for up to 46,000 spectators only. The successful test will lift that to the necessary 80,000 as well as also revealing any potential problems to be ironed out before July.
The weather could be one of them, although organisers can only pray that the fickle English summer is dry.
The media, enjoying some of the best seats in the house but exposed to the elements in uncovered press tribunes, braced against the biting cold on Friday with plastic sheets poised to protect laptops.
Bolt's coach has already said he expects Britain's cool and damp weather to cost the triple Olympic champion the opportunity to break his 100 metres world record in London. Wakeford said he was surprised at how much wind there was.
"I was out on the start line and I'd been told the stadium was designed to prevent wind...but it was a bit gusty out there, more than I would have liked," he said.
For those going on to compete in the Games the experience of a home crowd cheering them on inside a surprisingly intimate stadium should be invaluable, even if not all agree.
"Actually, a lot of athletes don't want to see the stadium before they compete," said Coe.
"But I was one that always quite liked to spend time in a stadium, even if it was a year beforehand, just to get the feel, the lie of the land, so you took the image away for the hard months of training ahead."