2012 aquatics centre offers future hopes

By Craig Lord
London 2012 organisers have pledged that a redesigned and more compact Olympic pools complex will be built in a way that leaves the door open for Britain to stage the world aquatic championships for the first time ever in the years after the Games.

But after seeing the latest draft of world-renowned architect Zaha Hadid’s pools complex, Fina, the world governing body, has rightly expressed fears that London 2012’s rescoped complex would not fit the bill unless certain aspects form part of the building proper.

Concerns centre on head height above the platform (10-metre) divers, seating capacities smaller than those in Sydney 2000 and Beijing 2008, and a possible loss of space for building temporary pools that would be essential to any bid for a world championship.

David Sparkes, chief executive of British Swimming, described Fina’s points as “fair” and confirmed that there was “still alot of work to do on the detail” of Hadid’s design. The national federation would be pressing for a swimming seating capacity of 17,500, 2,500 more than forecast at the launch of Hadid’s design in London yesterday. “We want it to be like Sydney only better, in that it will be balanced on both sides of the pool, bringing the crowd closer to the action – a cauldron of world-class sport,” said Sparkes.

The architect was asked to take her initial design, with a vast undulating roof that resembled the striped underbelly of a surfacing Humpback whale, back to the drawing board to address issues of cost and suitability to the site of the Olympic Park at Stratford. What remains of the whale is its mouth, the new roof almost two-thirds smaller than the original.

But there’s no mistaking it: Hadid’s design, with a great sweeping roof overhanging an expansive footbridge that forms the gateway to the Games is truly stunning to look at and will provide London with a world-class facility at last – 50 years after the last one was build at Crystal Palace.

The main change to Hadid’s design for the London 2012 pool is that the diving pool is now contained within the same hall as the competition swimming pool (which will require careful timetable planning at the Games), while a second 50-metre training pool, eight lanes wide, is hidden beneath the footbridge, saving on the need for so much steel on the roof. At the other side of that bridge, water polo will be staged in two temporary pools, the housing for which will be built in keeping with Hadid’s roof but removed once the Games is over.

Seating capacity, for now, has been reduced from 20,000 to 15,000 for swimming and by 2,000 to 5,000 for diving. The complex has been designed so that capacity can be reduced to 3,500 after the Games, but that process of trimming back can be reversed to allow bigger audiences at future events such as a world championship.

It will be the first venue to be built at the Olympic Park, and was described by Lord Coe as “the front door to the Games, a cornerstone of London 2012 that we can all be proud of”.

But Cornel Marculescu, the executive director of Fina, expressed some reservations.

“It is an impressive venue, for sure, but we have some concerns,” said Marculescu. “We are worried about the head height above the divers now that the roof is so much smaller, we think the seating capacity is not enough – smaller that Sydney and Beijing … and when the temporary pools are taken away, will the space be left open?”

Sparkes believes that all will be well. The London 2012 team had, he said, been “tremendous … they’ve listened to our views, worked with us all the way and tried to deliver what we’ve asked for”.

Lord Coe, organising committee chairman, and David Higgins, chief executive of the Olympic Delivery Authority, both emphasised that the details of the redesigned complex were still to be worked on. Higgins confirmed that the “legacy mode”, the smaller state in which the aquatic complex will be left after the Games, would allow for larger seating capacity to be introduced temporarily for big events, while the Olympic Park would retain large open green spaces that could be used to house the temporary pools that would have to be rebuilt on the site were London ever to host a world aquatics championships.

The last world long-course event to be staged in Britain was the 1948 Olympic Games. Experience among staff is lacking. As such, British Swimming has outline plans leading up to the Games and beyond that are designed to build skills rather than simply import them from overseas. Practice events include a European water polo tournament next year and the world short-course swimming championships in Manchester in 2008, while British staff will be sent to work at the Melbourne 2007 world championships and other key events.

Bill Sweetenham, Britain’s national performance director for swimming, has urged Britain to include the staging of world-class events as part of its Olympic legacy, saying: “Sydney 2000 was not just about staging the Games, it was about using that great moment, that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, as a launch pad to a new era. When you’ve inspired a whole generation of youngester to take part in sport, to value the pursuit of excellence, well you have to provide them with the mechanisms to be world-class and to feel world-class. The benefits of a Games can roll on for years but you have to work at it.”

This is an edited version of a report that appears on Craig Lord is swimming correspondent of The Times