Coe & Co build more than anticipation

Six months ago, as part of his regular tour leader duties, Seb Coe brought Sir Roger Bannister to the Olympic Stadium in Stratford.

At that point, barely nine months into the build of the £538 million venue, it was beginning to take shape as more than a mere oval of flattened earth, with the major construction work well under way.

Sir Roger, when a student athlete, had been present at the Opening Ceremony of the 1948 London Olympics six years before his own moment of destiny, when at Oxford he ran the mile in less than four minutes.

This year, the long-retired old athlete, now surrounded by diggers and construction workers, froze for a moment to gaze about him before he turned to his fellow miler. “You know,” Sir Roger said to Lord Coe, “I’m as excited now as when I walked into Iffley Road in 1954.”

On another rainy Monday in London, and two dozen British Olympic competitors from a new generation got to sample that excitement for themselves as they were taken by Coe on a similar tour of the Park.

The tour was preceded by a rail journey from St Pancras on one of the new high-speed rail links. Clearly, no one among the organisers is unduly superstitious: the first Stratford Javelin express departed from platform 13. Six minutes 46 seconds later, it pulled in at its destination three miles away, much to LOCOG delight.

Such has been the progress that when the IOC’s evaluation commission visited London five years ago, they were taken from their accommodation in the Great Eastern Hotel in a fleet of Range Rovers, driven carefully through the just-completed rail tunnels. Today, 15-year-old diver Tom Daley, one of Britain’s newest world champions, stepped off at Stratford into a media gaggle. In three years‘ time, 25,000 people will be carried on the Javelin trains between London and the Olympic Park every hour during the Games.

Daley took a special interest in the Aquatics Centre, at the gateway to the Olympic Park with its wave-like roof now etched out in steel grids. “Winning in Rome last week was incredible, but it would be a dream come true if I could do that again in London,” Daley said.

Others were awed by the progress on the Stadium itself.

Never less than ebullient, on entering the Stadium, London Mayor Boris Johnson said, “This is utterly astonishing. I am bowled over… I am gobsmacked.

“What’s so amazing about it is that although this is a 80,000-seat stadium, it has a real feel of intimacy about it. I think it’s a triumph, and I think is astonishing that they have got so far so fast.”

The Stadium remains the matter of debate between, on one side, Coe and Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell and Johnson and Baroness Ford, the chair of London’s legacy commission, on the other. “Whimsy” was the word chosen by Jowell to describe the latest calls for reconsideration of a more ambitious post-2012 future for the stadium. Johnson says he “wants to keep the options open”.

Jowell suggests that maintaining the stadium at 80,000 capacity for five years, through to the 2018 football World Cup which England has bid to stage, would cost a further £176 million. Officials are less forthcoming about the costs of re-instating at least 25,000 seats to make the venue fit for purpose to stage future athletics world championships or other international events.

Jowell is one of the rare constant figures in London’s Olympic project since it was instigated a decade ago by Sir Craig Reedie at the BOA, and she has developed into one of its greatest cheerleaders.

Britons, she says, are “going to feel a sense of pride, involvement and excitement they’ve probably never felt before. It will be the greatest national event that any of us will remember and it will lay down memories for the rest of our lives.”

July 27, 2009 – three years to the day before the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics – dawned damp and cold, hardly an auspicious omen for the big day in 2012, when one-third of the spectators in the stadium will not have the benefit of roof cover when they witness the Olympic flame being lit.

Yet Coe’s infectious enthusiasm remains undimmed. The message today came loud, clear and repeatedly.

“We are on time and we are exactly where we would want to be at this stage,” said the chairman of LOCOG.

“We have known exactly what we want out of this stadium, we’ve got very serious legacy plans in place, and we’re marginally ahead of schedule.

“That’s important not only because it sounds good, it’s important because the difference between a good and a great Games is the ability to test venues. We really do want to know that this works for the spectators, clearly for the athletes, for all the groups that are coming in here.

“We have a stadium which London hasn’t had in this form, ever; we will have two 50-metre pools in a city which has been struggling along with one, and that’s been closed for the last two years; and Bradley Wiggins, who has been in the news for some fantastic performances, will at last get the chance to ride on an indoor velodrome in his home city.

“Our ability to raise as much money as we have has taken us beyond where any city has been before,” Coe said.

“There is a tangible sense of excitement building and a genuine sense of belief that the Games in 2012 will not only be a source of intense national pride, but that the benefits will be felt for generations to come.”

Click here to read the LOCOG press release on progress towards the 2012 Olympics

Click here for details of how you can book yourself on to the SJA’s exclusive tours of London’s Olympic Park

Click here for a guide to 2012 venues

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