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Official Review by Jeremy Inson, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
Built at a cost of £537 million ($840 million), London’s Olympic Stadium in Stratford, east London, launched itself to the world in spectacular fashion with the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games on July 27. The show, which was estimated to have been watched by over 1 billion television viewers worldwide, portrayed the rise of Britain from an agricultural country to one that industrialised rapidly at the end of the 18th century and followed through the creation of the welfare state to the modern day.
During the Games, the 80,000-seat arena hosts the athletics competition in which Jamaica’s world- record breaking sprint king Usain Bolt is expected to be star of the show. Once the Olympic Games come to an end with the Closing Ceremony at the Stadium on Sunday August 12, the Stadium will lay dormant until the start of the Paralympic Games on August 29, but when that comes to a close on September 9, the question of what to do with it comes sharply into focus.
Having seen Atlanta’s Olympic Stadium turn into a new home for the city’s baseball team, the Braves, and the Sydney and Athens authorities struggling to come up with feasible plans for their central venue, the relevant bodies in London will have to act fast to avoid the Stadium becoming yet another Olympic white elephant. Nearby English football team West Ham United were expected to be allowed to move in, but irregularities in the bidding process meant that the Olympic Delivery Authority, who is responsible for finding a long-term tenant, re-opened the bidding, with the hope that a viable long-term tenant can be found.
West Ham remain the favourites, but there is concern that the athletics track must remain. A permanent track was one of the promises London made to the International Olympic Committee when they won the bid in 2005 and London has already committed to host the 2017 IAAF Athletics World Championships. While West Ham have said they are happy to accommodate the track, there is likely to be some changes to the structure before they move in. The Stadium will be cut from its current 80.000 to around somewhere between 50-60,000. The current upper tier is temporary while the lower is permanent, which has led many to question why the Stadium wasn’t built with retractable lower-tier seating in the way that Paris’ Stade de France was 14 years ago.
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Olympic Games mean Olympic prices. While the range of food is good - pizza, fish and chips, burgers, vegetarian, Mediterranean, and curries - a meal and a drink for fans heading to the Olympics means they don't get much change back from £10 ($15). The same is true with drinks. While alcohol can be purchased - as long as it is the official beer or wine - you won't get many glasses for £10.
Summer Olympic Ceremonies come once every four years and therefore tickets for the event are extremely hard to get. As such the crowd is positively frothing at the mouth with excitement and it doesn't take much to get them cheering, shouting, and clapping. In this sense London was very much the same and the event came to a crescendo when the British team, led by track cyclist Sir Chris Hoy, entered the stadium bearing the flag. It then reached another peak when the cauldron was lit. Despite having a relatively open roof, which leaves spectators in the lower tier at the mercy of the elements, the acoustics are excellent, so much so that it was a relief to be at the far end of the stadium when the Olympic Bell was rung.
Pictures of the Olympic Park from before construction began were published in newspapers in the week ahead of the Opening Ceremony and it is easy to forget how much of a change the area has gone through. Filthy polluted rivers are clean, the land has been purged of toxic substances, and where there was once run down building and grotty industrial estates there are now shining world-class sports facilities for one of the poorest areas of London.
There is also a brand-new shopping centre right next to the park which will bring further investment and opportunities to the area, while the Olympic Village will later be converted to a mix of affordable and high-end housing.
Noise and support will not be in short supply during the London 2012 Olympic Games. Athletics fans in Great Britain are some of the most passionate, fair-minded, and knowledgeable in the world. While the glory days of Lord Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett, Linford Christie, and Sally Gunnell are long gone, the hope is that current performance director Charles van Commenee will have built the type of system that will help bring more than just the one gold that local-girl Christine Ohuruogo brought back from Beijing 2008.
That said, even if Britain's best fail to deliver there is interest and respect for the Jamaican sprinters, US 400m runners, Ethiopian and Kenyan long-distance runners, and the legion of Eastern European athletes competing across the sport.
So long as you have a ticket access is stress free and slick. The stadium is actually built on an island and spectators enter via a number of bridges and from there it is a short step into the venue.
Getting to Stratford is fairly straightforward. On the tube, the Central and Jubilee lines pass through and is about a 20 minutes ride from central London. It is also on the Dockland Light Rail (DLR), which goes north and south from the station and is the main line out of London from London Liverpool Street. A day transport ticket or top-up travel card, known as the Oyster Card, works on all three. Stratford International is on the main line from London St Pancras' Station and a trip on the Javelin train stops first there before carrying on through the Channel Tunnel and into France. However, the six-minute journey doesn't come cheap and tickets cost £7.30 ($11.50).
It is fair to question whether a £537 million stadium can ever fully be value for money, but so far it is proving popular with spectators and other visitors to the Olympic Park. It certainly isn't as eye-catching as Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium, but these are different times and different Games, above all financially. Even so, it has already become an eye-catching addition to the London skyline, even if the high cost of construction has been reflected in the high cost of tickets and concessions.
Once the Olympic and Paralympic Games roll out of town, part of the site is set to be converted to an Olympic museum. As the only city to have hosted the Games three times, the others came in 1908 and 1948; it should be well worth a visit.
Once its conversion has finished, the Stadium will be available for local schools and clubs to use, while the Aquatics Centre will be open to the public and the Velodrome will provide a base in Britain's capital that is has lacked for so long.
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