Whether you got lucky in LOCOG's ballot, won a sponsor competition or ventured to an official foreign seller, if you're in possession of a ticket for the athletics in the Olympic Stadium you'll be keen to know what it's like in there and what kind of experience you might have. Ten days ago Londonist was fortunate to join a few thousand supporters of the British University and Colleges Sport championships for some actual athletics and later tens of thousands more who'd got tickets for the "2012 Hours To Go" show which doubled as the official opening for the venue. Here's what we discovered.
Cover from the elements
Historically, the average temperature in East London in August is 16.6 degrees centigrade, but it was a lot less than that when we arrived mid-afternoon in May and it plunged further once it went dark, to the point where our teeth were chattering uncontrollably on the way home. It seems incongruous for such a legendary festival, but if you're in the stadium for the evening you may want to pack a chunky sweater or a favourite warm jacket just in case. Think early season midweek football and you should be ok. If the jacket has a hood, so much the better. In the mid to upper seating areas you're covered by the stadium roof, but in the front block of 20 or so rows you are not (see picture above). If you're close enough to see the athletes' numbers you might be sharing a downpour with them, which brings us neatly to...
What you're going to see (or not)
At BUCS we had a cracking view of the start of the 100m, but the sandpit might as well have been on the moon for all we could see of any triple or long jumpers using it. In particular, the distance measuring panels, so useful to the television viewer, completely obscured the seated landings of the competitors. We were in prime position for the pole vault, but a hundred metres away the high jump was a distant pleasure, the shot put passed off unnoticed and the discus only became relevant when your sense of self-preservation awakened occasionally as a projectile fired up chunks of turf on the edge of your peripheral vision. On the track, as has been highlighted elsewhere, once the sprinters had got into their stride we had little idea of all but the most obvious placings. Instinctively our gaze shot left to the nearby big screen... which showed nothing but an aerial view of the proceedings. It may seem odd to pay handsomely to watch the finishes on television inside the arena itself, but that may be your best option. In fairness to the organisers, we suspect these issues would face you in any athletics stadium in the world and any ticket should give you a good view of a lot of the action, but many spectators here will be first-timers and may be surprised at the variation in viewing experiences. Bring binoculars to get the most out of your visit.
Where will your seat category put you?
Obviously, you won't need viewing aids if you've paid several hundred quid for top category tickets! Or will you? We'll tell you one thing, we doubt you'll be in line with the finish, as the popular assumption goes. The lower tier there is completely devoted to the media, the concourse level above holds boxes for heads of state and the area at the top is currently one of only two in the stadium with no seats on it, just bare rows of concrete, and that looks a bit... deliberate. Even if they eventually cover those with luxury cinema chairs, is the top tier what you had in mind when you handed over £725? The seating that's clearly for the public seems to stop at about the 80m mark down the home straight. From our experience, the first ten rows are a smidge too close and low to be absolutely optimal. From 15 rows back to the end of that lower tier seems to offer the finest overall view. Presumably, the lower category tickets will be higher up and on the back straight, while the middle categories will be lower down or on a bend, but it may not be that straightforward. We couldn't get over to check, but it seemed to us that seats early on the first bend give perhaps the best view - a decent, front-on look at the finish line as well as one of the better vantage points for many of the field events. Those would be blocks 16-21 in either level 1 or 2 if you get a choice once the seat allocations are known. Here's a rough plan of where the blocks are.
How will it feel finally to be in the stadium?
If you're early, surprisingly mundane. We've been fortunate enough to have a guided tour of an empty Wembley Stadium and the first thing you do as you emerge into the bowl is stop and mouth "Wow..." Here, it was fully five minutes before we remembered how amazed we were to be in the Olympic Stadium. The Guardian has it about right when it says:
The spare structure they produced for the London Olympic stadium wins admiration for its simplicity and economy. With its exposed steelwork, simple flat bowl shape and lack of decoration, it avoided any political embarrassment that would have been caused by rows about the value for money of design flourishes or cost overruns. But it is..."painfully pragmatic".
It does feel safe, comfortable and absolutely fit for purpose, but any buzz you get will in all likelihood come from the athletes and the crowd rather than the structure itself. Unless the evening sessions happen with the floodlights off. Right at the end of the night, they were suddenly extinguished and the stadium lit from underneath by an array of blue spotlights to a collective gasp of delight. That was cool.
In the same Guardian article architect Piers Gough hits the nail fundamentally on the head when he says:
We expect stadiums to take your breath away and unfortunately this one doesn't. But when it is full of people it will go 'whumph!' and the atmosphere will completely overwhelm the architecture anyway.
But will the crowds be up to that?
On this evidence that's a resounding "yes"! Sure, the BUCS afficionados know their sport, but the thousands filing in for the entertainment portion of the evening were just as quick to join in the required handclaps for high jump or pole vault run ups, drowning out any announcers who dared think something else in the stadium more important. The 3000m runners were clapped on each and every lap as they went past and any rhythmic chart music got a good stomp going to the beat. As the celebrity section got underway we were amused at the following sequence of responses to well-known names: "The Hairy Bikers! (near silence), Dame Kelly Holmes! (thunderous applause), Alexandra Burke! (near silence)".
Lord Coe himself nipped out to present some medals (Dennis Skinner was also in attendance for political balance) and was greeted warmly, suggesting that his personal stock is still quite high despite the ticketing frustrations. He must also be relieved that he can finally be recognised by no less an authority than Vernon Kay as "The one, the only, Lord Coe!!" now that, we assume, he's seen off all those pretenders and impersonators that were confusing people.
The crowd was only wrong-footed once, when it clapped the crouch for a sprint as if it was a jump and accidentally generated a false start. It was also a good two lines into the national anthem, rendered in the style of a medieval carol by the Military Wives, before anyone scrambled to their feet, the choir having launched straight in without the customary ninety second drum roll. Mexican waves were part of the crowd's repertoire, too, and it looks like anybody in the stadium come Games time will have a vibrant, if potentially chilly, time, especially if they remember to bring their binoculars with them. Maybe that's why they're sometimes called "field glasses"?