I never thought I could attend a sporting occasion which surpassed the 2006 FA Cup Final. And then along came this year’s Championship Playoff Final. Last night I attended the evening session of the athletics at the Olympic Stadium. Well, we all know what happened. It proved to be the greatest night in the history of British athletics. And I was there. I still find it difficult to believe that the lottery of Olympic ticket applications gave me one of the most wonderful sporting experiences of my life, and one I doubt will ever be surpassed. Even if West Ham won the Champions League, I am not sure it would rank alongside. OK, I lie.
Like everyone else, I applied for tickets many months ago. I went through all the sports and decided that it was really only the athletics I was interested in. Knowing what I know now I’d happily have had tickets for the gymnastics or cycling, but in the event I only applied for tickets on two nights – last night and tonight. I went for Category A tickets rather than AA, as I thought the AA ones would be hugely popular. I waited, and waited. And waited. I heard nothing, so assumed that like hundreds of thousands of others, I had been unlucky. C’est la vie.
But then, three months later I opened a credit card statement for a card I hardly ever use (Visa!) and saw that £590 had been debited. WTF! And then I saw www.London2012.com. My joy was unconfined. Scroll forward to yesterday.
I decided to take my 13 year old niece, Philly, with me, as I knew it would an experience she would never forget. We set off from Tonbridge around 2pm, arriving at London Bridge 40 minutes later to change to the Jubilee Line. We decided to get off at West Ham and walk for 25 minutes along the so-called Greenway to Stratford. It proved to be quite an experience with street performers and the Gamesmakers entertaining us along the way. The Olympic Park itself had the feeling of a county show. There was plenty to see and plenty to do as we waited for the gates to the stadium to open at 5pm. We gave up on the queue for the Olympic shop and instead sampled some of the food on offer. I did think £16.60 for two hot dogs, a coke and a Fanta was a bit much, but you expect that at big events like this, I suppose.
The great thing about the day thus far was the fact that you could smile at and talk to complete strangers without them thinking you were weird or a pervert.
And so the moment came. The moment when we finally got to look inside the Olympic Stadium, the place I hope will be the future home of West Ham United FC. The place I will go every other Saturday afternoon. Would I be disappointed. Would I look in horror at the distance from the seats to the pitch? What would the acoustics be like? All these questions were about to be answered.
Climbing the steps into the stadium and looking in for the first time takes your breath away. Yes, it really is that impressive. But it is much smaller than you think. TV pictures make any football ground and pitch look bigger than they really are. I was sitting at the end opposite the Olympic flame towards the back of the lower tier. The view was fantastic. Unless I wanted to see the long jump, which was off to one side. I could also see that the grass in the middle was only about half the size of a football pitch and once it was enlarged the view would be even better. But what about if you’re in the Upper Tier Row Z. Well, I went and had a look again, fully prepared to be horrified. I wasn’t. The view was far better than the view I had from high up in the Blackpool end at Wembley in the playoff final. I’d even go so far as to say that I’d be quite happy for my season ticket to be there. Unless you have been inside the Stadium, you just cannot comment on it. But that doesn’t stop people from making reference to binoculars and the like. Karren Brady was right. The views from every seat in the stadium are not just acceptable, they are outstanding. I could also see how they could put in retractable seating to make the pitch closer to the crowd. No doubt I will get crucified by West Ham traditionalists for saying this, but anyone who doesn’t think this move ought to be crucial to West Ham’s future is the football equivalent of a Luddite. My heart says ‘stay with what we know’, but my head tells me something very different. Trust me, when you have seen it for yourself you will know what I mean.
Towards the end of the evening, just before Jessica Ennis’s medal ceremony the crowd starting singing along with All You Need Is Love. It was spine-tingling. For a moment I imagined 60,000 Hammers fans belting out I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.’ I got quite emotional at the thought.
Would West Ham fill 60,000 seats for each home game? No. But as long as we are in the Premier League I’d be very surprised if the attendance ever fell below 40,000. And for games against Man U, Man C, Arsenal, Liverpool, Spurs and Chelsea we’d be full. That’s one third of home league games, just for the record.
There’s little I can add to the athletics that hasn’t already been said. It was a privilege to watch it. Not just Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah, but also Greg Rutherford winning the Long Jump. In fact the whole evening was a delight. I had never been to an Athletics event before but I do think I will go to one again after this. It’s a shame that events like the Long Jump and Discus seem to play second fiddle to the track, and I felt very sorry for Greg Rutherford in a way. He was about to do his final jump, when Jessica Ennis appeared alongside him on the track doing her lap of honour. He fluffed his jump, but in the end it didn’t matter.
Mo Farah’s run was astonishing. 25 times he ran straight in front of us, and it was right in front of us that he made his move. I have never heard such a cacophony of noise that accompanied him down the home straight. We were all shrieking our heads off. No one can tell me that that kind of support doesn’t spur an athlete on to even faster times. I guess our medal haul is proof of that.
We all felt rather cheated that we didn’t get to witness the medal ceremonies for Farah and Rutherford, but the evening closed with Jessica Ennis receiving her gold. Hearing the national anthem belted out by such a crowd was something all of us there are never likely to forget. It was a great night to be British.
The great thing about the whole day was that everything worked. And it’s not often you can say that in this country. Even getting home on the Javelin train proved to be fairly easy. The Gamesmakers and stewards were fabulous – pleasant, smiling and approachable. And they even tried to entertain queuing crowds. I hope the government does two things to reward them – create a British Olympic Medal and then do what Sydney did in 1996 and organise a parade through the centre of London. These volunteers have made these games memorable in a way no one could have predicted. Yes, it has been all about athletic achievement, but for those in the crowd they made the Olympic experience a very different one, and one which those of us have witnessed it will not forget for a very long while.