The Olympic Park Run

Ten days ago James Dickens was amongst the first thousand people to run on the new athletics track in a public event at the Olympic Stadium, Stratford. He shares his experience as part of The Substantive’s series of writing on the London Olympics.

Back in the dim and distant past (July last year), I entered a ballot to run the 2012 National Lottery Olympic Run. I didn’t think much of it at the time. I run a bit and enter my fair share of races. A few friends had applied and I thought it would be nice to do it together. October came around and low and behold, I received an email saying my application had been successful. I rang my friends and none of them had got a place. It seemed this race was in quite high demand and I had dropped very lucky.

Due to the way the race was organised, it seemed I was guaranteed to be one of the first 1000 people to run on the Olympic track in the brand new Olympic Stadium. I was obviously very excited. I had also recently secured a place in the London Marathon (lucky year) and the preparation for that had dominated my training for the last three months leading up the run. With this at the forefront of my thoughts, the Olympic run had fallen to the back of my mind until it appeared in my diary last weekend. Aside, that is, from a possible clash with Spurs v Swansea, which Sky Sports kindly rearranged so my Saturday was free.

The day finally came round and I rolled up to the Olympic village with an air of anticipation, but unsure what to expect. I was physically prepared, which obviously helped a lot. We were provided with wristbands for friends and family to come and watch the final 300 metres in the stadium. My girlfriend, 4-year old daughter and 14-month old son came along for the ride, and to lend moral support.

Arriving at Stratford station, there was no obvious sign that this was the main station for the Olympic site. Stewards with large foam hands pointed us in the right direction, through the Westfield centre, over a small road to the entrance to the Olympic Park. From what I can gather, the main purpose of the event from an organisational perspective was to test the security. Getting into the park was identical in to the security procedure you go through at an airport, from full body scanners to putting all your metal objects in a tray to removing belts and shoes. This had the potential to take a very long time and become very irritating. However due to the efficient methods of staff on duty and the large numbers of scanners in operation, we got through in about 10 minutes.

As you move out of the security area, you are hit by the full majesty of the Olympic Park. On your left is the stunning aquatic centre. Elevated on both sides, but beautifully sweeping down in the centre. On the right is the water polo centre, architecturally less striking, but no less imposing than its neighbour across the street.

Directly in front of you is the glorious sight of the centrepiece of the Olympic Park, the Olympic stadium. It is obviously stunning; however as a football fan who has been to a few big venues of this sort, there is nothing to differentiate it from stadiums such as the former Commonwealth Games stadium (now the Ethiad) in Manchester, the Emirates, the Estadio de Luz in Lisbon or even the new Wembley. The other Olympic venues within the park were in my opinion more striking.

We lined up just outside the stadium in our colour-coded groups ready for the start. This didn’t happen for about 20 minutes though, and on a cold and blowy East London afternoon it started to get a bit cold. Thankfully we had Holly Willoughby and HRH Princess Beatrice of York for company and the time flew by (this is a massive lie).

We were released from our pens at 2pm and once a selection of z-list celebrities (mainly National Lottery presenters I’m told) got going, we were on our way. The actual race was good fun, bands around the park keeping people entertained and a lot of chatting between runners.

We worked our way around the main attractions, the glorious Siberian pine exterior of the Velodrome, the Copper Box, the BMX track and the Basketball area which were all very striking in their own way. The Venues look pretty much finished, however the surrounding areas still need a hell of a lot of work. Roads need finishing, trees planted and a finishing touch applied to the whole area. The builders around the park seem confident it will all be done in time, so who am I to doubt it? My fingers are well and truly crossed.

Finally it came to the moment I had been waiting for, entering the Olympic stadium. The route followed the (again unfinished) concourse area where all the official merchandise and refreshment vendors will reside. After about half-a-mile, we came around a corner and onto the track. The track where Usain Bolt and countless other stars will run this summer, and they were playing chariots of fire. It was a cheesy dream-come-true. I had 300m to go and I wasn’t feeling tired so I went at it full pelt. This made for some deeply dubious looking photos but on balance it’s a sacrifice I can cope with. I was desperately looking for my family, trying to take in the 10,000 strong crowd and also looking at the track, just to see what an Olympic track really looks like. I crossed the line in a decent 34 minutes and then went to find my girlfriend and children.

It was a day I will never forget and certainly something to tell the grandkids. Even my girlfriend, who is neither a Sports fan nor someone who is emotionally grabbed by this sort of event, said it made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. My daughter said she wants to run on there one day like Dad. And if kids being inspired to participate in sport is the only legacy we get from this Olympic Games, then it has done its job.

James Dickens

The Substantive Columnist Mel Gomes’ new e-book Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is now available to download from Amazon and Smashwords, documenting high-level football and the journey of travelling around Europe in a sport where money is now valued alongside trophies. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.