Once the last race was run on Saturday, the crowd had melted happily away into the sultry east London evening and Usain Bolt had signed his last autograph and flashed one last smile around the Olympic Stadium, a slim figure emerged on to the track, walked the wrong way down the home straight, dropped his hefty backpack on the start line, stripped off his tracksuit and started running.
For a good 20 minutes Mo Farah reeled off lap after lap, as if he could not bear to leave the track around which he had run himself into history and into a nation’s heart a year earlier. When, or rather if, he returns for the World Championships in London four years from now it will be to a very different stadium. This was the last hurrah of the Olympic Stadium as we have come to know it, and even love it. Farah will never run on the distinctive washed-out red surface again.
By the time sport is staged here again in two years, for another Diamond League meeting and then the Rugby World Cup, the track will have gone and so will the signature of the stadium, the distinctive A-frame floodlights that have become a landmark in this reborn part of the capital.
That comes during a pause in the rebuild. When the complete £160m refit is done – taking the total spend on the stadium close to £600m – in 2016 and West Ham have moved in, the track, a brand new one, will spend most of the year hidden from view. It will come out for special occasions, in June and July when British Athletics take over from their round-ball co-tenants, with the Diamond League meeting the annual highpoint for the sport in Britain.
All 195,000 tickets for the two days of the Diamond League and yesterday’s Paralympic Challenge sold out in 75 minutes and two days respectively. But the dressing up of the weekend as the Anniversary Games, with the encouragement to look back to the glories of a year ago – but not peek behind the Sainsbury’s banners positioned to hide the building site the rest of the Olympic Park currently resembles – played a key part in ensuring the full house signs were posted.
“This is the last chance people will have to see the stadium like this and a lot of people will be here for that reason,” said Ed Warner, chairman of British Athletics, as another happy throng filed into the stadium.
Will they be back in such numbers? British Athletics cannot live in the past – “forward not backward” is a favoured mantra of Warner’s – and with the speed at which the sporting world moves, will the lure of Mo and Co still sell out the place? Ambitious plans to stage next year’s Diamond League meeting at iconic London locations, such as Horse Guard’s Parade and the Mall, are being considered to stop the “bubble from being pricked,” as Niels de Vos, British Athletic’s chief executive, puts it. Glasgow’s Hampden Park, which will also stage the Commonwealth Games next summer, is the other venue under consideration but the Diamond League will be back here in 2015.
The permanent roof with its new floodlit stanchions looming over the pitch is scheduled to be finished in May 2015 – construction work will resume once the five Rugby World Cup games have been hosted in September and October of that year – and Warner is confident the estimated £1m cost of putting down a temporary track will be worth it to get the Diamond League back at the first opportunity. “It’s important to get back as soon as possible,” said Warner.
It is likely to still be branded as the Anniversary Games – the link with 2012 will be clung on to to help secure the sport’s future. The 2017 World Championships, which will see the IPC one follow the able-bodied version, were secured in part on promises of full houses.
“This proves it wasn’t a flash in the pan,” said Warner of the weekend’s events. “Let’s keep that excitement rolling. We have two World Championships here – let’s use that as an opportunity to continue to cement the sport in the public’s affections. I don’t want it to become a minority once-every-four-years sport.
“We can’t be complacent. We would deserve to chastised if in a few years time we had let it fall through our fingers and it will be demonstrated through ticket sales. If we don’t get them sold, if it is not a roaring success across those two championships then we will have lost the opportunity London 2012 gave us. We have an opportunity there – that a lot of the other sports haven’t got – and we have to build on it.”
The building is already well under way across the rest of the Olympic Park. The water polo venue that flanked the main bridge into the park is gone. On the other side of the bridge the wings have been plucked off the Aquatics Centre. Life is moving on. The stadium towers over it all, as its future has towered over the debate around the bricks and mortar legacy of the Games. The future has been secured, belatedly and at controversial cost to the tax payer, and British Athletics’ future is wrapped up with it. Warner remains confident they can fill the Olympic Stadium Mk II.
“That has to be the ambition,” he said. “It won’t be 75 minutes next time – maybe it will be 76! There can be no complacency but we have an opportunity which lots of the other Olympic and Paralympic sports do not have. The stadium is an opportunity. Athletics has such a rich history in the UK of great performances, great athletes, great names – all of these things we can build on.”