London 2012: Olympic Stadium at full capacity on first day of athletic events


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The Independent Online

If there were any questions marks still lingering in the changeable skies over the London Olympics, they were obliterated this morning.

In a packed Olympic Stadium, the diminutive, unassuming girl whom so many people are desperate to see become the star of the games, burst onto the London 2012 scene in a flash of luminescence and a statement of frightening intent.

Whatever scandal there has been over empty seats, it failed to penetrate the brand new £500m stadium. There was not a spare chair to be seen as the marquee track and field competition began this morning with the women’s heptathlon. Lousie Hazell became the first British person to run in it, in the 100-metre hurdles, but the cheer that greeted the emergence of Jessica Ennis, shortly before half past ten, dwarfed anything that has reverberated around this corner of east London over the past week.

Ms Ennis didn’t appear unnerved or overwhelmed by the home support, as others have been. Instead she broke the world record.

She covered her face in disbelief as the big screen revealed her time, 12.54 seconds, the fastest that has ever been run in the heptathlon. It would have been enough to win her the gold medal in Beijing four years ago in the individual event. It was more than enough, too, to engender a roar from the Union Flag-waving crowd even louder than their first.

Every host nation desperately hopes for a gold medal in athletics, the sport that so dominates the games. In Sydney it was 400-metre runner Cathy Freeman. In Beijing it was the hurdler Liu Xiang – when he pulled up injured before his first heat, many people inside the stadium burst into tears.

Ms Ennis is Great Britain’s best shot at gold in the Olympic Stadium this summer, and the poster girl of the games. Her toned midriff has been towering several storeys high on billboards on the way to the Olympic Park for some months, and the thousands of visitors who have flown in to Heathrow for the games have also seen it staring up from a farmers field in Hounslow with the message “Welcome to our Turf.” Evidently it has not unnerved her.

The crowds whooped with delight as she cleared 1m86 in the high jump too and finished the morning session in the lead after two events, with her most fancied rivals world champion Tatyana Chernova and defending Olympic champion Natallia Dobrynska languishing in sixteenth and twelfth.

“It was such an amazing feeling. It kind of gives you goosebumps,” Ms Ennis said. “I literally cannot believe that. That’s crazy. So crazy,” she added, of her extraordinary time.

There have been concern, over the last few years, as a stadium far less grandiose than the Beijing’s Birds Nest has emerged from the ground, that London’s showpiece venue might be something of a disappointment in comparison. Such concerns were allayed in an instant. After an extensive transformation process from last week’s opening ceremony, the sweeping bowl of the stadium is magnificent. Thomas Heatherwick’s ingenious cauldron has been installed at the far end, in much the same manner as at the 1948 Olympics at Wembley. Specially selected British rock music, from the Smiths to Pulp, Jam and The Cure played, while remote control minis collected shot puts and discuses from the in field and chauffered them back to the throwing areas.

There were further British golds yesterday, in cycling and rowing. Across the Olympic Park at the Velodrome, the British men’s pursuit team of Edward Clancy, Geraint Thomas, Steven Burke and Peter Kennaugh obliterated their Australian opposition in the final in another world record time, swept around the circuit by a wall of sound from an audience that included Bradley Wiggins, George Osborne, Tony Blair, Prince Edward, Stella McCartney and the US basketball star Kobe Bryant.

Such was the euphoria of the occasion that when the four received their medals, the crowd broke with common Olympic practice and joined in the national anthem, sending the words of God Save the Queen reverberating around the arena.

And at Eton Dorney rowing lake, Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins took gold in the double sculls, roared on by the jubilant banked crowd to finish more than a length-and-a-half ahead of the runners-up, again Australia.

For Ms Grainger, aged 35, it was her first gold medal after winning silver at the three previous games. “Worth the wait,” she said at the finish. “Steve [Redgrave] promised me they’d be tears of joy this time, which they are. I feel this medal of all of them is the people’s medal. I feel so many people have been behind me and supported me and wanted this for me as much as I have.”