The Olympic Park: 'Just being here is unbelievable'

Crowd gives a massive thumbs-up to Lord Coe's £7bn playground as Britain gets in the Olympic spirit

The countdown clock in Trafalgar Square might have had other ideas, but it was yesterday morning that the Games of the 30th Olympiad really began. The Queen didn't arrive by parachute, but Ian Andrew, 11, from Ebbsfleet, in Kent, was getting off the Javelin train at Stratford with his mum and dad, also called Ian.

"When we won the bid, seven years, ago," claimed Ian Senior, "I was going absolutely mental. He says it's the earliest thing he can remember. Don't you mate?"

"I do remember it," said Ian junior. "That was in our old house."

"He made us move," mum, Sandra, said. A good natured argument ensues that confirms that the Andrews moved to Ebbsfleet solely for its seven-minute, high-speed rail link to the Greatest Show on Earth. Good for them.

Yesterday, the family were just three of the tens of thousands to get a first look at Seb Coe's £7bn playground. The Olympic Stadium is off limits until the athletics begins onFriday, but the gardens, the wetlands, the pavilions, the plazas, the piazzas and the stadiums for those – dare we say – more minor sports were opened to the public for the first time.

Park Live, Stratford's answer to Henman Hill is already, predictably, the focal point. Thousands of people piled on the two sweeping grass verges that lead down to the River Lea, where an enormous double-sided big screen stands on stilts in the middle of the river. They were hoping, of course, to see Mark Cavendish romp down the Mall in the cycling road race to bring home Great Britain's first gold medal. It didn't happen, but a small contingent in the north-east corner still went a little bit mad when Alexander Vinokurov from Kazakhstan won the gold, such is London's international mood. The way the two banks of seating face each other invites one side to outcheer the other, and when TeamGB do eventually win gold, it will be a lively place to be.

Not far to the north, the windowless white marshmallow of the basketball arena, the type of building in which aliens are experimented on in the Nevada Desert, was at least nine tenths full for such a spectacle as the women's preliminaries.

"I don't really know what's going on," said Glynn Pearce, from Essex. "I'm just pleased we got tickets. No one else I know did. Ha!"

The Aquatics Centre roared with joy under its undulating roof when the mighty Michael Phelps emerged for his preliminary race, although it was as nothing compared to the greeting reserved for 22-year-old Hannah Miley, from Scotland, who won her individual medley amid a cacophony of cheers. If, or dare one say when, TeamGB wins gold in here, cover your ears.

More than 7,000 people, mostly Brits, took up seats in the handball arena, the only other venue where live action was taking place. It is, perhaps, a silly game. A bit like netball, only you can run with the ball, and you are aiming not for a tiny circular hoop, but a hockey-sized goal, but we cheered all the same, as the Brazilian ladies, in their appallingly patterned shorts, fired goal after goal after goal past the poor Croatian goalkeeper. And we cheered just as much again, as the Croatians did the same to the unfortunate Brazilian goalkeeper in return.

It was not so long ago that the Olympic Park was an industrial wasteland, home to little more than the South-east's most elaborate network of electricity pylons, set deep in million tonnes of toxic earth. Thousands – from Olympic workers to local residents – have watched its gradual transformation, but there is no leap so great as seeing it suddenly full of thousands of people.

"I just live in those flats up there," said Steven Murphy, a lawyer, pointing to a residential block near the giant International Broadcast Centre. "I was so pleased I managed to get a ground pass for today. Just being here: it's unbelievable."

He was among many thousands who didn't have a ticket for a specific event but just took in the action from all over the park – and the country – on the big screens. There were a few teething problems. The lengthy queues at the Mexican food stall disappeared quickly, but not quietly, when it was made clear that they hadn't had any salsa, guacamole or sour cream all day.

The crashed red rollercoaster of the Orbit continues to divide opinion, and not in a 50:50 split. "What is it supposed to be?" was among the more generous comments. "Why did they allow it?" another.

But despite the £15 cost to go up it, all slots have sold out. "It's alright when you get up there," said one guest, emerging from the grey concrete walkway that wraps rounds the central lift shaft like a constricting snake. "You can't really see it."

There was also considerable disgruntlement over hundreds of empty seats at the sold out morning swimming session at the highly popular Aquatics Centre. There have been fears for some time that sponsors, who have been allocated at least 5 per cent of the tickets, and almost certainly a higher proportion for the more popular events, may simply not turn up, so much so that Lord Coe has promised to name and shame those that are no shows. No word yet. Don't expect to see an empty seat there tonight, though, when Becky Adlington defends her 400m gold medal. A nation really does expect.

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