Aquatics Centre lives up to drama of the Olympics


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The Independent Online

The London Aquatics Centre is a disconcerting venue with its breathtaking wave-shaped roof and stands rising sharply down either side of the pool. That it will also be the home to some breathtaking sport over the next week became apparent after just the first morning of action when two of the biggest names in the sport narrowly avoided the immense embarrassment of an abrupt early end to two of their medal hopes.

Park Tae-hwan, the much fancied South Korean, spent a couple of hours pondering the end of his reign as 400m freestyle champion after he was disqualified in the heats, while the great Michael Phelps nearly got his sums all wrong as he squeezed into the final of the 400m individual medley – an event in which he broke the world record four years ago – eighth fastest.

Park, the world and Olympic champion and regarded as one of the world’s great freestylers, cruised home first in his heat to set up a final battle with Yang Sun, the Chinese distance heavyweight, and the American Peter Vanderkaay. But when the eight qualifiers for the final were scrolled up on the large scoreboard that dominates the north end of the pool, Park’s name was not among them. The 22-year-old, Korea’s best known sportsman, was disqualified for a false start. But the Koreans appealed and just three hours before the finals began Park was re-instated.

There was something of a false start too for the organisers. Swimming was one of the most sought after ticket events at London 2012 yet throughout the first morning swathes of the best seats in the 17,500-capacity arena were unoccupied and that despite the first sight of Phelps, the greatest ever Olympian, and his friend and rival Ryan Lochte. Seb Coe, chairman of Locog, the organising committee, cannot have been impressed when he arrived midway through the first session to show the venue to the Queen.

“The public have turned up, it looks like they were accredited seating [for officials and media],” said a spokesperson for Locog. “We are looking into who should have been sitting there and why they were not.”

That this will be an uplifting arena when full is not in doubt. It was noisy enough at yesterday morning’s heats and noticeably so whenever a Briton stepped on to the blocks. Joe Roebuck was the first British swimmer to go but failed to make it out of the heats in the gruelling 400m individual medley.

“I would have liked to have done a much better job being the first out to help kickstart the team but it was not to be,” said Roebuck, who will swim again later in the week in the 200m IM.

There was a largely positive reaction among the swimmers, particularly from the home contingent. The influence of a home crowd in the pool is difficult to gauge but there is no doubt it can have an uplifting affect – David Carry, who marries Britain’s open-water world champion Keri-Anne Payne after the Games, made it through to the 400m freestyle final.

Carry had only qualified for the British team at the second trials in June, having failed at the first attempt earlier in the year, and it is notoriously difficult for a swimmer to manage their training and taper to peak in effect three times in less than six months. Having failed to reach a final in either of his two previous Olympics, the 30-year-old – the oldest member of the British swimming team – qualified seventh fastest with  the world record holder Paul Beidermann among those left in his wake. Beidermann did not make it through.

“It’s a dream come true,” said Carry. “Not many people believed I could do it but I turned it round and am just absolutely thrilled.”

Another happy Scot but one at the other end of his career than Carry was Craig Benson. At 18 Benson is the youngest swimmer in the team but was far from overawed as he set a new Scottish record in the heats of the 100m breaststroke. “The best experience of my life so far,” he tweeted afterwards.

Fran Halsall, who began her bid for five medals, in the 100m fly was equally enthused. She said: “It’s exciting actually because when my name came up on the board just before we were about to start, all I could hear was the crowd going, ‘Whey!’, and they’re blowing the whistle for everyone to be quiet and everyone’s still shouting, so it really made me smile and relax. The first one’s always a bit more nervous than the rest because you want to know how you're going and how you're feeling and just blow the cobwebs away.”

In the 400m IM Phelps went out quickly in his heat, under world record pace for the first 50m, but took his foot off the gas and in the end was extremely fortunate to make it through. Laszlo Cseh, silver medallist in Beijing, failed to make the final.