The day our man took on Olympian in pool fit for champions
The 2012 Aquatics Centre was opened yesterday and Robin Scott-Elliot dived in. But did he set a world record? Not quite
Thursday 28 July 2011
There was a feel-good factor permeating east London yesterday. There was an emotional Sebastian Coe showing Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, around beneath the sweeping curves of the Aquatics Centre. There was Boris Johnson, hair tousled and causing chaos wherever he went, coming over all lyrical about the completion of the final venue for the London Olympics, all £269m and 17,500 seats of it. But most tellingly there were the swimmers.
"The water felt good," said David Davies, Olympic medallist at the Beijing Games, "there was an extra vumph in my shoulder."
"Every pool feels different," explained Katie Skelton, a member of Great Britain's synchronised swimming team and one of the very first people to plunge into the pool. "Some can feel thick but this felt good."
There were other swimmers, too, albeit slightly less garlanded. It did feel good, but then where Davies has the experience of a competitive lifetime of state of the art 50m pools around the globe to call on, and the synchro team were fresh from the world championship pool in Shanghai, The Independent is more used to the bare-arm combat of a leisure centre in neighbouring Hackney, all 25 ageing metres of it.
There was a link between these two venues, a couple of miles but a sporting world apart – the lifeguards. Last week they had been on duty at another pool in Hackney. "This is a bit different," acknowledged one as he warily eyed the massed ranks of the world's media on the other side of the pool. There will be no need for lifeguards next year when Michael Phelps, Rebecca Adlington, Davies et al are in town, but they were felt necessary yesterday as the amateurs were given the rare privilege of trying out an Olympic venue.
The Aquatics Centre is one of the more controversial structures on the Park. Its final cost is almost four times the original budget and Coe admits that when he first saw the plans designed by Zaha Hadid he was somewhat taken aback. "It was seven years ago when she pulled out the drawings and I went, 'Oh, OK.' But she was right," said the chairman of Locog, the organising committee, and a veteran of Olympics since the 1980 version in Moscow. "You have to build something that is iconic and something that defines the Park."
In Games mode though, from outside it resembles a gift box that has been trodden on, perhaps by someone stepping down from Mount Olympus. The attachment of two wings in the shape of the stands that rise diagonally from the each side of the sleek wave of wood and steel that makes up the roof detracts from the lasting structure. Johnson called it a "poem in steel and concrete". Others remain to be convinced, among them the mayor of Newham, in whose borough this part of the Park stands. "Foolish," was how he described it last year.
Coe defended the building of the stands as temporary structures dictated by cost. "It is not the time or place for vanity building," he said. "They have to do their task. It is not going to be the prettiest thing on the side of what is a beautiful pool."
Inside, beneath the 37,000 individual strips of hardwood, it is a striking sporting arena. The stands bank steeply – if you have seats at the very back expect to feel a little detached – and should help create a raucous atmosphere for an event that will be sold out.
"The thing that's got me," said Davies, "is how far back the stands go – it's like the Nou Camp. It's a fantastic setting. There is something unique about it – that's the impression you get when you first walk in and I can't wait until next year when it's full of Brits cheering us on."
Beneath the stands are a series of call rooms where the swimmers will wait before being called out to race. Turn right and you find yourself in a whitewashed corridor, ahead of a set of double doors that lead to the pool. From there it feels a long walk along half the length of the pool, eyed by lines of TV cameras and interviewers wondering who on earth had sent in the clowns.
How did it feel? Cool was the first impression. Competitive pools are kept at lower temperatures. "When you are competing you get really hot so the temperature is dropped down," said Davies cheerfully. "That was quite nice I thought."
Davies, with his Olympic and Commonwealth medals and his British records, was three lanes down, past the Guardian and The Times, who have the same number of international honours as The Independent. Davies has that enviable skill of all top-level sports people, of making what they do seem effortless. It's even more apparent close up, or rather when he is disappearing down a lane at speed. I was not, though, left in his wake but that is because there is no wake and that is one of the reasons why London is regarded as a fast pool.
There's space for 10 lanes, but only eight are used with the two on either extreme empty. They are split by lane dividers much larger than normal ones, while the edge of the pool has no wall; instead the water breaks on to poolside and flows into drains. That combined with the large dividers and a depth of 3m the length of the pool – "What, no shallow end?" said one startled member of the Fleet Street Eight – helps create a wave- and wash-free environment and that should mean fast times. But London is unlikely to witness a flood of world records. The banning of body suits since the start of 2010 has led to an 18-month drought. At the 2009 world championships there were 43 world records – a couple would be a surprise in London. But swimming will still be one of the spectacles of the Games, it is the first major event inside the Park, and can set the tone for the entire fortnight, both for Britain and the Games itself.
"We've never had a pool of this magnitude in Britain before," said Davies. "We deserve to have a setting like this. You read about and hear about having the Olympics all the time, but to actually step into a venue that you're hoping to compete in... it's the first time I've done it – it's great. What you want as an athlete is the setting, the atmosphere – I'm sure the music will be blaring, the crowd going. It's going to be special."
Davies aims to compete in the 10km open water and the 1500m inside the Aquatics Centre next year. That is 30 lengths of the pool. Yesterday I completed two, watched suspiciously by an underwater camera. The slowest time in Olympic history for the 50m is 1:03.97, completed in 2000 by Paula Barila Bolopa, a supermarket cashier from Equatorial Guinea. The fastest is 20.91sec by the Brazilian Cesar Cielo. The electronic timing is yet to be installed in the Aquatics Centre, so I think it is safe to say I was somewhere in between.
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