Two years to go and London is so ahead of the Olympic Games

Coe says they're on time, within budget and flying high in comparison with Athens – 2012 should be the ride of a lifetime.
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The Independent Online

A lot of hot air has been wafting over London since the successful bid five years ago to host the 2012 Olympics, so it seemed appropriate that the latest milestone should begin its celebrations from a balloon.

Hovering above the blossoming landscape of the new Olympic Park, we first looked down and then ahead to a Games exactly two years away on Tuesday. The giant blue and white marshmallow of a balloon may not have been flying high because of a swirling wind but London 2012 definitely has lift-off.

Some might suggest that the one aspect of the Olympics which has ballooned is the cost, though actually this is not the case. Even the sniffiest cynic would have to agree that London is now ahead of the Games which the 2012 chief Seb Coe insists will be delivered on time and within budget. Most of the Games venues should be completed well before the target of next summer. The International Olympic Committee's progress chasers say they are both astounded and delighted by the current state of play and it is no exaggeration to say that, two years away, London's main Olympic site looks closer to completion than Athens did two months away in 2004.

This was apparent when I was invited to join the National Lottery-sponsored hot air balloon for a joyride over the Olympic Park but I hope London's flight path will provide less of a bumpy ride than the one I experienced on a warm but windy morning with a trio of British Olympians who all have reason to anticipate a happier landing on the 2012 podium two years from now.

With the canoeist Tim Brabants, hurdler Natasha Danvers and gymnast Louis Smith as flying companions, we had the first aerial view of the wind and rain-resistant roof now in place over the cheaper seats of an Olympic Stadium which is the heart of a complex so advanced that flowerbeds are already being installed in what is the biggest parkland project ever undertaken in Europe.

It was also the perfect opportunity to get an athlete's perspective of what the next two years will bring to those striving for their Olympic visa. Brabants, 32, the 1,000 metres K1 champion in Beijing, has qualified as a doctor but will not practise until after the Games in order to concentrate on London. "The next two years will go around very quickly," he observed as we were being buffeted about despite the balloon being tethered to a couple of Land Rovers (a rather jarring landingat 30mph suggested we might require his medical services).

"It's amazing that two years have gone by already since Beijing. Every time I come to the Olympic Park I am just knocked out by the progress. It is beginning to be quite a spectacle now. The beauty of it is that it is so compact – but actually when you walk around it, it seems to be quite big. Beijing was a wonderful experience but London will be so different because everyone in the UK will be able to feel part of the Games.

"The first time I came here, none of the tiered seating was in the stadium, now it is beginning to look truly world class. The whole landscaping is taking shape and almost seems ready to go. We won't be able to match Beijing in terms of money spent but one of the great things about these London Games is that it will be an opportunity to show the rest of the world that you can stage the Olympics without the unlimited budget they had.

"London will have a touch of reality yet some of the venues will be just as amazing. You won't need to buy a ticket for the Games to enjoy the Olympic experience. I think people will come down to London just for the atmosphere in the park. Even now, I sense there is a real buzz all over the country and this will escalate over the next two years. I don't think many people realise yet just how big an event these Games are going to be and just what is going to hit them as 2012 approaches. In some ways it will compensate for the anti-climax after the football World Cup."

This is not to say that everything in the Olympic Park is rosy. Some of us still need to be convinced that 2012's good work will not be let down by London's often abysmal transport system, even though on Tuesday, among the "two years to go" celebrations, we are promised a first Olympic record with the new javelin train from London St Pancras to Stratford expected to show us the seven-mile journey can be done in 6min 45sec. And the spectre of a further reduction in a budget which has already had £27m sliced off it by the new Government looms large.

Even Coe himself concedes that the two-year countdown will not be a sun-kissed stroll in the Olympic Park. "We are in remarkably good nick but keeping a check on costs and being able to go on raising revenue – which I think we have done remarkably well in a bloody awful economic environment – is a priority. We have thousands of pieces of equipment to purchase and install and we must make sure we buy the right things at the right price.

"Of course our key focus is to maintain progress on the Olympic Park, to keep punching away at completing the venues. The Olympic Delivery Authority have done a fantastic job but now it is up to my team to start piecing the whole thing together, making everything workable for spectators and athletes alike, from the Torch Relay to the Olympic and Paralympic Games themselves. Finally, just two years out, we have to say that it is now down to the British public to think how best they can capture the Olympic spirit and, with their motivation and support, help us deliver the most amazing sporting event in our history."

In Singapore, five years ago the call was "On your marks" when London secured the 2012 Games. Now, exactly two years out it is "Get set" and on the evening of Friday 27 July 2012 (the precise time has yet to be finalised although the favourite, for obvious reasons is 12 minutes past eight – 20:12) it will be "all systems go". So, hold on to your hard hats, it's going to be an exciting ride. Up, up and away.

The Lottery balloon embarks on a nationwide tour leading up to 2012 beginning in Birmingham on Tuesday, followed by flights from Manchester, Cardiff and Sheffield. The public can win the chance to fly with elite Olympic athletes from their region: