diamond geezer

 Sunday, December 11, 2016

One of London's newest tourist attractions can be found in Stratford, a short walk from Westfield and the big slide at the Orbit. It's the Olympic Stadium, now more properly known as London Stadium, in the heart of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Tours began running daily in August, matchdays excepted, and I think it's fair to say they haven't been publicised especially widely.
Take a look behind the scenes and witness where history was made with a tour of London Stadium.
The target audience is interesting. The stadium is the home of London 2012, so you might expect a significant Olympic slant, and indeed there's some of that. But it's also the home of West Ham United, so what you're really getting is a look behind the scenes of a Premiership football club. What's more it's a club with 120 years of history, but only four months of them here in Stratford, so there's not a great deal of backstory in situ.

This is a multimedia tour, so you wander around with headphones and a dangly screen to discover more about the thirteen locations on the trail. A number of red-jacketed hosts are located along the way to tell you more, officially known as Tour Experience Makers, who as well as knowing their stuff are also keen to take a souvenir photo.

Turn up on the day and a tour costs £19, book online in advance and it's £17, and I took advantage of a recent festive offer which knocked another 25% off that. Judging by how much there was to see, which is a lot but not that much, I think I got the right deal.

To start the tour, pre-booked or otherwise, you turn up at the Stadium Store on the south side of the outer podium. A sign outside indicates 'Tours' downstairs via the lift, but ignore that, the window you want is in the main West Ham shop just to the right of the tills. Here you get a plastic token, and then you have to walk a third of the way round the perimeter of the stadium to present this at the main hospitality entrance. This is where all the VIPs entered for the Olympics, and where the players and West Ham elite enter today, so watch out for Baroness (Karren) Brady at the turnstile.

Your multimedia gizmo is the key to the tour so make sure you understand how it works, particularly how to go back if you ever press something too early. And then you're off up the escalators, rising through the glitzy atrium past the medal wall to enter the secret world of the VIP lounge. This is Royal East, the drinking spot for esteemed members and their guests before, during and after a big game. You can tell it's important because of the champagne bottles arranged behind the bar and because a lot of the decor is coloured gold. The nicest touches are the big gold rings suspended from the ceiling, à la Opening Ceremony, while various designs around the walls purport to celebrate the team's East End roots. Rather less necessary, I'd suggest, is the advertising screen which blares out every couple of minutes with an advert for Heineken.

Hurrah, it's time to step out into the posh seats and look down over the interior of the stadium. It does look good from up here, with the new roof holding up the trademark triangular floodlights, now pointing down within. The pitch doesn't seem too far away either, although there is a surprisingly large ring of hidden space before the temporary seating over the athletics track begins. The chairman's enclosure is nextdoor - his lot get padded red seats, everyone else gets plastic white. And while everything around now screams football, squint a bit and you can almost imagine the Queen up here, parachute discarded, as the Games began below.

That's it for upstairs, bar sight of a few other (lesser) bars on the way down. You're then down at car park level, joining the route the players take before a match, before turning off into the changing rooms. The showers are tiled claret, white and blue, obviously. The changing area feels low key in comparison, merely a horseshoe of booths for hanging clothes, each with a power point and USB port for in-match charging. The far end's quite bleak, with bins and drinks and a big electronic clock to count down to the whistle, but I guess the empty floor space is needed to accommodate all the testosterone and banter. The tour doesn't visit the away team changing room. but I'm told it's not as nice.

One genuine Olympic leftover remains, which is the warm-up track where the athletes limbered up before racing. Only six lanes wide and barely long enough for a sprint, this critical facility was squeezed into a breezeblock void under the lower seating, now opposite the corridor running past the changing rooms. This change of focus is welcome because it allows the audio-visual guide to deviate from football, although the three files on offer are more audio- than -visual and lacking somewhat in oomph. It also provides the main upselling opportunity of the tour, as staff encourage your party to stand in front of a green screen clutching a variety of medal-winning props, which (for £10) can later be turned into framed photos, keyrings or fridge magnets. I declined, no pressure.

Next up is the opportunity to visit the Flash Interview Rooms, a suite of seven cubbyholes where players and managers go to stand in front of a wall of sponsors' logos and pontificate about how the match went. That's the lowlight of the tour, whereas considerably more atmospheric is the walk down the tunnel to pitchside, emerging into the stadium bowl at ground level. Explore the exclusive section where the substitutes and managers sit, then take a seat on the plush airline-style seats in the dugout and marvel at quite how far away the touchline seems.

What fills this chasm is the athletics track, safely hidden away beneath red and green carpeting, and hugely more evocative than all the West Ham dressing plonked on top. You're actually standing on the home straight where dozens of London 2012 medals were won, but the multimedia guide chooses to feature West Ham performances instead - presumably because the copyright was easier.

Altogether the tour took me an hour and a half, but only because I'd watched everything the electronic device had to offer, so don't be tempted to skip ahead too quickly. On departure from the stadium expect to be offered a voucher for a free personalised tour certificate and some money off in the cafe, which sounds generous but is really a ploy to lead you back into the bowels of the West Ham store. If you're a fan, this will be exactly what you want - the opportunity to buy a plethora of replica shirts and hammer-shaped memorabilia, perhaps as that ideal Christmas gift. I waited for my certificate to be printed and left.

In conclusion, if you're coming to enjoy Olympic goosebumps, these are in relatively short supply. What you're getting with a London Stadium tour is a look behind the scenes at West Ham United, in an arena that once held some famous athletics. More to the point you're getting a tour of a modern football stadium without (as yet) a lot of football backstory. Having done the Arsenal stadium tour, this felt surprisingly similar - the executive bar and terrace, the changing rooms, the pitch - only without quite so much silverware on show. I'm glad I've been, but if you're not sure you'd enjoy it, save your money.

My London Stadium Tour gallery
There are 30 photos altogether [slideshow]

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