In an echo of Summer2012, Stratford is once again hosting a two-part summer of international athletics. Last time round the Paralympics followed the Olympics, but this time the able-bodied are going second while the wheelchairs roll in first. The World Para Athletics Championships are in town all week, with acres of coverage on Channel 4 and (numerous)tickets still available from £10. But you can still join the fun even if you weren't planning on going inside the stadium to watch... because that's what Hero Village is for.
Hero Village is a temporary compound on the lawn by the Orbit "full of athletic themed activities, events and sponsor displays specially built for the Championships". The idea is for ticketed spectators to drop in on their way to the stadium, and maybe again on the way out, to enjoy the full hospitality of the companies whose generous donations have helped keep ticket prices down. But you don't have to have a ticket to get in, you only have to get through the bag check at the entrance, and then you can enjoy all the same privileges as the official crowd.
Like free food, for example. The Co-Op are here with a "brand experience" consisting of a van and a couple of trailers on a pretend running track. What they'd like you to do is chat to an ambassador and sign up for membership, but what everybody does is queue up for a dollop of free strawberry ice cream scooped from a stack of tubs currently available in your local supermarket. Elsewhere some folk from a yoghurt company are sat in their marquee wondering whether the public will ever brave crossing the threshold, while in the bottled water tent some kind of interactive exertion is being offered in return for hydration freebies.
One particular motor manufacturer has turned up to showcase their range of future-fuelled cars, not that this appears to be proving a big draw. A big name in wheelchair manufacture is here, just as they were at the Paralympics five years ago, because this is very much their target market. A German insurance company has a presence nextdoor, because para athletics is where they've chosen to channel their values-driven funds long-term. There's also a DJ up the back in a camper van, not knowingly related to any form of marketing activity, and with the volume down so low it was barely worth him turning up.
It's not all sponsors. A separate section of the enclosure features a string of activity zones, from whatever a 'Plank Challenge' is to 'Long Jump' and more typical athletic themes. What's nice is seeing a range of positive activities targeted at visitors across the range of physical ability. Many of these people have come from all around the world for their biennial moment to shine, so the accompanying events are naturally all-inclusive too. A fair number of the other visitors to Hero Village are magenta-clad members of the WPAC workforce, rucksack dangling, either here to assist spectators or participants, or simply escaping from their staff basecamp hideaway just around the back.
If the World Para Athletics Championships are your thing, perhaps stop by for some merchandise featuring the event's mascot, Whizbee the Bee. An insect of indeterminate gender, Whizbee also has one prosthetic leg, or maybe blade, which almost makes sense until you stop to think too hard about it. If you're back here in August for the IAAF World Championships you'll meet Hero the Hedgehog, a similarly ambiguous cartoon character, and also designed by a nine year-old from the West Midlands as part of a Blue Petercompetition. You can buy Whizbee on a keyring, t-shirt or notebook and pen combo, if inspiration strikes, and the mascot pair are to be found in a £6 children's picture book.
And if this sparse offer sounds like pretty poor reason to pop down to E20, consider also the unique location that is 'Medal Plaza'. Winning athletes don't get their medals presented in the stadium in front of a seated audience, oh no, because sitting through the national anthems gets really tedious for spectators when there are umpteen events in umpteen categories. Instead all the medals are presented on a stage in Hero Village, once or twice a day, with all the pomp and ceremony of flagpoles, anthems and well-trained staff bearing ribbons on cushions.
I watched a Ukraine medallist receive her gong, complete with teary close-up on the electronic screen, to the recorded strains of Shche Ne Vmerla Ukrainy. Her once-in-a-lifetime moment of glory was watched by a thin crowd mostly wearing volunteer-purple, applauding politely, in sharp contrast to the standing elation I remember from the Paralympics. If you believe that heroes deserve better after years of training and sacrifice, come make up the numbers one afternoon this week at Hero Village.
Hero Village is open... Wed 19, Thu 20, Fri 21: 3pm-8.30pm Sat 22, Sun 23: 9am-8.30pm
Medals are presented... Wed 19, Thu 20, Fri 21: 3.32pm Sat 22, Sun 23: 2.02pm