diamond geezer

 Wednesday, May 09, 2012

London 2012  London Prepares
  London Disability Athletics Challenge
  Tuesday 8th May 2012

Many people were gutted when they failed to get tickets to the 100m finals at the Olympic Stadium. Losers. Yesterday I got to watch not one but ten different 100m finals at the Olympic Stadium. What's more, I only had to pay a fiver for the privilege. These London Prepares test events, seriously, they're sometimes better than the real thing.

Yesterday's test event was the London Disability Athletics Challenge - a name dreamt up because they couldn't say "Paralympics" because it wasn't. Athletes with a variety of disabilities turned up, or indeed didn't, because there were a lot of no-shows during the day. It was billed as an international event, and included sizeable contingents from the Netherlands, Canada and Brazil, although the majority of athletes appeared to be British. Even so, we occasionally demonstrated a tendency to get thrashed, as for example in one women's race where Finland finished first and we filled all the remaining eight places.

You couldn't fail to be impressed by the perseverance, skill and stamina of the athletes. The wheelchair racers in their low-slung chariots, hands spinning, careering forward. The amputees running, not bouncing, on carbon fibre springy limbs. The visually impaired athletes paired off with guide runners who helped keep them in the correct lane, even when it curved round a bend. And then the athletes with no visible disability, but who must have had something, except it wasn't possible to tell. All the races are described by a category, for example T12, T44 or F32-34. Nobody in the commentary box explained what these meant, and nowhere in the programme or fixture list were the codes explained, so were were left to concentrate on each athlete's ability, rather than their disability.

The crowd were well up for supporting everyone who participated. One of the Olympic sponsors, a well known credit card company, had kindly given every spectator a free concertina of cardboard on the way in. This "Clap-Banner" could be used in lieu of applause, if moving your palms together was too much effort, which for many it seems it was. The thwacking started as athletes powered by, and the noise resembled a forest of artificial chirping insects. Alas not a terribly loud noise, not when there's an entire stadium to fill and only two thousand spectators present.

One of the joys of a 3% capacity audience was the opportunity to sit in whatever seat you wanted. Large sections were roped off, obviously, but there was still significant scope to take a front row seat, or shift under cover when it rained, or go and sit on the opposite side of the stadium to see what things looked like from there. One of the best areas was block 156, square on to the 100m start at trackside, although it was impossible to see who was winning once a race had begun. Block 140 was ideal for watching the long jump, if nothing much else. Blocks 102-115 gave a great overview of the home straight, closer than the row of corporate boxes strung out on the mezzanine above, although the curve of the stadium still left you at some distance from the action. It was even possible to stand in the ring of disabled spectator spaces, assuming they weren't already occupied, without getting moved on by a grumbling attendant. That won't happen again.

You had to feel sorry the athletes taking part in the discus or the seated shot put. They were having a great time chucking stuff and competing for points, but none of us were watching. The announcer kept referring to their latest ranking, as and when appropriate, but we were all fixated on the track. At least the shot-putters got their moment in the limelight when they were selected as one of three events to simulate a medal ceremony. Special music played and out they processed in their wheelchairs to line up behind the special step-free podium. As their names were called they propelled themselves up the ramp to have their prize presented... but no, it wasn't a medal. Instead each winning participant received a cuddly Mandeville mascot (available in John Lewis in Westfield for £19.99), and very pleased they looked too. Each ceremony then played out with the appropriate national anthem, with God Save The Queen being heard just the once. I can reassure you that, at a Disability Athletics event, not everybody stands.

An army of volunteers kept everything ticking over, a significant number of whom appeared to be either about 20 years old or about 60. In they trooped at the start of each event, like clockwork, because that's how it has to be. If the starting blocks needed to be moved, two volunteers per block lined up and simultaneously moved them. A line of youngsters brought in one plastic box per competitor, for the offloading of gear, then calmly marched out again. Each set of athletes was led in behind a lady carrying a placard above her head ("Women's T36 200m final", or whatever), to ensure that everyone ended up at precisely the right point in the stadium as and when. If the test event was testing the organisation, the organisation was only rarely found wanting.

Six hours of events, we got, which was damned good value in such an iconic location. Only one of the Athletics events in the summer will last that long, with most stadium spectators in their seats for less than half that. We got to experience overcast chill and rain, but also sunshine. We watched 50 different events, including those ten different categories of 100m finals I mentioned at the beginning. We saw three world records broken (one by the athlete who came third, which seems perverse, but that's how categories of disability work). We marvelled at the non-able-bodied doing things better than we able-bodied folk could manage. And the friend I went with only fell asleep once.

When Paralympic tickets go back on sale on 21st May, maybe you should consider grabbing some. It's not the headline act this summer, that's for sure, but you'll get to see world class sport all the same. Plus, if you're still cursing loudly at missing out on stadium or 100m finals tickets, your passport to the Olympic Park may be cheaper than you think.

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