diamond geezer

 Sunday, July 28, 2013

  One year on
  Copper Box

One year on from the London 2012 Opening Ceremony, yes one year, the Olympic Park almost properly reopened. There were three places to be. One was the Olympic Stadium in the south park, where day 2 of the Anniversary Games was taking place. Another was the River Lawns in the north park, home to the celebrations of the Open East Festival. But I didn't have tickets for any of those. Instead I went to the third place, its reopening less well heralded, and revisited the Olympics proper. To the Copper Box, home to the handball, now suddenly part of the local community. Job done.

I had to do a double take on the road outside the Copper Box. Last time I was here this was the Games' main pedestrian thoroughfare, with spectators streaming through from one end of the park to the other. Just to the left the BBC studio and a string of food outlets, just to the right the Panasonic 3D Theatre and the path down to the big screen. The only remaining point of reference, one year on, is the set of mirrored letters - R U N - propped up above a grassy slope. Picture those and you can just about remember how things used to be, before the road arrived and the Olympic dressing was swept away. Head back six years and this was the foot of Waterden Road, home to evangelical churches and cash and carries, plus a concrete viaduct the Olympics made redundant. Planners had just built a bridge to carry traffic to the planned Stratford International station - it had traffic lights and pedestrian crossings and everything - until the need to create an Olympic Park ensured there'd be no through traffic. During the Games they set it out with picnic tables, mostly underused, and now it's the main road through the Park.

Copper Box employees were standing at the road junction with balloons in hand yesterday, hoping to tempt passers by to come inside. That wasn't easy because you don't pass by this spot on foot unless you're here deliberately, and those who were were probably on their way to the Open East Festival instead. Nevertheless several diverted through the trees to take a look, possibly because they'd realised the festival site would struggle to hold their attention for eight hours solid. Good move, especially if you had kids with you. "Daddy daddy look they have boxing can I go can I can I?" A couple of minutes later the small boy was in the temporary ring, gloves raised and grinning, getting a taster of participatory sport. Elsewhere there was table tennis, and a jump-abouty-thing, and even the occasional adult joining in too. I was particularly chuffed to see a boccia taster, this the Paralympic throwing sport, being enjoyed by able-bodied children with a disabled trainer.

The Copper Box has been taken over by Greenwich Leisure Limited, a 20-year-old collective (nothing to do with the Royal borough council), who'll also be running the Aquatics Centre next year. Their employees wear green, and were all over the place welcoming visitors ("It's air-conditioned in here, you know") and offering help. And woo, I was back inside a bespoke Olympic venue again, exactly as I remembered it but not quite as serious. Still the amazing ceiling of light tubes overhead, and still the seemingly-random-coloured flip up seats which are the building's characteristic feature. Last summer's lower terraces have been pushed back and hidden in the walls to increase the size of the central playing space. Back then we cheap seat punters were ushered round the back and up the stairs, but yesterday we could wander freely round the rim of the arena and stare down at the action. The huge floor was divided informally into zones of action, including badminton, handball and inflatable tennis - mostly for kids. It's a big space, and has fantastic sporting potential for the local community, should they decide to sign up.

A series of exhibition games was underway on the court at the far end, where I got to watch an impressive U16 basketball match between the Hackney Jedis and the Haringey Hawks. Watching the teenage slamdunk talent it would have been easy to imagine this as a triumph of Olympic sporting legacy, but alas not so. The Haringey Hawks are being forced to disband due to lack of funding and the loss of their coach, so their victory in this game was a final outing, a last hurrah, and all the players now need to find new clubs. An outfit with a rosier future are the London Titans, the capital's premier wheelchair basketball team, who split into red and blue outfits to play one another. Theirs is an end-to-end sport, not quite as thrilling as wheelchair rugby but damned impressive all the same. Ade Adepitan was playing, you'll know him from C4 presentation and BBC1 idents, one of several players with an uncanny ability to find the net. Meanwhile the next generation of chair-bound chuckers were lining up to practice on the mini-court alongside, and missing with abject regularity.

One of the biggest differences between the Copper Box last summer and this is that there's more natural light. A ring of walls has been unblocked on the middle level, revealing gym equipment (and the river Lea), indeed there are plenty of spaces tucked away for pumping, boxfit, pilates, whatever. Hackney Wick's latest exercise facility will only succeed if East Londoners forego their current Fitness Firsts and Virgin Actives and take up a subscription here. A Leyton-based handball team are moving in, and the London Lions basketball team are making this their permanent home (with a first game against Iowa University on August 14th). Even if sport's not your thing there's always Café E20, hidden away on the ground floor, accessed round the side by the gym entrance. I can vouch for the tastiness of their sandwiches, and the decent-lookingness of their hot food, although their prices are a little middle-class organic. You ought to come and poke around the Copper Box, and the Open Weekend continues today so you can, and you'll see pretty much the same as I've described above. You can even wander upstairs and sit on the very top row, in the vertiginous section, and pretend it's still 2012. The Copper Box remains The Box That Rocks, if we all join in and make it so.

» More information about facilities at the Copper Box in legacy.
» There are 25 photos, so far, in my Olympics+1 gallery, including several of the Copper Box.
» If all this bores you, take a look instead at some Pearly Queens and a jellied eel walking down Bow Road yesterday. Honest.

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