It was like being pitched back 12 months in a heartbeat: the cameras flashed, the crowd roared, the volume of the music rose, the union flags fluttered. And when Usain Bolt took to the same track on which he won those three golds the place went wild.

Egged on by the MC, 50,000 cameras flashed in unison as Bolt’s name was announced and a 100m strip of track in east London again felt like the centre of the world for 10 short seconds. He duly delivered the victory the crowd had come to see, despite a dreadful start, and took his bow.

Such is the speed with which modern media moves, and such has been the headlong rush of sporting highs that have followed, that those six golden weeks already seem an age ago.

Returning to the stadium for the first time since the Paralympic Games was a discombobulating experience, not unlike returning to an old house that one once loved. Everything looked familiar but slightly different and somehow diminished. Where Locog’s lavish shocking pink branding dominated the eye, now the strident orange of the Anniversary Games sponsor Sainsbury’s was everywhere. The pixelated scoreboards read, disconcertingly, London 2013.

Such was the enthusiasm to relive last summer the stadium was packed by the time the pole vault started shortly before 7pm in brilliant sunshine – an hour before any meaningful running action.

And judging by the sizeable cheer from those who said this was their first athletics meeting, this was a massive opportunity for UK Athletics to capitalise on an Olympics that seemed to reconnect the British public with the muscle memory of their deep affinity with the sport in the 1980s.

As Bolt circled the track beforehand on a rocket-shaped car that combined North Korea with Wacky Races, it was at times difficult to work out whether this was a nostalgia trip or an athletics meeting. Yet this was a respectful crowd as well as a lively one.

Just as the Games themselves made their blue riband event more than the sum of its parts through intelligent staging, music and commentary, so UK Athletics had thought hard about presentation. It even went one louder than Locog by setting off a mildly superfluous burst of fireworks every time a race finished.

Put bluntly, an evening out at the Olympic Stadium with a cold beer and 65,000 others is a much more pleasant experience than rattling around a decrepit stand in the transport desert of Crystal Palace.

When Perri Shakes-Drayton, who lives round the corner, ran a personal best in the 400m hurdles the noise approached August 2012 levels. As last year, athlete after athlete came off the track and waxed lyrical about the crowd, the venue and the atmosphere.

When the women’s 4 x 100m relay team not only got the baton round but did so in the fastest British time in 12 years, one could not help but credit the crowd with providing an extra boost.

Much of the evening felt like an extended warm-up for the main man. In truth the schedule felt a bit thin at times but UKA must stand a good chance of tempting many of the crowd back.

Outside, the view could not be more different from that of last year’s golden summer. Where once the canals that crisscross the site were lined with excitable spectators clutching precious tickets, now they were home to diggers and dirt.

Inside, the vista still took the breath away. Perched high up in what was always a surprisingly intimate bowl thanks to its steep rake and excellent sightlines was to be immediately assaulted by a Proustian rush of memories.

Unfinished Symphony involuntarily started playing, the roar of the crowd returned and the scenes that marked last summer unfolded, from Danny Boyle’s jaw-dropping opening ceremony to the feats of Super Saturday. When they tested the bell before the event started, the memories of Mo Farah or David Rudisha were almost Pavlovian.

The £427m Olympic Stadium, damned with faint praise before the Games as a Meccano structure without the wow factor of Beijing Bird’s Nest, succeeded precisely because of its stripped back nature and stirring acoustics. Sitting alone on its man-made island, it provided the canvas on which the memories of a one-off summer were painted.

The stadium remains, until its £160m-plus conversion into a permanent home for West Ham in the winter and athletics in the summer, effectively a temporary structure. But the logic of rushing to re-open the stadium over three sold-out days has already been vindicated.

When crowds return to this already historic bowl in 2015 for the Rugby World Cup it will be in a state of flux, pressed into use halfway through the conversion process. And when it finally reopens as West Ham’s home in 2016-17, it will look very different.

The distinctive floodlights that cut into the east London skyline will be gone and a huge cantilevered roof will arc over the existing one to provide shelter for those in the expensively engineered retractable seats that will place fans close to the pitch.

Hospitality boxes will be added, along with merchandising stalls and all the accoutrements of the modern mega-stadium. The venue that provided the backdrop to London’s remarkable summer of 2012 will effectively be no more. This felt a fitting way to wave goodbye.

Jennifer Suhr
Jennifer Suhr


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