On Friday, the first occupants will be filling these stables ahead of Monday’s Greenwich Park Eventing Invitational, the test events for next year’s Olympic equestrian contests. Friday will also see the closure of the footways through most of the east side of the park as preparations step up a gear.
I joined a media tour on Wednesday morning to get a look behind the scenes of what’s been going on behind the fences in the park over the past six weeks or so. Here’s some photos – firstly of the stadium. It sits on 2,100 legs – which have also helped to prop up a Tesco store as well as athletics competitions.
The white structure beneath the observatory is where the judges will be based. During our visit, the stadium was being fitted out with the technology needed for the judges, including the scoreboard.
You can see a better view of the legs above. The arena itself is only slightly smaller than the one which will be used next year – the main difference will be in the seating. Just 2,000 people can be accommodated in the current temporary grandstand – there’ll be more than 10 times that next year.
One of the challenges the team will face next week will be in converting the equestrian arena into one suitable for the modern pentathlon event, the UPIM World Cup Final, which will take place on 9/10 July, featuring 36 men and 36 women from 20 countries. The action will be split between Greenwich (riding, running and shooting) and Crystal Palace (fencing and swimming), as the facilities at the Olympic aquatic centre are not yet ready.
As well as the challenge of getting athletes from Crystal Palace to Greenwich on time, organisers have to find 55 horses for the event – unlike equestrian disciplines, pentathletes get a random horse to ride on, and just 15 minutes to get to know their steeds. Also, for the first time in a major event, the pentathlon athletes will be shooting with lasers.
This is where spectators will enter the temporary arena – between the stadium and the Queen’s House. Greenwich Council gave away 1,000 tickets to residents. “We had 12,000 applicants before we stopped counting,” council leader Chris Roberts told reporters.
The grass on the sections which have been closed since mid-May looks as good as you’d expect from an area that’s had few visitors and huge amounts of rain. But the course itself – which is being looked after by the Sports Turf Research Institute – is especially soft and bouncy.
The boating pond has become a water jump, and has gained a fish and a turtle. Organisers hope to get this back in public use within days. There’s no word on whether the fish stays for 2012.
The bedding’s already waiting for the horses, and when the bins are full, they will be taken away and composted off-site. For the equestrian events, all athletes will bring their own feed for the horses, who will be younger animals than the ones expected to be the stars next year. Jeremy Edwards, the venue general manager for Greenwich Park, explained that the stables on an easy-to-drain deck to prevent the soil from being polluted. He said organisers would be learning how best to keep the horses cool.
“In the 2008 Olympics I worked for the Hong Kong Jockey Club and we built a a magnificent set of stables, but unfortunately they were built by racehorse people and not equestrian people – and we had multiple countries in the barns. So one of the problems we had there – and it’s not widely spoken about much – is that different countries had different ideas of what temperature they wanted it to be set at. Here, what we’re looking at is whether we’ll need some circulation of air – that could simply be some ceiling fans in the roof.”
Behind the stables are vet and anti-doping facilities, where organisers hope to test how long it takes to get samples to labs for testing.
Some 70-80 staff have been employed since 16 May on turning the park into a sporting venue, with construction work only completed on 20 June. A meerkat mascot is looking after one of the hard hats for now…
The first 10 horses arrive on Friday, with the other 30 coming on Saturday, with an inspection planned for 2.45pm on Sunday.
The dressage kicks off on Monday morning, while cross-country will take place on Tuesday. Showjumping will round off the event on Wednesday. Over the next two days, the arena will be converted for the pentathletes, with men competing on Saturday 9 July and women in action the following day.
If you’re lucky enough to get into either test event, you’ll be amazed – and I think, reassured – at what’s been done with the park in such a short space of time. (You also may be in royal company.) But many more will be shut out of the events, and remain shut out of much of the park, and I think LOCOG’s challenge is to show as many people as it can just what’s happening behind the fences to demonstrate that it’s all worth the hassle. Not an easy job around here with an emasculated local media – and the demonstrators will be sure to get some national publicity on a slow Monday morning.
Will next summer be a time of fun, a time to make money renting your home out, or a time of hassle? By next week, many people will get an idea of what it’ll be like for them – if they haven’t made their minds up already.