Tom Degun: London 2012 Aquatics Centre would be better if it had its wings clipped

Monday, 05 March 2012
tom degun_aquatics_centre_06-03-12Like many others, I am not completely sold on the London 2012 Aquatics Centre.

The gleaming silver venue on the Olympic Park in Stratford is certainly Olympian in terms of size and scale but it is those two giant temporary wings that emanate from the main pool building that I just find difficult to warm to.

The wings themselves remember, were never meant to be there in the first place when multi-award winning Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid won the right to design the venue in 2004 before London actually won the bid to host the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics - due to the fact that the venue was going to be built regardless of whether the capital hosted the Games or not.

The stunning wave design, shown off in all its glory in computer-generated images, was hailed by all and it was seen it was quickly predicted to be the iconic venue of the Olympic Park as well as one that could rival the majestic Water Cube creation for Beijing 2008.

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London subsequently won the 2012 bid on that famous day in Singapore on July 6, 2005, and construction quickly began on Hadid's latest masterpiece.

However, it was soon discovered that turning the stunning design into a reality was far easier said than done and, after spiralling costs, it was found that the best solution to get a 17,500 capacity venue for the Games was simply to put two huge wings on it at the cost of having an aesthetically pleasing or even iconic venue.

Incidentally, the actual cost of the Aquatics Centre is £269 million ($422 million/€321 million) which is three times over the original estimated.

After the Games, the wings will be removed as the venue reduces to a 2,500 capacity and finally becomes the structure that Hadid, who is unsurprisingly unhappy with the two protruding structures, originally envisaged.

"The stands were only ever seen as something temporary," Hadid explained.

"The final legacy mode will integrate the building more into the landscape - and that is how I wanted it."

London 2012_Aquatics_centre_with_wings
But the fact remains that when the eyes of the world fall on London and the Aquatics Centre during the Olympics and Paralympics the wings will be in place and that is big shame.

However, things dramatically change once you walk through the doors and into the magnificent interior.

I have now been inside the Aquatics Centre on several occasions, the first of which was when it was officially completed on July 27, 2011, on one year to go to the Olympics, but never had I (or indeed anyone) seen it in operational mode until the Olympic diving test event late last month.

That competition though, has proved just to be a taster because it was at the swimming test event, the 2012 British Gas Swimming Championships, that the venue truly came into its own and gave a real glimpse of what to expect at London 2012.

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The Championships, which also act as the Olympic and Paralympic trials for Britain's swimmers, saw thousands cram into the venue to create an atmosphere which can only be described as electric.

Despite who was competing, the noise level reached a deafening pitch as the UK's best swimmers reached the final few metres of their race and, such is the nature of the sport, that just centimetres often separated the winner from last place.

Excitement increased when it became apparent to all in attendance that only the top two placed athletes secured their spot at the Olympics and there were some truly spine-tingling moments when three swimmers were seen fighting down the home stretch with only two in sight of achieving their dream of returning to the venue in six month time.

Day one was magical, with Hannah Miley proving the star of the show by posting the fastest time in the world this year in the 400 metres individual medley to book her spot at the Olympics.

But despite the huge ovation she got, it was absolutely nothing compared to day two when the steel roof nearly caved in due to the noise from spectators that greeted the arrival of Britain's double Olympic champion Rebecca Adlington.

The 23-year-old from Nottingham has also been an endearing individual with her "girl-next-door" attitude being seen as hugely refreshing in a world of shameless superstar athletes.

She unintentionally drew even more attention and support on the eve of the Championships after she admitted that she was extremely nervous about failing at the event and missing out on the Olympics.

"I'm so worried it's unbelievable," she said, in her typical candid way. "The amount of weight on my shoulders is killing me. It's just going to be such a relief if I do make it. You have to do it on the day, that's the most scary thing. You've only got one opportunity to do it - eight girls all going for two places and a time - it is a scary thought. I hope I qualify – that's the biggest thing, I just want the chance to go and race at my home Games."

Competing in the 400m freestyle event, against rivals Joanne Jackson and Eleanor Faulkner, the crowd were keen to show their support for the golden girl of British swimming.

But she appeared so nervous on the blocks that there were real worries that she might choke under the pressure.

But just seconds into the race, everyone quickly realised that there was little to be concerned about. As usual, Adlington quickly stormed into the lead and never looked back. By the final length, she was well out in front and the crowd rose as one in an emotional moment to greet her as she touched to claim gold and a London 2012 berth, which by now felt as if it was never in doubt.

Rebecca Adlington_in_London_2012_test_event_March_4_2012
It was an additional bonus to see Jackson, who won bronze in the event at the Beijing 2008 Olympics behind Adlington (pictured), finish second to also secure the selection criteria for the Olympic Games. Jackson, a close friend of Adlington, has had asthma and medical conditions have plagued her in recent years and they forced her to miss the World Championships last year in Shanghai. This moment meant redemption and it was a touching moment for all to see the pair hug following the race.

"I have so much relief and happiness right now," said Adlington following the victory. "I was crying my eyes out. Joanne and me have been through so much together, through four years of training and I missed her last year. The Olympics here will be the biggest thing I will experience. Now that I'm going it is the best feeling in the world.

She also admitted that it was the fans that had made the moment so special.

"The atmosphere was fantastic and everyone in the pool was feeling the pressure.

"It's an unbelievable venue and it was so nice to have my family in the stands. I am definitely reminded of Beijing and to be here with Jo is extra special. I am so happy and a bit too emotional. So many months preparing, four years, you can't imagine how good it feels."

Following the stunning race, the fans slowly began to depart and I found myself looking up into the giant wings. They are actually closed off for the test event, but certain gaps in the curtain cladding in front of them allow you to see the endless rows of seats that seemingly go on forever. Perhaps if just a few thousand can create such a special atmosphere at a test event, a full 17,500 will create something truly extraordinary at London 2012 when Adlington returns and the likes of American icon Michael Phelps grace the beautiful pool.

Maybe then, the wings won't seem so ugly and we will find that despite the criticism, the Aquatics Centre could yet prove the blue-ribbon venue on the Olympic Park.

Tom Degun is a reporter for insidethegames 
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