Playing at Wembley. Headlining Glastonbury. Running in the Olympic Stadium. All these for most people will remain dreams, but in the first weekend of May athletes from the University of Southampton Athletics and Cross Country Club got to realise the latter.
In preparation for the Olympics, the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) nominated the annual BUCS Outdoor Championships as a test event for the new stadium. Even better, as a test event they needed an Olympic-sized audience so 46 000 tickets were put on sale for the Saturday evening session, and so a lucky few athletes, mostly in the relay races, had the immense privilege of running in front of the huge crowd.
The team that departed Southampton for London was the biggest in the university’s history, and by the end of the competition the 28-strong squad would also prove to be its most successful. We were also pretty much in agreement that it was one of the best and most memorable weekends of our lives.
Inspired by our surroundings and our new gorgeous Adidas kit (possibly the classiest of any university) the team smashed personal bests all weekend long. The performance of the weekend was undoubtedly Emily Bonnett’s silver in the 400m hurdles, whose run of 59.08s ranks her as 8th in the UK overall. This was surely the best result in Southampton history, but other outstanding performances included Louise Webb’s 4th place in the steeplechase, Sarah Ellis’ 7th in the javelin, Becca Carozzi made the 400m final. Tom Anderson came 9th and Elinor Kirk 11th in the 5000m.
Special mention must go to the reserve athletes who didn’t compete but nevertheless provided strong support for the entire weekend, and extra special mention goes to Jon Grimes, the club captain, who organised everything.
The Olympic Park as we saw it was something like a woman with her make-up half done. All the stadia, walkways and plazas are functional but the finishing touches were not quite there yet: ugly makeshift barriers were scattered around, green areas were still just soil and the basketball arena and the Olympic Stadium itself were yet to have the ‘wrap’ installed.
And the weather was freezing. But it won’t be like that in August – the Queen has guaranteed it. In contrast with the new Westfield on the outskirts of the site, the Olympic Stadium has been designed for function over form. It’s not particularly pretty, but it’s still the Olympic Stadium, and the very idea that we were using the same track that our heroes will pound in three months’ time is incredible.
Looking at advertising posters depicting the stadium once back home gave the most satisfying been-there-done-that of my life. Then there’s the Orbit, the huge red sculpture that peers onto the track. I’ve heard it described as a ‘rollercoaster in a trash compactor’, or a giant tangled slinky, both of which are pretty accurate descriptions. Hopefully it will look nicer in the sun. However, the Aquatics Centre and the Velodrome both look stunning; sadly we never got the chance to go inside.
As part of the 4x400m team I was one of the lucky four from Southampton that got to experience running in front of the 50’000-strong crowd, and it was an experience that I’ll never forget. Hopefully I can give some idea of what it was like. Having previously run the 4x100m in a mostly empty stadium, the two of us selected for both relays – Abe Newell and I – had to wait for the second relay for an hour in the guts of the stadium, to avoid registration issues.
In this time, unbeknownst to us, the sun had set and stands were packed out. Before the race, the teams were escorted to a holding area which was situated so that while we might not be able to see the arena, we could definitely hear it. It felt like something from Gladiator: the unseen roar of the crowd added an extra layer of tension and pumped up sprinters prowled around determinedly; others sat calmly at the side. As we walked out to a particularly tight finish between Bristol and Sheffield Hallam, I felt a struggle between wanting to just stand and gawp at the spectacle and focussing on my race.
As the first leg runner, false-starting or dropping the baton in front of 50’000 people would be quite embarrassing. I went for focus over enjoyment in the end, although I did allow myself to raise an arm as my name was called out, prompting a cheer from the stand nearest. The Loughborough athlete next to me did the same and got a louder cheer, bastard! Strangely perhaps, despite how loud the crowd was, when running you don’t really hear them. You feel rather than hear the crowd; it’s more like a pressure, an extra dose of adrenaline.
My inexperience of running the 400m, the fact that the only athlete outside me was likely the quickest in the field, and the urge to go recklessly all-out at the demand of the crowd meant that, by the last 100 metres, I was dead on my feet.
What can the Olympians expect come August? A fast track, for starters – the new SuperMondo surface is simultaneously firm and springy. Hopefully the time between first call and toeing the start-line will be cut for the professionals, because the forty-five minutes wait that we students faced is really not ideal – you really want to be running within twenty minutes of warming up.
The extended wait was probably down to the draconian branding rules that were enforced: stewards were tasked with rummaging through every kit-bag and taping up anything with a logo. The plastic wrap on my Lucozade bottle? Torn off. My pack of Mars Bars? Taped over. London 2012 Official Water Supplier? Not allowed! The University of Southampton logo on my tracksuit? Also taped over! (The latter was a mistake, apparently, but still.) Usain Bolt and company will only have officially sanctioned kit so they probably won’t have to undergo this. As for other aspects of security, things were pretty slick and not much trouble at all.
All in all, we pretty much lived the dream for a weekend. It was a less than one-in-a-lifetime experience: we were the lucky few. We rose to the occasion, with the deluge of personal bests and outstanding performances cementing the University of Southampton’s reputation as the best athletics university in the south of England. Athletics may be primarily an individual sport but it felt like a massive team effort, and we are all immensely proud of our achievements.