Games Maker Yasmin Shariff on how the Olympic Park was transformed by architects and the community of volunteers
Olympic feel-good factor was a result of masterly design
A look of amazement would wash over people’s faces when they first entered the Olympic stadium. There would be a stunned silence while they took in its scale. Moments later they would recognise Thomas Heatherwick’s Cauldron (rather diminutive in real life) and have to be gently prompted to make their way to their seats. As a volunteer Games Maker, arriving at 5.30am to see the stadium in the dawn light surrounded by manicured lawns and a kaleidoscope of flowering meadows was a magical experience - the colours, the smells and the freshness of the air gave it a surreal quality.
The silence was soon shattered by the buzz from the workforce check-in area where the volume of chatter increased day by day as friendships mushroomed. People from all walks of life exchanged notes on events and the latest ‘knitted’ (the unofficial army of knitted mascots with distinctive Games Maker uniforms in purple and red trim).
Within an hour everyone would disperse to their positions. I was mainly charged with ticketing, crowd control at the bridges and ushering people to their seats. The stadium island was accessed over five bridges and it took less than five minutes to get to your seat from a bridge - there were hardly any queues.
As a Games Maker it was easy to be welcoming to the crowds, smiling and pointing, knowing that they would be wowed by what they saw. Everything seemed to work - even the ladies toilets didn’t have queues. Teams running the stadium were responsive to any reported incidents from a lost child, a trip-up or a dirty loo. I was touched by how much thought had gone into providing facilities for the elderly and disabled. My only criticism was the stranglehold of the sponsors and concessions which restricted the number of drinking water facilities.
The feel-good factor of the Games may have come as a surprise to many but the exuberance was a direct result of the masterly way the stadium was designed. Accommodating overwhelming numbers of people with different needs, stars, egos and athletes as well as meeting technical aspects of safety, acoustics and media was just part of the complex brief. Like a fancy car - most are oblivious to what is under the bonnet or who designed it - everyone enjoys the thrill of the ride and the spectacle.
Despite its scale, the stadium was not overpowering - it was welcoming and did not upstage the participants. It provided a perfect stage for the Games and the extravaganza of the opening and closing ceremonies when it pulsated to a son et lumière of grand proportions.
Its success is a testimony to the skill and experience of Rod Sheard (Populous) and Paul Westbury (Buro Happold), and their experienced teams who have designed many sporting venues including the Sydney, Millennium and Emirates stadiums. It has been built with love and care. Every weld, mitre, bolt, nut and screw was in its place.
If you thought it was better on television, you’d be wrong. Seeing the athletes for real was a different experience. Watching my first race, I was captivated by the gazelle-like women athletes limbering up for an event they had trained for years for. The view from the stands was so good that you could feel the tension, confidence, frustration and sheer excitement of spectators and athletes.
The Olympic Park transformed a wasteland into the most spectacular meadow and touched the hearts and minds of all who visited. There were all sorts of surprises in the park from waterfalls creating words under Stratford Bridge to the living willow sculptures filled with messages.
Groups of performers danced through the throngs to the delight of children and adults alike.
Now the excitement is over, if you find yourself suffering withdrawal symptoms you can find some solace in making your own knitted (patterns can be downloaded free here).
Yasmin Shariff is principal of Dennis Sharp Architects and a RIBA Council member