I was along on Saturday, along with James, Dan and Isla, for the semi-finals of the London Handball Cup. Handball is a sport I had never seen or even thought about before (along with the majority of the UK, I expect) but it’s an Olympic sport, and this event was a test event (part of the London Prepares series) for next year’s Games. Particularly exciting for me was that the event was taking place in the Handball Arena, a new permanent venue that is in the Olympic Park itself – so this was an excellent early chance to walk through and experience this huge newly transformed area of London, ahead of next year’s Games and the presumed general opening of the park to the non-ticketed public sometime in late 2013 or early 2014.
The tournament was over four days (Thursday to Sunday) with six women’s teams, and on Saturday the semi-finals and the 5th/6th place playoff was taking place. Unfortunately, the new Great Britain team was in the latter playoff – and lost to Slovakia 17-22. The other game we saw was the Angola vs Poland semi-finals, which was tied at 22-22 after normal time, resulting in 10 minutes of extra time being needed. Being such a close score, things got pretty exciting at the end.
Handball was a pretty easy game to pick up for spectating (the event guide helped) and the new arena is great. The seating is multicoloured, to provide the illusion of the arena always being full of spectators even if it is half empty. Everything’s brand new and – although the seating is rather uncomfortable, it was OK for the two matches (an hour each) that we stayed for. This being a test event, there were a few hitches – one notable one being the scoreboard, which displays an impressive number of stats, freezing up. The wrong team also got a point scored after a penalty, although this was presumably human error.
It was a bleak, windswept and chilly 1km walk from Westfield Stratford – the entry point – to the arena itself, but it did mean a walk right through the park (between temporary security fences) crossing numerous wide bridges and passing the Water Polo arena (temporary) and almost underneath the front of the Aquatic Centre. There is quite a lot of landscaping going on, and the odd tree here and there, but also large areas of hard paving, unfortunately reminiscent of the area around the O2 or Surrey Quays but I am sure necessary to cope with the huge volumes of people next summer. Hopefully the post-games conversion work will do a lot to break up the windswept plazas and soften the park area.
One particularly odd bridge had soft paving made up of multicoloured circles, rather lurid and jarring, and presumably soon to fade to murky brown with the weather over the winter. Surely some nice Portland granite would be better, or red brick – presumably much more expensive though. If the Barbican Estate can get large expanses of paving right, then why not the Olympic Park?
Still, it’s going to be a fascinating new part of London to explore – eventually.