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London 2012: testing, one,two, three…

Atkins | 15 Jun 2012 | Comments

In May 2011, a year-long programme of events was launched that was designed to test the infrastructure, buildings and operations behind the biggest festival of sport on Earth. With the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games now just around the corner, we find out how these tests have helped organisers to “get it right first time”.

On 6am in central London on a bank holiday Monday at the end of May 2011, about 40 UK club runners jogged across a start line on The Mall, the ceremonial route leading to nearby Buckingham Palace. As they set out to cover the 26 or so miles of an invitational marathon event, they entered a footnote into history. They were the first athletes taking part in an Olympic event set in London since August 1948.

They were also the first of about 8,000 participants in what was billed “the world’s largest rehearsal”– a total of 45 test events that were scheduled to take place in the year leading up to London 2012, with athletes from more than 50 nations due to compete in front of 250,000 spectators. Dubbed “London prepares”, this series of test events, from archery to artistic gymnastics and from table tennis to taekwondo, was designed to help perfect the London 2012 Games.

The programme was organised by LOCOG, the London Organising Committee overseeing the planning and development of the Games. It was designed mainly to test the fields of play; the results, timing and scoring systems; and the key operational procedures.

Crucial preparation

“The test programme has been critical from the point of view that this is for a one-off event,” notes James Bulley, director of venues and infrastructure at LOCOG. “We don’t get the opportunity to solve teething problems over a long period. The Games come and go pretty quickly – we have to get it right first time.”

What’s more, testing is vital in order to avoid giving any athletes undue advantage: “For any sport, you can’t have a situation where there’s bias in the environment that will assist anyone unfairly,” adds Steve Cardwell, Atkins’ project manager for London 2012. For example, something as simple as an uneven distribution of sand in beach volleyball could give one team an unexpected edge. Testing can literally help to level the playing field. “It’s a question of making sure that everything is just right.”

Atkins has already played an important part in London 2012’s development: from site planning at Horse Guards Parade, to environmental assessment in the Olympic Park, to advising on the overall temporary overlay strategy for the Games. There is an awareness that each piece of the puzzle must help to make the event as memorable as possible for the right reasons.

“With an event of this magnitude, where the world’s eyes will be on us, but more important, where athletes have been training extremely hard for years, we can’t afford to make mistakes,” agrees Ada Gonzalez of Atkins, who is currently seconded to LOCOG, where she is responsible for the design and installation management overview of the services containment – from buried cables to the poles and trusses designed to keep power and other key services flowing to six venues.

“A test event is an ideal way not only to verify the new methods, the equipment, the operation and all of the required resources, but also to incorporate all the lessons learned for the Games themselves,” she says.

“It’s also about testing our workforce”, adds Bulley, “so they get the opportunity to be involved in the sports that they will be responsible for at Games time and rehearsing how they need to operate.”

The test series features some world-class sporting events – including the UIPM Modern Pentathlon World Cup Final and the UCI Track Cycling World Cup – and has already brought top athletes to many iconic London locations. In all, 43 sports and 28 venues fall under the “London prepares”banner.

The test programme was structured in three clusters that broadly relate to the three types of venue in use. The temporary venues’ testing was part of cluster one, roughly 12 months before these venues will be used in earnest. Next, the existing venues – such as the ExCeL London exhibition centre and the North Greenwich Arena – were tested over the winter (they have heating). And, lastly, the new-build permanent structures, including the aquatics centre, velodrome and main stadium, have been tested throughout the spring. In the case of the permanent structures, the programme was timed such that anything being tested can remain in place until the Games.

Jeff Keas is principal architect with Populous, the firm working with LOCOG to design and develop all London 2012 venues using temporary overlay. While LOCOG decided which test events would be run and at what level – world championship or invitational, with spectators or not, with broadcasters or not – Populous was brought in to develop the infrastructure designs for the test events. Meanwhile, Atkins prepared overall performance specifications for the civil works, structural works, acoustics and fire safety.

“Often it’s an existing venue such as ExCeL,” Keas says. “You have the building, but inside it’s just big empty halls. We bring in seating and other temporary materials being used for the Games, from tenting to cabins. We have a ‘kit of parts’ and use that to develop the design.”

Populous has also designed temporary venue overlay for locations where there isn’t a viable structure in place. These venues are a key feature of London 2012. In fact, LOCOG is using almost the same amount of overlay as the three previous summer Olympics combined.

“That was intentional and it’s a very sustainable approach,” Keas says. “We’re not building any white elephants. From a testing point of view, if something is going to be put together just for the Games – such as the beach volleyball arena at Horse Guards Parade – then we have to build it during the test events.” Part of the challenge for London 2012, then, has been not only testing venues in operation. Much of the time, it’s involved testing the construction of the venues themselves.

Don’t scare the horses

This includes Greenwich Park, which played host to a temporary three-day-event cross-country course, as well as a temporary main arena for dressage, show-jumping and the shooting and jumping events of the modern pentathlon. An invitational three-day test event was held at Greenwich in July 2011.

It constituted not only a big build in a limited period, but it was created on a sensitive World Heritage site: Greenwich Park itself. Owing to the uneven surface, a wedge-shaped platform made from plywood, aluminium and steel and held above ground by 2,100 pillars had to be built in order to level the arena where the shooting and equestrian events take place. Atkins was involved in the original feasibility work that led to the selection of the platform. It produced the performance specifications and supervised the contractors as they did the detailed design and installation. During the event, Atkins oversaw how the platform was performing.

As Cardwell notes, “We had to make sure that the vibration of the platform was minimal so the horses didn’t feel it and to prevent any undue impact on the ground, which includes a lot of archaeology as well as utilities and services that mustn’t be damaged.”

Keas concurs: “We wanted to ensure that it wouldn’t scare the horses and that we could put an event into a World Heritage site with the right level of care.” In fact, he says, the venue and platform passed with flying colours.

Unique challenge

The most time-constrained temporary venue is Horse Guards Parade. The Queen uses the space to host the annual Trooping the Colour event in June. This gives LOCOG a six-week window in which to construct a main centre court, two warm-up courts and three training courts, along with all the ancillary requirements, including spectator seating for 15,000, catering and toilets, broadcast facilities and lockers.

The test event, says Bulley, gave LOCOG the chance to test logistics and to understand the site conditions, and the relationships with the venue owners.

“This is a highly sensitive area with Grade I listed buildings. The test gave us the opportunity to understand how we are going to move trucks through Westminster, where the set-down areas will be and how to bring equipment in and out of that space.”

Duncan Firth works for Drivers Jonas Deloitte, which has a team of project managers in place at LOCOG to look after the design, build, installation and removal of the temporary venues in the Royal Parks. Firth is the project manager responsible for Horse Guards Mall, which is The Mall and Horse Guards Parade combined.

Like Greenwich Park, the field of play for the beach volleyball event is on top of a platform. It can’t be put on the gravel of Horse Guards Parade itself because the sand has to remain uncontaminated and well drained, during both the test phase and the Games themselves. It comprises a complex structure built in the shape of a shallow swimming pool and is designed to hold the 3,000 tonnes of sand transported from Surrey on 120 lorries and moved into place on conveyor belts.

The sand needed to meet the stringent specifications of beach volleyball’s governing body. In use, rain needed to drain freely through a membrane under the sand and disperse harmlessly on to the parade ground itself. Both the sand quality and the field of play were given a resounding thumbs-up by the athletes.

Technology is also a significant piece of work for all concerned and must be tested just as thoroughly. For example, Atkins was involved in developing the designs for the cable routings for all of the test event venues, including the beach volleyball arena. Drivers Jonas Deloitte worked with Omega to install its scoreboards, video boards, timing and results infrastructure. All of this work feeds into the Games network, which links back to the main hub at LOCOG and will, among other things, be an important source of timely results updates for the media. Given the number of suppliers involved, testing that network functioned properly was essential.

“We tested it”, Firth says, “and now we know that it actually works.”

Lessons learned

The test events have clearly proven to be a worthwhile exercise. “There is a huge amount of learning that comes out of every test event in terms of how the operational teams work together,” Bulley says.

“The value of testing can’t be overestimated,” agrees Firth. As a result, there have been reviews and changes have been made accordingly. The equestrian surface and the BMX surface have been revised after further trials. Also some aspects of technology, transport and crowd management arrangements have been tweaked.

Another key element for LOCOG is testing so-called “C3”: command, communications and co-ordination of information. “That’s how we communicate as an organisation, how decisions are made, how issues are escalated,” Bulley says. “All of these aspects are being tested and we’ve got some very helpful insights from it.”

An added benefit of the testing has been informing and getting people used to what it will be like at Games time. The best example was the road cycling test event that involved 150 world-class cyclists, six London boroughs, four Royal Parks and road closures in Surrey along a 140km route. The quality of liaison with numerous stakeholders was key to the success of the event, as was the co-operation of the public.
And one of the biggest gains from the test programme is the way it has built relationships and confidence with stakeholders, among contractors, with the public, the broadcasters and not least with the athletes and their respective federations.

“The test programme covers the whole London 2012 experience,” says Atkins’ Cardwell. “Transport, security, the food, the spectators’ sight lines, the athletes’ experience – all of these things factor in. And, when you have a test event, the learning goes up exponentially. Everybody wants to make the experience brilliant come Games time and these test events could make all the difference.”

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