Sunday focus | London Olympics: Historic venues

London landmarks offer a unique backdrop for 2012 Olympics

 

At the London Olympics, the athletes will be attempting to become a part of history in the same way the tradition-rich settings for many of the events already are.

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mkaufman@MiamiHerald.com

Eddie Seaward, Wimbledon’s longtime groundskeeper, the man who maintains the world’s most famous patch of grass, typically takes a day or two off after the men’s final.

Not this year.

Not with the London Olympics looming and a 19-day turnaround to restore that hallowed perennial rye lawn to its emerald-green perfection. Just three weeks after the end of the Wimbledon tournament, the world’s eyes will be back on the All England Club as Roger Federer, Serena Williams and many of the other top players ditch their whites for their national colors and compete for Olympic medals.

Tennis was among the original Olympic sports in 1896, dropped after 1924 for 64 years, and has been somewhat of an afterthought since its reintroduction at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. But this summer, the sport’s profile is elevated because of the historic venue at which it is being played.

The All England Club is the only 2012 Olympic venue that was also used for the 1908 London Olympics, back when the event was spread over six months, women played in ankle-length white skirts and men in long white trousers.

And that special distinction is why Seaward and his staff want the courts to look perfect. They spent two years experimenting to come up with the best formula to spruce up the scorched patches of grass near the baselines in a few weeks rather than the usual few months. They spread pregerminated seeds over the damaged turf, and covered the courts to create a humid greenhouse effect. The extra rainfall this month should help speed up the process, as well.

The club was founded in 1868 during a croquet craze, and lawn tennis was added in 1875. By the time the 1908 Olympics came around, lawn tennis was gaining popularity around Europe, Australia and the United States. Great Britain dominated, winning 15 of the 18 medals in indoor and outdoor events.

Now, 104 years later, Wimbledon runner-up Andy Murray is the host nation’s only medal hopeful. And the athletes show far more skin. Otherwise, a lot remains unchanged at the picturesque southwest London tennis club.

Although the all-green backdrop will be replaced by more colorful Olympic signage, and fans will not be permitted to queue overnight for tickets, most of Wimbledon’s traditions will remain intact. Yes, there will be strawberries and cream for sale.

“We basically turned the site over to LOCOG [London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games] the day after the men’s final, but they see this as a heritage site and promised to treat it with sensitivity,” Wimbledon spokesman Johnny Perkins said. “There will be different signage and colors to express the Olympic Games, but they won’t be slapping things up all over the place. They respect the history here.”

Soccer heaven

The same can be said of the 2012 Olympic soccer venues, which include Wembley Stadium (“The Cathedral of Football” in the words of Pelé) and Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United since 1910.

Wembley, Europe’s second-largest stadium with a capacity of 90,000, has hosted the FA Cup final, European Cup finals, the 1948 Olympics, 1966 World Cup final and the Live Aid concert in 1985. Old Trafford was built in 1909, heavily damaged by German air raids during World War II, and was the site of 1966 World Cup matches and the 2003 UEFA Champions League final.

Unlike the tennis competition, which includes the world’s top players, the soccer tournament is for Under-23 players, and each team is allowed to bring three overage players. David Beckham was left off England’s roster, so the biggest stars figure to be 38-year-old Ryan Giggs and Brazil’s 20-year-old Neymar, who has turned down overtures by Chelsea, Real Madrid and Barcelona to play for Brazilian club Santos.

Without the game’s best-known players, the soccer tournament’s storied venues might be as big an attraction as the matches being housed there. At Wimbledon, the players and site will share equal billing. It is the first time Olympic tennis will be played at a Grand Slam site, and that will give it the cache it has been lacking.

Chris Evert was among the players who competed in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, the return of tennis after a six-decade hiatus. She said she felt “like a kid in candy store” roaming around the athletes’ village and going to watch Carl Lewis, Florence Griffith-Joyner and Ben Johnson. But Evert said she felt out of place and “very uncomfortable” marching in the Opening Ceremonies.

“I almost felt like an imposter because the other athletes were looking at us tennis players as if they were saying, ‘What are you doing here?’ because we had our Wimbledon and U.S. Open and French and Australian, and our million dollars,” she said. “These were supposedly amateur athletes who only had one chance every four years.”

Evert played her match at 9 a.m. the next day, against little-known Raffaella Reggi, and “50 people showed up in the stands,” said Evert, who lost. “It was the low part of my whole experience in Korea. Now, I think it’s like night and day as far as where tennis is in the Olympics. Having it at Wimbledon is huge. I’ve never heard players talk about it as much as they are this time around.”

The full allotment of tickets sold out in the first round of sales.

‘Fifth grand slam’

Patrick McEnroe coached the U.S. Olympic team in Athens. He expects the tennis at the London Games to have a completely different feel than it did at recent Olympic venues such as the Stone Mountain Tennis Center (Atlanta, 1996), Athens Olympic Tennis Center and Beijing Olympic Tennis Center.

“I think the buzz is going to be phenomenal,” he said. “Wimbledon, All England Club, has been preparing for this for a long time, so I think it will be amazing. Tennis, obviously, has some of the most recognizable athletes on the planet. In Athens, it was an amazing experience, but once you got on the grounds of the venue, it felt like a regular tour event. Having it at Wimbledon will boost what it’s about in a big way.”

Said 2004 Wimbledon women’s champion Maria Sharapova: “It will be surreal. It will be a completely different experience. I don’t know what I will feel when I’m out on the court playing on grass at Wimbledon and knowing that it’s not Wimbledon. It’s just a unique opportunity for all of us, but I’m extremely thrilled that it’s at Wimbledon. It’s my favorite place to play tennis.”

John Isner, the highest-ranked American man, is looking forward to his Olympic debut on the familiar grass courts.

“To have it at the Mecca of tennis, really, at Wimbledon, makes it a lot more special, in my opinion. It’s really like the fifth Grand Slam this year.”

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