Greenwich Park equestrian map

Olympics Watch - Greenwich Park

As zero hour for the London 2012 Olympics looms ever closer, we look at the goings-on at Greenwich Park and find what is left to be done before the Opening Ceremony on 27 July.

Surrounded by a retina-filling panorama taking in a loop of the Thames and Canary Wharf, Greenwich Park is a spectacular site for the Olympics. This is where the equestrian, modern pentathlon and Paralympics dressage events will take place. Greenwich was a surprise choice, ahead of locations more often associated with equestrianism such as Badminton or Windsor, but at an estimated cost of £42m it is said to be more economical and will provide wonderful television pictures for the thousands of viewers worldwide.

The riders are thrilled with the choice. At the last Games in China the equestrian events were held in Hong Kong, 1,225 miles from the main events in Beijing. In London 2012, however, the close proximity of Greenwich to the Olympic Stadium in Stratford will mean competitors will enjoy the full atmosphere of the Olympic Village. The British Equestrian Federation (BEF) explains: "It is rare to have equestrian sport within 30 miles of the Olympic Stadium. Being close to the centre of the Games will be a huge benefit for the riders as they will be at the heart of the action and the location fits in with the overall plans to bring sport into the inner city."

But not everyone is happy and the selection of Greenwich Park has provoked more protests than that of any other venue.

The arena

This is where most of the events will take place. There's dressage, a test of the empathy between rider and horse as manoeuvres are performed at different paces, directions and patterns; show jumping, a test of the ability of horse and rider to jump over a course of 10 to 16 jumps up to 6ft 6in (2m) high or wide; and also the jumping, running and shooting events of the modern pentathlon.

Stands for 23,000 spectators on three sides of the arena frame the 9,450sqm field of play, with the fourth, the northern side, open for view. This is where the first serious problem arises. The ground slopes 3.6m from south to north. The solution is to construct a level platform made of heavy decking plywood panels, 7.5m x 2.5m, weighing 13,00kg resting on a steel and aluminium frame. This decking will be levelled to a tolerance of +/- 4mm over 100m by means of adjustable legs. Protesters are concerned that the rigging of the legs will scar the park's surface and grass. Riggers say great care will be taken not to dig up or cut into the grass and nothing but sand will be used to support the legs. The decking must also be able to bear the load of horses as they jump and is designed to withstand 20kN, which can easily accommodate the impact of a horse as it lands.

The surface is a 500mm composite layer comprising sand, wax and recycled rubber. Every 10m along the deck there will be drainage points leading to a containment system that ensures no contaminated water seeps into the ground or local water courses.

Opponents to the choice of Greenwich are also concerned about the waste produced by the horses. A typical 450kg horse produces 13.5kg of dung and 11l of urine a day. Officials plan to have the dung bagged up and channels constructed in the stables to run off the urine, which will then be bottled and removed from the site.

Cross country

This is the contest that has caused most of the protests. Apart from more general objections that a Royal Park will be closed for more than four weeks, bodies such as No to Greenwich Olympic Equestrian Events (NOGOE) have raised concern over possible damage to ancient trees, roots, gardens and grass. The park is a World Heritage Site and contains ancient monuments, Anglo-Saxon tumuli, a Roman temple, a Le Notre-designed Parterre and a network of Victorian tunnels. However, the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympics Games (LOCOG) says it will make provision not to endanger these sites.

The Park was only deemed suitable to host the cross country event after the approval of a short 3,000m trial course. This is approximately half the length of the 2012 course. The course will be a series of demanding twists, slopes and rises with 40 obstacles. The obstacles will be portable and secured by Spirafix 500mm ground anchors described as 'an ecologically friendly alternative to posts'. They also have the benefits of giving course designer Sue Benson the flexibility to alter her design up until the last minute.

The obstacles are a variety of bizarre, colourful shapes and objects, often decorated with fruit, models of birds, fountains and barrels. They are designed to appear natural to the environment and are made from logs, trees, ditches, banks and water. The first fences are usually fairly straightforward, giving the rider and horse time to build confidence, and become more difficult as the course progresses. The BEF says designers use terrain to make an obstacle difficult by placing it at the opening of a wooded area where there is a lighting difference between take-off and landing. It could also be at the top of a mound so the horse cannot see the landing until it is about to take off.

Before the obstacles are installed the quality of the ground must be brought up to the necessary standards. Lee Penrose, managing director of the Sport Turf Research Institute (STRI), says several tests have to be carried out. First an Australian Clegg Surface Impact Hammer will be used to determine the strength and stiffness of the soil, and then a Theta Moisture Probe will be used to measure its water content.

"Decompaction," says Penrose, "is required to soften the ground across the whole course. This is achieved using a spiked roller (0-60mm) and a deep aerator (0-120mm). No deep works can be undertaken over any protected buried archaeological areas or close to Root Protection Areas of trees. The whole course is seeded with a single variety of ryegrass and fertilised at various rates dependent upon the soil type and proximity of trees. Grass is mown at 35mm through the year but height of cut raised to 65mm on the approach to events."

Watering is a problem since pipes and sprinklers cannot be used. STRI have developed an 8,000l bowser towed behind tractors. "Water will be applied using a folding applicator bar (designed to fit within and beneath tree canopies) or via water cannon in areas where machinery is prohibited from driving (i.e. over-scheduled ancient monuments)," says Penrose. "All machinery will be fitted with low pressure 'turf tyres' to prevent further compaction."

To protect special features even further, vehicles will be fitted with Trimble GPS guidance systems. Sporting high-resolution screens, these show the operators their exact position within the park. "A large number of trees and a significant south-north escarpment meant that the implementation of this system was tricky. STRI worked with the supplier to fit cutting-edge systems using Real-Time Kinematic satellite navigation land survey system based on GPS and the Russian GLONASS signals, to achieve the 2cm accuracy required," says Penrose.

Great care also has to be taken with the grass itself. "Weakly rooted species such as annual meadow grass (poa annual) must be controlled as it will not provide the strength to hold a galloping horse. Indigenous fescues and bents are more used, but STRI will over-seed with a pure ryegrass, the strongest available grass, which will allow for a full restoration of the park after 2012."

Modern Pentathlon

Greenwich Park is also the venue for three of the five Modern Pentathlon events. The competitors will travel to Greenwich for the show jumping, running and shooting events. The modern penthalon showjumping course is shorter (350-450m) than the main one and has fewer obstacles (12) to overcome.

The final leg of the pentathlete's day is a combined event of running and shooting. Here the penthathletes have 70 seconds and an unlimited number of shots to score five hits on a target. They then run 1,000m, shoot again, run a further 1,000m, shoot for a third time, and finish with a final 1,000m run.

In 2012 the pentathletes will use laser pistols instead of the traditional air pistols, making the event less dangerous. The Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne (UIPM), the sport's governing body, and IQ-Shooting of Cologne have developed a specialist laser system. Managing director Klaus Kramer says the laser pistols are very similar to the air pistols in weight, grip and trigger mechanism. They even retain the air pressure container so that the pistols recoil when fired, resulting in an audible 'pop'. The main difference is the incluson of a laser powered by a single AA battery. Pentathletes can unscrew the barrel of their standard air pistols and slide on a class 1 laser device (one that does not harm the eyes). The marksmen have eight minutes to 'pair' their pistols with a target 10m away to make sure the target recognises shots from just one pistol. A master computer will record hits when the laser strikes the target.

Settling the protesters

LOCOG undertakes not to cut down trees but says some pruning may be necessary for safety reasons. Tree roots will be protected, areas will be mulched, soil will be aerated and irrigated and there will be provision for birds. "We will continue the habitat enhancement of existing acid grassland," says Penrose. "These areas have been degraded due to day-to-day park activities. A strategy to improve these acid grasslands through long-term maintenance regimes have been planned and will be carried out under the supervision of the Royal Parks."

Lasting legacy

There will be no new buildings or stadiums left in Greenwich after the Games. Instead, LOCOG hopes the events will "increase the global profile of the Borough, will be an inspiration for its residents and will bring sport to a new audience". More substance has been put into this hope by the announcement by the BEF that it will provide up to '200,000 to fund a programme to introduce children in the area to horse riding. *

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