Words: Emma Hudson
“I AM THE MASTER OF MY FATE”. Those words, printed in bold black and gold, greeted visitors to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park this September when it played host to the inaugural Invictus Games.
The Games, Prince Harry’s personal project, shone a spotlight on wounded servicemen and women around the world – a mini-Olympics for them that showcased sport’s role in the recovery process. The four-day event was the largest sporting event at the Olympic Park since, well, the actual Olympics.
The East London park has been many things since it opened for the London 2012 Olympics and then closed immediately after – construction site, half-empty neighbourhood park, pop concert venue, and even a 1950s-era Hill Valley.
Now, as it enters its next phase (fully filled neighbourhood park and multi-purpose event space, for those asking), the park and its asset-holders London Legacy and Development Corporation (LLDC) can add hosting the Invictus Games to its achievements.
Before the Invictus Games’ Closing Ceremony, which brought 26,000 people to the East London space, one could be forgiven for doubting the Olympic Park’s proposed legacy. The only large-scale events – 2013’s Wireless Festival and Hard Rock Calling, both held in the park’s large concrete car park – though entertaining, were marred by complaints of the hard, paved grounds. The added prospect of future residential noise restrictions meant that even those events were a one-off in the park, and cast uncertainty over whether anything equal to them would be feasible there.
The Invictus Games – and its Closing Ceremony – have put many of those fears to rest. The Ceremony featured Prince Harry, the Foo Fighters, Kaiser Chiefs, other guest acts, and, of course, the international servicemen and women themselves. Almost 30,000 people packed out the South Lawn for the ceremony.
So does the success of the Invictus Games and its Closing Ceremony stand as a victory for the LLDC? Is the Olympic Park’s legacy secured? And how did Prince Harry’s pet project serve as a testing ground for future large-scale events in the space?
Where it first began
From the beginning, the Invictus Games was Prince Harry’s passion project – and he was very present in every aspect of the planning and delivery.
“Prince Harry articulated his vision for the Games from the outset,” said Jim King, director of events at AEG Live, who promoted and helped organise the Closing Ceremony. “He was then fully involved at all levels of the operation to ensure that his vision was realised.”
Around April 2014, when the organisers began picking contractors – including Star Events Group’s special projects director Roger Barrett – it was still unclear whether the Prince’s vision for the Closing Concert would be achievable. Without any big name headliners signed up, sponsors were unwilling to commit.
“It almost looked like it was going to fail,” Barrett admitted. And then – the Foo Fighters came on-board. “They put the tickets on sale, and it just exploded from then on in,” Barrett said. “It was one of those things that suddenly got traction, as they say, and got going””. International acts including Ellie Goulding, Ryan Adams, James Blunt, Kaiser Chiefs and The Vamps all confirmed – and all signed up to play for free.
Crucially, organisers saw the Invictus competitors as the real headliners, and everything about the night was set up around the medallion ceremonies.
AEG Live pitched ideas for the ceremony early on and because of the tight timescale and budget, nothing changed too drastically from the original plan. “From the outset, our proposal was centred upon the athletes taking centre stage,” Jim King said. “This didn’t really change much and even when the Foo Fighters confirmed, they saw what we were aiming for and bought into the whole concept.”
Aside from the Foos, who closed the concert with a 45-minute medley of greatest hits, musical acts and comedians were given short set slots, each playing about five or six songs. Frank Turner even had time to double book himself – finishing his allotted time at Invictus, before crossing London to play a Sunday night headlining set at Harvey Goldsmith’s OnBlackheath festival.
In between the acts, medallion ceremonies for the competitors took place. This, for both Barrett and King, presented the biggest logistical challenge. For Barrett and his team at Star Events, the stage’s accessibility was paramount.
“We put in more access ramps with wheelchair cable than we’ve ever done, ever anywhere before,” he said. “For the ceremony, we had four ramps in – it’s rare to have even one on the stage, and we had four complete, different ramp systems on stage.”
Star Events also installed two separate systems for the platforms into the grandstand, where the athletes and invited guests were sitting comfortably above the heads of the concertgoers. A “huge amount” of raised platform areas for the wheelchair users was also installed, according to Barrett.
“The challenge,” King admitted, “was moving up to 200 people, with varying mobility issues, to and from the stage in under 12 minutes whilst ensuring that we created a great and memorable experience for them and TV audiences.”
The night was a success, with rave reviews from concertgoers and the competitors themselves. It, of course, wouldn’t be a true event without its little panics – “half of Team Denmark were stuck in traffic coming to the site,” King said. “We had to move things around a little, but we had a great team on this who delivered it for us.”
A totally new situation
The challenge of the Invictus Games in large part didn’t actually come from the event itself – but from its venue.
The Olympic Park, since it closed at the end of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2012, has been under construction to transform it into a world class park, leisure area and event space. Invictus’ Closing Ceremony was its first real test.
Jim King pulled no punches about the challenge. “The South Lawn was an untested site,” he said. Everything – from load in, to sound quality, to crowd control – was a first for the park.
Some of the issues that arose came from the site’s architectural quirks. For Star Events setting up the staging and rigging, the space presented some trouble from the first day of load in.
“The space only really has one vehicle entrance – any event space needs two,” Barrett said. “It’s a great space, it’s a really nice space, but it’s fiddly – and it needn’t be.” Some of those fiddly bits included aesthetically nice street furniture and landscaping – pleasant to the untrained eye but an annoyance to Barrett and his team. “There’s nothing worse than something that an architect has tried to make look nice that then gets damaged and it just looks broken,” he said. “To avoid that, it has taken time and effort and money to avoid damaging anything, which makes it a lot less cost effective space.”
Because of the new site’s “fiddly” bits, the Star Events team gave themselves more time than usual – nine days, in fact – to load in. Everything was planned down to the finest detail, with the stage actually ready a full four days before the event and the remaining five days used to build the grandstand and production areas.
Star Events weren’t the only ones treading on untested ground – every supplier was trying on new things on the brand new site, including sound and audio managers Capital Sound. (Continued on p.24)
“This was a totally new situation and the promoters were keen to see what we could get out of it, sound-wise,” said Capital’s account manager Paul Timmins.
The unusually tight schedule worked around the strict noise restrictions in place around the Olympic Park. The closest residence sat only 250 metres from the stage, so the concert had to finish on time and stay below offsite restriction sound levels to avoid disturbing the peace. Capital Sound, in charge of the sound and audio for the concert, found the set up a creative and technical challenge.
Working with Martin Audio’s multi-cellular loudspeaker array (MLA) PA system, Capital’s production team was able to hit the front-of-house sound pressure level that the Foo Fighters required. By the time the band hit the stage, the sound was playing at well over 100dB(A). By the time the Foos finished, Capital had tapered the sound below the noise restriction level, avoiding a noisy scandal.
The entire production team’s diligence, and willingness to work with the unusual site, paid off – and everyone agrees that the park is a welcome, and necessary, addition to East London.
“It’s a first class facility,” King said. “Though the capacities are relatively fixed based on the available space, the park is a huge open space and it offers up many opportunities.”
Though he might have a more critical view of the park as it stands now, Star Events’ Barrett fundamentally agreed. “It’s an obvious no-brainer to me,” he said. “There should be a major event space in this part of London, other than Victoria Park, and it should be this space.”
That will be welcome news for the LLDC, who have worked round the clock since the park reopened to promote the space and book creative and innovative new events there.
“We are incredibly proud of what we have achieved over the summer 2014 – our first season,” a spokesperson for the LLDC said. “Since before the London 2012 Games, we have worked with major event organisers to make the most of all our event spaces and are constantly talking to organisers to see how we could improve things further.”
The Invictus Games, allaying most of the fears and doubts about the Olympic Park, seems to have secured both it and its venue’s future. Most importantly, the event achieved Prince Harry’s original vision – it was an all-out celebration of the spirit and achievement of the servicemen and women who competed in the Games.
“It is certainly one of the hardest shows we have produced,” Jim King said. “Not so much for its physical scale, but simply because you really got to see the importance of [sport] in the recovery and rehabilitation of so many men and women who have experienced terrible injuries and illness.
“To have someone with limbs missing tell you it was the best night of his life left an imprint that I doubt, and hope, will ever fade.”