KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY
— No escaping the Olympics, even a month and more away and viewed through the wrong end of a telescope from Donetsk, almost as far to the east of Ukraine as it’s possible to be.
Walk up Shevchenko Boulevard (named after the poet not the footballer), turn right and walk up the hill towards the magnificent new Donbass Arena, set in its landscaped park complete with ‘football fountain.’
Then turn around 180 degrees and there, across the four-lane highway and the twin tram tracks, is the Donetsk Olympic Stadium.
To be fair, it’s easy to miss since the stadium itself is largely hidden behind the wide steel-and-glass office block which fronts the entire length of the main stand.
Followers of such five-ring oddities are aware that the Kyiv stadium is ‘Olympic’ because it hosted some of the football matches at the 1980 Moscow Games.
I had not even reached the front steps of the office block when an intimidating blonde lady emerged from the double doors. She looked the equivalent of a Ukrainian Zoe Smith: same height but twice as solid.
Did she speak English? Inevitably, No.
I made appropriate gestures as an accompaniment to explaining in English that I would like to see inside the stadium.
She replied with a torrent of Russian from which I gathered the gist was: Over my dead body.
We continued this useless exchange for another minute or so without ‘Zoe’ budging or smiling or even summoning assistance to deal with this mad Englishman.
Only when I started walking towards the padlocked side gates of the stadium did something click: she reached her mobile phone and said: “One second.”
Within a minute Laurel and Hardy appeared: a stick-thin teenage boy who declared himself the ‘stadium translator’ and contrastingly-built man who turned out to be the office manager.
He had one word of English.
“Tottenham!” he said to me, triumphantly – and we were away, shaking hands, smiling, through the doors and inside.
You see, Spurs played Shakhtar here in the UEFA Cup back in February 2009. A vast glass case contains the relics of that campaign, with exchanged club pennants plus pictures of our stadium manager with the likes of Harry Redknapp, Leo Messi, Pep Guardiola, Laurent Blanc and Rinat Ahmetov (the local Abramovich and who financed the Donbass Arena).
Then it was down the tunnel to the stadium, bathed in sunlight and the seating steeped in the pithead-contours and orange and black colours of Shakhtar.
Originally the stadium was built in the late-1950s and was the ‘Lokomotiv Stadium.’ It seized the Olympic title after being a training stadium for athletes preparing for the Moscow Games. It was redeveloped in 2003 and annually hosts a major athletics championship attended by all the great names – Bubka (honoured here in statuary), Borzov etc.
In football terms the stadium was home to – and is still owned by – Shakhtar and it was here that Ukraine beat England 2-0 in the final of the 2009 UEFA Under-19 Youth Championship. Of the two squads that day only England’s Danny Welbeck featured in the Euro 2012 tie across the road.
Fascinating the way city and sports officials grab the ‘Olympic’ label. Opens up the prospect of a whole host of ‘Olympic Stadiums’ popping up in England after London 2012. The Olympic Stadium in Coventry? With all due respect to Ricoh, it has a far grander ring.
And how would Geordies feel about ‘Olympic St James’ Park’?
Come to think of it, once the Games have been and gone I might even describe my own little office as an ‘Olympic Media Centre.’
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