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London on track

LONDON, July 28 – London is on track to finish its Olympic Park 12 months before the 2012 Games, officials said Tuesday, as sporting greats tried out the venues exactly two years before the opening ceremony.Former Olympic champion Sebastian Coe, the head of London organising committee LOCOG, declared himself "really pleased" with the progress, saying the project was within budget and on schedule.

"We have a stadium that is structurally pretty complete. The seats are going in and it will be finished by next year," he said during a tour of the emerging venues.

London Mayor Boris Johnson joked that the project was so well advanced that "the really smart thing for us to do as a nation would be to hold a snap Olympics which would catch our rivals napping."

Rather than the regular attempt to outdo the previous Games, the 2012 chiefs are set on building a lasting sporting legacy for Britain and regenerating one of the most deprived parts of the capital.

So while the spectacle will not be on the same money-no-object scale as Beijing 2008, London 2012 hopes to leave lasting urban infrastructure and housing, something rarely created by sports events.

"What we want is to turn this area of east London into a place where people are going to want to come and live and make their careers in for generations," Johnson said.

At the Olympic Park, the main structures are in place, though the area is still a building site, with trucks rumbling through the mud and the sound of drills filling the air.

US athletics hero Michael Johnson, who boasts four sprint gold medals from three Games, tried out a temporary track laid down in the 80,000-capacity Olympic Stadium, where the seats are already being installed.

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He eased his way to an eighth-placed finish in a race with local schoolchildren.

"It’s great to be in this stadium and you can envisage what it’s going to be like during the Games," he told reporters on the track, with dumper trucks and diggers parked up just metres away on the field.

British cyclist Chris Hoy, who won three golds in Beijing, was the first to test out the new Velodrome, which he helped design.

"We’re not just looking at this as a competition venue. You’re looking at the legacy beyond London. You can train here in a lovely environment, not in some dingy dark velodrome," he said.

As he completed the first laps around the smooth concrete bowl, he was roared on by builders who downed tools to watch him in action.

"Just hearing the cheers from the construction workers you can imagine what it’s going to be like filled to the rafters for an Olympic final," he said.

Meanwhile John Amaechi, the British former NBA star with Orlando Magic and Utah Jazz, shot some hoops at the Basketball Arena, a temporary venue built with giant steel arches.

A backboard was set up on parquet flooring laid over the bare earth.

Before he stepped up, British wheelchair basketball player Ade Adepitan had a go, and told AFP: "It’s a privilege to be the first person to shoot in this place."

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"For it to be in east London where I grew up is doubly cool. I can already hear the crowd cheering for Great Britain, I can smell the popcorn," he said.

Construction is currently well within the event’s budget of 9.3 billion pounds (11 billion euros, 14.2 billion dollars).

LOCOG chief executive Paul Deighton told AFP the next year would be about getting the venues completed so they can test them out in the final 12 months, in time for a final year of trying them out.

"You can see the progress in the park, but there is still quite a lot to do," he said in the Velodrome bowl.

"This needs to be finished over the next six months, so we can get in to practice because it takes a while to learn how to operate a big facility.

"We then have another year to test, practice and ensure that when we go fully live, things will go very smoothly."

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