By EDDIE PELLS, Associated Press
LONDON (AP) — Talk about your crowd pleasers.
In an opening session of Olympic track unlike any in recent memory, heptathlete Jessica Ennis and a handful of her British teammates gave fans at jam-packed Olympic Stadium a show worth the early wake-up call.
With nearly all 80,000 seats filled for the first taste of Olympic track and field Friday, Ennis wowed the home crowd by finishing the 100-meter hurdles in 12.54 seconds, the fastest time ever in the heptathlon's first event.
How fast? It matched Dawn Harper's gold-winning time in the 100-meter hurdle final at the Beijing Games — and would've been good enough to take that title at the 1992, 1996 and 2000 Olympics.
"Amazing. So loud. When you step up to jump or get in your blocks, they really get behind you. It's a great feeling," Ennis said. "I felt strangely calm. I'm normally quite nervous before the hurdles. Just coming out in the stadium and seeing the crowd was such an amazing feeling. It kind of gives you goose bumps."
Imagine what a treat it was for the home fans, who have been wringing their hands over every aspect of these games: the megamillion-pound costs, the security, the quality of the subway and train service and, of course, the quality of the athletes who would be representing the host country.
On this particular morning, everything worked out better than they could have hoped.
Fans rolled out of bed, poured into the javelin trains heading to Olympic Park, jammed the turnstiles at the stadium and were in place before Ennis left the warm-up area shortly before 10 a.m. They waved their Union Jacks and cheered every British athlete with roars often reserved for gold medalists.
"The crowd — I have no words to describe," said British triple jumper Yamile Aldama. "I've been to five Olympic Games and in qualifying, you never experience this. Never. It's just always kind of empty because it's in the mornings. This is great. This is 'Great' Britain. British people are great. They like athletics. They like sport."
And to think, a short week ago, so much of the buzz at these Olympics was about fans not showing up to events.
"A fabulous, fabulous experience," said British shot putter Carl Myerscough, who finished 14th in qualifying and won't move onto the final. "It's what I expected. I knew it was going to be amazing. You can't really replicate it. It's a once-in-a-lifetime feeling. All the more reason I'm disappointed. I maybe was guilty of trying too hard."
Ennis, dealing nicely with the pressure of competing on home turf with gold-medal expectations, broke the 7-year-old world mark in the heptathlon hurdles (12.62) held by Frenchwoman Eunice Barber and the Olympic record (12.69) held since 1988 by six-time Olympic medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
"I literally cannot believe that," Ennis said. "That's crazy, so crazy. I'm just so glad I did it here."
The deafening roars kept coming for Ennis each time she cleared a height in the second of heptathlon's seven events, the high jump. When she finally missed, the crowd gasped and groaned.
Not to worry. Ennis' mark of 6 feet, 1¼ inches left her in the lead with 2,249 points — 25 ahead of American Hyleas Fountain, the 2008 silver medalist, with the shot put and 200 meters set for Friday night.
Heptathlon is often one of the more overlooked, underappreciated events at a track meet. Not on this day, though.
"It's a great start to the athletic program now," Ennis said. "I want to perform the best I can. Hopefully, that will roll on to the next few days."
Ennis was one of five women to set personal bests in the fifth hurdles heat alone, doing nothing to tamp down thoughts that the track in London, advertised as one of the fastest in the world, may live up to its billing.
"I had to get a bit closer to the screen to doublecheck the time," said Britain's world-champion 400-meter runner, Dai Greene. "Those sort of things are amazing for team morale."
Greene responded by winning his opening heat in 48.98 seconds.
Britain's Christine Ohuruogu, the defending women's 400 Olympic champion, qualified in 50.80 seconds.
Aldama made it through in the triple jump with a second-place finish and another British heptathlete, 19-year-old Katarina Johnson-Thompson, finished second in the high jump, drawing huge applause when she cleared 6-2¼ (1.89). She finished the morning in third place overall, 103 points behind Ennis, and came off the track beaming.
"It's hard to frown out there," she said.
In one of the day's few down notes, three-time hammer world champion Ivan Tsikhan of Belarus was kicked out of the Olympics because a retest of a sample he gave at the 2004 Olympics came back positive. He won the silver medal that year.
The morning also featured preliminary heats in the women's 100 meters, with the Jamaican sprinters — Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Veronica Campbell-Brown and Kerron Stewart — still waiting for Friday night's session.
Meanwhile, American Sanya Richards-Ross qualified in the 400 in 51.78 seconds, practically walking the last 20 meters in a downpour. Often a headliner at meets where she runs, Richards-Ross knew she got second billing this morning.
"You saw Jessica Ennis in the 100. Everybody in the back was kind of buzzing. There's going to be some phenomenal performances here," Richards-Ross said.
Though it's not unheard of for a big crowd to show for a morning session — such as when one of China's most famous athletes, hurdler Liu Xiang, was supposed to run in prelims at the Beijing Games — more often than not, these are sparsely attended, somewhat sleepy affairs, primarily because mornings almost always mean preliminaries. The big events, as well as the medals, are reserved for the evenings.
There was nothing sleepy about this morning, however, and even the head of track's governing body took notice.
"I do not remember the last time this happened, and it shows the great affection Britain has for our sport," IAAF President Lamine Diack said.
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