Empire Field returns to its sporting ways

Sports park includes turf fields, basketball courts, beach volleyball, ping pong, BMX track

When Empire Stadium opened for the British Empire and Commonwealth Games July 30, 1954, it was the largest sports facility in the country. While the heyday of the stadium is nothing more than a hazy memory for most, it’s fitting that the site of the former venue at Hastings Park is now the place of the city’s newest and arguably best sports park.

These days Empire Fields consists of two synthetic turf playing fields that sit in the bowl, looped by a rubber-surface running track. The Plateau Sports Park overlooks booth fields with its outdoor, action-packed lineup of basketball courts, beach volleyball courts, Canada’s first parkour park, metal ping pong tables (complete with the cool design feature of a metal “net” with the outline of the words “Hastings Park”), an outdoor fitness area and a children’s play area with a steep metal slide cut into the hillside that gives a nod to modern European playgrounds.

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A side-by-side comparison of photographs taken from the same angle 61 years apart shows a portion of the 32,375-seat stadium before it was torn down in 1993 in the same location the Plateau Sports Park is now. The track is roughly in the same area where Roger Bannister and John Landy famously broke the four-minute mile at the 1954 Commonwealth Games in the first televised sports event broadcast live to all of North America. The field is in the same place, tucked into the bowl, where early incarnations of the B.C. Lions and the Vancouver Whitecaps called it home. And on a pop culture side note, Elvis Presley played on those grounds in 1957, while Empire Stadium was the fourth stop on the Beatles’ 1964 North American tour.

Across the bike path from the Miracle Mile statue (and, again, in a then-and-now comparison, somewhere near where the 165-foot high ski jump, built in 1958, once loomed) is a pump track for the BMX and mountain-bike crew. Chris Young of the Vancouver Dirt Jump Coalition stood in Saturday’s sweltering heat for the grand re-opening of Empire Fields and Plateau Sports Park and talked about the past and the present.

“What we do is we work with the City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Park Board to create these opportunities for youth,” he said, while a rider’s wheels kicked up dust from the parched track. “At the end of the day, it’s created for youth and you know we have youth like Neil over here.”

Neil Tapley, hunched over his handlebars of his BMX, answered, “I started riding at 40.”

“He’s one of our elder youth!” interrupted Young.

Tapley continued: “Because of my son. He started riding at five and I didn’t want to be one of those fathers that sat back on the sidelines and got fat, reading the newspaper. I wanted to participate and do something with my son. This was inexpensive, and a lot of fun, and exercise. Now he’s 19 and I’m 54 and I still do it.”

The pump track, part of the $10.5-million park construction, is meant to complement the more advanced BMX park at Vanier. While nobody would have had a clue what a BMX was in the early days of Empire Stadium, Young felt the track is a long time in coming.

“I’ve been riding for 37 years. We all saw E.T. — we’re the E.T. generation so we went out and got BMX bikes the next day,” he said. “It changed my life completely. I was a kid, I could’ve headed down the wrong path by meeting the wrong person on the wrong day. And I met the right person on the right day and I did this.”

And it’s pretty special to be a part of a varied sport community such as this one in East Vancouver, Young added.

“It’s great to be part of all the different things here,” he said. “There’s a little bit of everything for everybody.”

@rebeccablissett

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