Monday, 6 August 2012

"Yes, I was there too..."

Not a post about writing, I’m afraid. Sorry about that, but I will try and keep these sorts of posts to a bare minimum on this blog. However, I couldn’t let the chance pass by to write a few words about my trip to London last Friday – to the Olympic Games.

I was still at university, just about, when London won the right to host the Games, on July the 6th 2005. I think I’d finished my exams but was still going in daily to use the internet, as I didn’t have it at home at the time due to the miserable couple of people with whom I spent a fairly joyless year house-sharing.

I recall very clearly sitting in one of the computer rooms in the Arts block, with my laptop plugged into the network, listening to the announcement being streamed via 5 Live on the BBC website. Looking back at my diary entry for that day I can see that I was already planning to attend some events in the far-off Space Year 2012, although as I put at the end:

Seven years… I wonder where I’ll be in life and what I’ll be doing then? Doubtless I’ll be coming back to read this entry anyway! Hope you’re doing well there, Paul aged 28.

Yes, not too badly, thank you.

I never would have expected to still be living in Norwich by the time 2012 finally rolled around, but being here has meant I’ve seen, from a distance, the Olympics grow up and take shape. If you live in Norwich, whenever you have to get the train down to go to or through London, you always pass Stratford on the line into Liverpool Street Station, and many’s the time in recent years I have looked out of a train window to see the Olympic Stadium beginning to take form, and the park around it too.

The Olympic Stadium in Stratford, East London.

Last Friday morning, I got the chance to sit in the stadium as the athletics events of the Games got under way.

I didn’t get anything at all in the first round of ticket sales last year, but in the second round I managed to get tickets to the women’s football final at Wembley this Thursday, and for the princely sum of £150, a ticket to be in the Olympic Stadium itself for the first session of the athletics. I chose the football because I wanted to actually go to an event where a medal would be won, and because it’s a sport I enjoy watching. But I also chose the athletics because... Well, that is the Olympics, isn’t it? For all the other sports, it’s the running, jumping and throwing that are emblematic of the Games.

Seeing the fantastic reaction of most of the people around me to the opening ceremony and the first week of the Games, the feeling of so many people wanting to be a part of it, the sense of a coming together and a shared joy among the nations, certainly convinced me I made the right choice to spend the money on a ticket. I’d been looking forward to it all week, and when the day finally came I’m pleased to say that I was not disappointed.

It was a very early start on Friday morning, getting the 5.30am train down from Norwich, but already there was a touch of Olympic Spirit about place. There were pink-jacketed railway staff – soon to become a familiar site at stations all over the capital – handing out free maps of the venue areas and amended train timetables, and in my carriage there were certainly other Olympic travellers, some happily with Union Flags painted on their cheeks and eagerly chatting about what they were off to go and see.

Finally, after all these years of glancing at the Olympic Park as I went through Stratford, I was getting off the train there to actually go and visit the place.

It was an incredible feeling walking down from the station to the park. Everyone was very effectively shepherded, with volunteers brandishing big pink foam hands labelled ‘London 2012’ with a pointing finger standing every few feet along the way, ensuring you couldn’t possibly get lost. Every so often one of these volunteers would be seated in a high chair and armed with a loud hailer, to encourage you that it wasn’t far to go now, telling us they hoped we all had a good day and occasionally asking whether we were all from the UK or what countries we’d come from and who we were there to support.

The walk from Stratford Station to the Olympic Park.

I have to say that the volunteers all around the Olympic Park, in their fetching orange-and-purple colour schemes, were an absolute credit to the Games and indeed the country. Unfailingly helpful, polite, cheerful and almost all of them clearly absolutely delighted to be there and be a part of it all. They must have to put up with a lot, but I never saw any of them looking angry or stressed, and they all seemed happy to help out with the constant requests to “please take my photo with the stadium in the background!” from all around.

“Please can you take a photo of me...?”

There was a real sense of crackling anticipation and excitement in the crowd as we shuffled along to the Olympic Park – shuffling being a main feature of the day, actually. Wherever there were long queues in the Park, they never stayed static for long. For the megastore, for the toilets, for food... They may have been long, but they always kept moving, which quite impressed me.

Getting in was actually a doddle, and only took a couple of minutes. When I had to turn out my pockets into a plastic tray, the soldier checking my things noticed by BBC pass (I wasn’t working and was there purely as a spectator, but I like to carry my pass around with me when I go on trips like this, just in case I should need to get into any outpost of the BBC somewhere) and joked with me whether I was there to do an undercover exposé of Olympic Park security!

And then I was in. The Olympics!

Being there so early in the morning was actually a great bonus, although I didn’t realise that until later on when it became much busier. Although it was very busy in the morning, it wasn’t as jam-packed as it would later become, and it was fairly easy to walk around the Park, exploring, looking at all the venues without getting caught up in big crowds.

Being there before the crowds got too deep meant the chance to pose for pictures like this one.

One of my favourite moments of morning came as I was wandering around, taking it all in. I saw a Frenchman, brandishing a large flag of his country, very excitedly running up to two police officers and asking if he could have his photo taken with them – real British policemen with their funny helmets. The constables, of course, duly obliged!

I spent over an hour just walking around, taking pictures, and then queued up to get into the ‘London 2012 Megastore’ to buy some souvenirs. I also managed to accidentally purchase what I would say was a deceptively-packaged Australian flag, but it was all right – once inside the stadium I managed to get a UK flag from one of the smaller merchandise outposts, to wave in support!

The stadium itself is, I would say, incredibly well-designed. I wouldn’t consider myself to be an expert on stadia, but compared to the last stadium I was in, Carrow Road, it didn’t feel many times bigger, and didn’t lose any sense of the ability to follow what was going on – even though it seats 80,000 compared to the 20-odd thousand of Carrow Road.

However, the noise and the colour of the crowd was really something else – as soon as I walked through into the stand, and looked from left to right at the chattering, waving, excited mass of people, I could feel the scale of the thing. The sheer joy to be there. This was the Olympics, and we were there!

Not a bad view, eh?

I had a pretty bloody good seat, too – on the back straight, pretty much bang in the middle, and not too many rows back. The long jump / triple jump pits were directly in front, and there was a decent view of the hammer and shot-put circles, although the high-jump area and of course the start/finish straight for most of the races were right over on the other side. But with the big screens and scoreboards at either end and rather simplistic but nonetheless cheerful stadium announcers, it was always reasonably easy to follow everything that was happening, except perhaps when there were races and field events going on at the same time.

The announcers, it does have to be said, weren’t the greatest or most insightful of characters – a British chap sounding like an encouraging holiday camp redcoat, and an American who sounds like a computerised voice reading out lists of athletes. The British chap, in particular, clearly struggled with French pronunciation, as whenever he had a French athlete to name, a recording of said name by someone else would be played in while he left a gap in his speech!

Having seen morning sessions from Olympics and world championships on TV before, they had sometimes seemed a little flat in terms of crowd atmosphere, and I was a touch worried this would be like that. No fear of that, however: the crowd was not only at capacity, as far as I could tell, but also full of noise and anticipation, throughout the whole four hours or so I was in there.

So, what do I remember the most?

The way the crowd would always go wild over one of two things – a British athlete being announced, or someone who was plumb last in one of the races by quite a long way, who would always be cheered home to the rafters.

Yes, it was nice to have a lot of British interest, and to be a part of that happy, generous, flag-waving crowd screaming and shouting in support of them. I saw Dai Greene in his 400m hurdles heat, Christine Ohuruogu in her 400m flat heat, and various others – including the first two events of the heptathlon, with Jessica Ennis. Yes, for the start of it at least, I can say “I was there” for her gold medal-winning performance. I was part of that noise she credited with inspiring her as she walked out into the stadium on that first morning.

But it was another British athlete who sticks most in the memory of the home efforts for me. Katarina Johnson-Thompson, of whom I doubt many people in the stadium had heard before Friday (I certainly hadn’t, anyway), only 19 years old and also competing in the heptathlon. Towards the end of the session, with no more races on the track, the full attention of the crowd was on the heptathlon high jump.

Jessica Ennis in the high jump.

Ennis had been the focus, being cheered to the rafters as she cleared 1 metre 86, but it was Johnson-Thompson who actually stayed in the contest for longer. She got up to 1.89, and as she got ready to do her jump at this height, everyone was watching her. The stadium PA was pumping out I Love Rock and Roll by Joan Jett, everyone was clapping in rhythm, and I caught a glimpse of a close-up of Johnson-Thompson on the big screen. She was focusing ready for her jump, but as she glanced around her at the crowd – cheering, clapping, roaring for her, an unknown 19-year-old at her home Olympics – she broke into a small, slightly stunned smile. A sort of “I cannot believe this is happening to me.”

It was endearing and infectious, and she cleared the height and we all roared in delight.

As I say, though, it was those finishing last who also caught my attention. In the men’s 3000m steeplechase heats, poor old Stuart Stokes, who if athletes were powered by cheers alone would surely have won his heat. But he ran around in last position, despite the frantic shouts of the small child in front of me to “Come on STOKES!!!” every time he plodded along the back straight.

In the women’s 400m heats, two of the runners who’d had the honour and the pride of being their countries’ flag bearers at the opening ceremony – Zamzam Mohamed Farah of Somalia, and Maziah Mahusin of Brunei – finished miles behind their competitors. Seconds in a sport of tenths. Mahusin even managed to set a national record while finishing some seven seconds behind her nearest rival, and when it was announced as a record for her country she got another loud cheer from an approving audience.

They were the best their countries had, and they had come and done their best.

It ought to have felt patronising, I suppose, and written down like that I fear it does, but it never felt like that in the stadium. It never felt like we were taking the piss, and I genuinely don’t believe anybody in those stands intended to be doing that. We wanted to cheer them because they had come and they had tried. They had done the best they can do.

Bang! A steeplechase heat starts on the back straight.

There was another such runner in the steeplechase heats, an Ethiopian called Birhan Getahun, who I think must have been injured as he was so far behind. Nonetheless, he tried to complete the course, and was being similarly roared on into the final straight, before there was a collective gasp from the crowd as he collapsed at the final hurdle. He staggered to his feet, was cheered again by a crowd clearly hoping for a Derek Redmond moment, but then fell again and had to be carried from the track.

It was, as I say, a wonderful morning, and I am so pleased I was there. Even the (heavy!) rain shower didn’t put anyone off, and I did rather enjoy the stadium PA putting out Rihanna’s Umbrella while that was happening, quickly followed by Sun is Shining by Bob Marley when the clouds passed. I thought it was rather good thinking on behalf of whoever chose the music, but it turns out of course that they have very carefully-programmed playlists for all eventualities.

When I came out, a little after two, it was clear that the Olympic Park was so much busier, and it wasn’t quite as pleasant to be in as before now that it was thronged with people. I headed off into the centre of London to be a bit of a tourist for the afternoon. This caused my only real upset of the day when I dutifully obeyed the constantly-tannoyed instructions to please used West Ham tube station instead of Stratford to help ease congestion. This I dutifully did, but what they don’t tell you is that West Ham station is half a bloody hour’s walk away!

I got cross about this – purely internally – as I thought this unexpectedly-long walk would mean I’d lost my booked slot on the London Eye, which I’d decided to go on having never done so before. I got into that mood and manner those who know me will be familiar with when my carefully-laid plans go awry – silent, stompy and with a thunderous frown on my face. However, as it turned out the fast track ticket I’d booked for the Eye was fully flexible, so I could go on any time I wanted.

An attempt at an arty shot of the London Eye, after my ride on it.

Then it was back across London for a ride on the new cable car that goes across the river from the Royal Docks to the O2 (or the “North Greenwich Arena” was it is for the Olympics), which I’d first read about on the BBC News website a couple of months ago and been quite intrigued by. You get great views, but it is slightly nerve-wracking to be gently swaying high above the Thames, especially if – like me – you start thinking about what would happen if the cable broke and you went plummeting down into the water!

The O2, and Canary Wharf, from the cable car.

Such concerns aside, I had a fine old time in London, and am so, so glad I bought a ticket last year. I don’t usually enjoy going to the capital – I find it too crowded, grimy, miserable and generally soulless. It’s like being in some science-fiction dystopia, a bleak world full of bleak lives.

But on Friday I enjoyed it. On Friday, it felt like a happy, welcoming city. It won’t last, of course, but it was nice to be a part of it.

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