Monday, 30 July 2012

Olympism

On reflection, I feel quite privileged to have attended the first proper day of the 2012 Olympics. We were always looking forward to going, and the anticipation had grown steadily since we realised we had tickets for four finals on the first night of the swimming gold rush at the Aquatics Centre. That anticipation increased exponentially after the jaw-dropping opening ceremony on Friday night.

Danny Boyle served up an idiosyncratic take on the unveiling of the Games. His masterstroke was the perfect combination of drama, spectacular, humour and relevance across three centuries of historical, social and cultural highlights. Daughter No 1, a confirmed Mr Bean fan, nearly split her sides when Rowan Atkinson turned up to guest his one-finger performance on Chariots of Fire. Granny was almost in tears at Emeli Sande’s rendition of Abide With Me. She wasn’t caught out by too many tunes in the tribute to great British pop and rock either. Perhaps only the Prodigy and Dizzy Rascal seemed genuinely beyond her… I loved the Olympic symbols coming together above the stadium, cast in the white heat of the industrial revolution. Fiery rings indeed.

When it came to the cauldron lighting, I was feeling quite smug. I’d already decided that Steve Redgrave was an absolute shoe-in for the gig. Who else has a CV like his? Five Golds at five consecutive Olympic Games. Awesome. And then a mate rang on the off-chance and mentioned that he had heard from a mate who had been told categorically by another mate that he knew someone who had been tipped the wink that Redgrave had been asked to perform the honour. That sealed it for me. I went off scouring online markets and High Street bookies to get some wedge down on Sir Steve. Many bookies had already closed their markets. Word was sneaking out, I wrongly concluded, about the identity of the firestarter. To me this was merely further confirmation that the bookies were running for cover. Possibly they knew that I was out and about with my fistfuls of fivers (and some supplementary two-pound coins, just in case).

So when Beckham’s speedboat docked on the River Lee, I was not surprised (but possibly a little relieved) to see Sir Steve awaiting Becks’ slightly awkward handover. I could look forward to counting my wedge. After the speeches, Redgrave duly trotted in with the flame and received the appropriate recognition. Then something odd happened. He handed the flame over to a bunch of oiks in tracksuits. They jogged round fairly sedately and were introduced to the crowd. “Nice touch”, I thought. “Give the youngsters a moment in the spotlight... Now give the torch back to Stevie, there’s good lads and lasses”. But Redgrave was long gone. Nowhere to be seen. Torches were now being dolled out like it was a three-day-week. And then they turned to the cauldron, which we saw for the first time, at least in deconstructed form: 204 little copper petals on elongated poles, spread out in a huge circle on the ground. The game was up. It was the next generation who got the lighting honour. Legacy and all that. Another mug punt to rank with some of my finest. I felt a bit sick.

But only a bit. I was caught up in the moment. The ceremony was uplifting, flames dancing from one copper petal to the next, following by the slow rising of the steel pipes to form one giant canopy of flame. Pretty special.

On Saturday, we decided to make tracks for the Olympic Park pretty early so we could have a good look round and soak up some of the much-touted atmosphere. But not before I’d summoned up courage to check the damage on my bookie accounts. Squinting at the screen with one eye closed, I was relieved to see that those nice people at Paddy Power and SkyBet had refunded my bets on Sir Steve. The markets had been voided because the result – the kids lighting the cauldron – was not in their list of possibilities. I’d almost got away with it. Only Coral played hardball when I pitched up at the shop with my voucher. But I haven’t given up yet.

The Olympic Park was cool. Great architecture for a start. Daughter no 1 wanted to know what the stadium was “that looked like a giant pringle (it was the velodrome) and daughter no 2 thought that the water polo arena resembled “a giant mattress”. Nice landscaping too. We were very taken with the ‘wild’ flowers sown on every available patch of ground, the river walks and the big screen viewing areas, even if Mrs A did try to irrigate the floor with the contents of her wine bottle. Plenty of merchandising opportunities too. Of course. In one shop we bumped into a work colleague and her family. Can’t go anywhere…


I’ve been to the park before. But it was a very long time ago and it looked a bit different. Here’s an extract from something I wrote in 2005:
“…No regrets, then, about leaving behind the greyhounds of London Stadium. The track was a hole and resided in a run down part of East London in need of significant regeneration. The sun was out and was beginning to draw a heady stench from the urine soaked litter piled up in doorways and alleys around the perimeter of the track. It was a bizarre place. On one side was an expanse of open ground bordering the stadium, presumably once the site of a factory; and on the other was an array of traditional businesses: taxi cab firms, kebab shops and junk emporia, as well as a smattering of empty and derelict two-storey, flat-roofed shops and terraced housing. The intimidating rubbish strewn urban jungle on this side of the road provided a brief, surreal counterpoint to the factory site on the other with its savannah of tall grass waving lazily in balmy mid-day sunshine.

No surprise to me that a few years later the dogs had gone and the stadium closed; further rationalisation of the sport in London. And then, a few years later still, I read that the area has been chosen as the hub of Britain's Olympic Bid for 2012. Hackney dog track will be the site of an 80,000-seater flagship Olympic stadium. Ironic indeed. There's a picture on the back of The Independent showing the track littered with skips, sundry ironmongery and rubble. And there is the rickety enclosure we occupied with once proud letters proclaiming 'LONDON STADIUM, HACKNEY ' emblazoned below the holed roof. Only some of the letters have dropped away and HACKNEY is now _AC_NE_. Appropriate.” 
(from Acne in Hackney, Mug Punting - Short Tales About Long Odds) 
There is a stonking view from the entrance to the Aquatic Centre back to the main stadium.




We refuelled here with snacks, sugary drinks and alcohol. We needed them. The hike up to the seats required oxygen masks and crampons. But the view from Block 412, row 50, seats 122-125 was awesome. Daughter no 2 thought so too, between nose bleeds and panic attacks of vertiginous origins, anyway. I was psyching the girls up for the Ryan Lochte v Michael Phelps battle in the 400m Individual Medley, which splashed off at 7.30pm. At 7.23pm, Daughter no 2 said, “Daddy, I need the loo”. “What?” I said, “Can’t it wait?!” I could see from her squirming bum that she couldn’t. So we did the fastest stairs descent, wee and ascent the stadium had yet seen. Possibly a new Olympic Record. As I laboured up the last steeply inclined steps back to the seat, breathing heavily and sweating freely, a bloke in the opposite aisle grinned at me and said “The other one wants to go now, ha ha!” Comedian, I thought, as I poked him in the eye (mentally, of course).  


The swimmers emerged on to poolside with the appropriate fanfare, though some of them looked faintly ridiculous. A Japanse competitor was replete in tight silver swim hat overlain with huge headphones and sporting reflective lens goggles. Had we stumbled into a Dr Who tribute? Was this the return of the cyber men?

Lochte was formidable, leaving Phelps struggling to come home in 4th. A major surprise that Phelps had performed so poorly. The second of my Olympic bets to fold.

We settled down for the Mens 400m Freestyle final. A chap in the row behind us tapped Mrs A on the shoulder and in a faltering voice, cracked with emotion said, “Would you mind staying quite still when the swimmers come out for this one? My son is competing in Lane 8 and I want to get a good photo.” Oh wow! He was David Carry’s Dad. Carry was competing in his third Olympics but this was his first final. What a special moment. We all wished him well and said how proud he must be. And he was, you could just tell. Carry competed with great credit, coming home in 7th. The race was won by Sun Yang from China in an Olympic Record time.

After a couple of semi-finals, we had a medal ceremony for the Lochte race. Daughter no 1 wasn’t too impressed with the podium. “That’s rubbish. It looks like a yoga mat!” She was not wrong! The medallist emerged to Chariots Of Fire blasting through the speakers. This just set her off again, chuckling uncontrollably and miming Mr Bean’s one-finger virtuoso performance. 

In the women’s version of the 400m Individual Medley, Hannah Miley had realistic home team medal hopes. She was greeted to a deafening reception. The curious convex pool ceiling and steeply banked seating seemed to create a channel of sound. The atmosphere was palpable.
 
Smiley Miley was in contention for the first two disciplines, roared on by an ecstatic crowd, but she fell away over the final 200m. The 16 year-old Chinese girl Ye Shiwen took the race by the scruff of the neck at that point and smashed the World Record. I read later that she came home over the last 100m only 7/10ths of a second slower that Ryan Lochte in the earlier men’s race. Third bet down.

The final medal event, the Womens 4x100m Freestyle Relay, was a complete bunfight. And that was just in the stands. The decibel level was cranked up a few notches. Everyone who had a flag, a banner or a poster was furiously waving it. As the girls began their merry-go-round of front crawl, we were shouting out the names of the red-hatted Team GBs swimmers like we had known them all our lives. “Go on Amy, go oooon…Come on Frankie, you can do it…” I looked at our two and they were screaming at the tops of their voices, red-faced with effort, loving every second. The Australians won, to the complete rapture of many nearby fans. The woman in front of me had the names of all the Team Aus swimmers neatly written out on a piece of A4 with the times of their races and personal bests written alongside. Dedication!

We hung around for the last medal ceremonies, then walked down the banking to get closer look at the pool and finally spilled out into the stunning park now illuminated in glorious Technicolor.



We had been incredibly lucky with the tickets. It was all the luck of the draw of course. We applied for a bunch of tickets alongside half of Britain last year. Initially I was disappointed to have missed out on a few events. The girls would have loved the tennis and gymnastics; and I was desperate for the athletics. But I quickly realised that this, in fact, was a top result.

The clamour for tickets had outstripped supply. More tickets have subsequently been released at regular intervals, including for some of the showpiece events. But the row over empty seats that has been simmering away for the last couple of days is entirely predictable. This was always going to happen. If tickets on general sale are in too short supply and massively expensive then of course there is going to be fury at evidence that venues that are not full. I’m writing this with the gymnastics from the O2 on the telly and I can see banks of upturned plastic staring back at me. I’m more than happy to point a cynical finger at the corporates and IOC affiliates for this, who scandalously don’t use their freebies. This needs sorting out. Seb Coe’s initial blithe comments that ‘the venues are full to the gunnels’ was wrong, insulting and glib on many levels. I see he’s backtracked from this somewhat and moves are now afoot to make sure tickets get used by people who actually want to see the competition. This kind of stuff gets me very cross.

But, perspective, perspective. The Games are off to a flier. We’ve seen some fantastic live action, Team GB are off the mark and I’ve even got two bets still alive! Roll on the handball next Saturday.


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