Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Faster, higher, stronger - my Olympic experience

Unusually, I'm going to start this post with an apology.  Despite the excitement of hearing that my wife and I had secured tickets for one of the most sought after Olympic events - the men's 100m final - subsequent talk of over zealous and inefficient security, rampant sponsorship and travel problems had soured my Olympic spirit somewhat.  Although enjoying the games on TV immensely, I had some doubts that the real life experience would be able to avoid being marred by something.  As I said, I'm beginning with an apology...

Despite slight panic an hour before our train to London at the news that Kings Cross was closed due to a power failure (which actually proved to have no ill effect whatsoever), getting to the Olympic Park was a doddle via one of the funky new high speed Javelin trains.

Amazingly, getting into the Olympic Park itself proved equally hassle free.  Talk of having to arrive two and a half hours early (which we did) to get through the airport style security (which I despise at the best of times) had me thinking that just getting within sight of the stadium would be a medal-worthy achievement.  As it turned out we walked through pretty much without pause, without even a single person ahead of us in the queue, and the security check rather cursory and certainly no trouble.

So we gained our first sight of the Olympic stadium, which is very nice, though I have to confess having seen the Bird's Nest in Beijing at close quarters I'm afraid it lacks something of the drama of its Chinese predecessor.  The tooth-like fabric strips around the outside look exactly like the cost cutting second option that they are.  Nevertheless, the stadium, swimming pool and 'Orbit' sculpture by Anish Kapoor combine to make the Park an architecturally fascinating place to be.

The greatest surprise inside the park for me was the commercial activity, or rather the lack of it.  Understandably, there were no unofficial stalls of any variety, and the most visible retail outlets were the identical sets of food stalls dotted around.  Considering the massive amounts of merchandise available from seemingly every high street shop in Britain, I was amazed at the lack of shops around the place.  My wife hoped to buy herself a Chinese flag to wave, but nothing of the sort could be found anywhere.  Even Olympic branded merchandise was limited to a small number of tiny shops within the perimeter of the stadium.  As for the food, prices were high but we decided to try some fish and chips.  Again, my expectations were low but proved wrong as we were swiftly served a portion that was very tasty indeed, and certainly didn't do a British classic a disservice to any foreign tourists trying it for the first time.

All this of course is mere window dressing and we moved inside the stadium as soon as we could to start to prepare for the events we'd come to see.  We wandered around the lower concourse of the stadium before taking our seats, and specifically took a trip to get close to the impressive flame.

Although our seats were, as expected, on the opposite side of the stadium to the start and finish line, the view was incredible and a testament to the stadium's design.  I'll let the following photographs speak for themselves.

A nice and unexpected bonus of the evening was the medal ceremonies presenting golds to Greg Rutherford (long jump) and Mo Farrah (10,000m).

I confess that this was my first time watching athletics live, and I found it something of a confusing experience, being used to being spoon-fed TV commentary with its computer graphics, close-up camera work and constant replays.  The atmosphere inside the stadium was electric and the main reason for being there, but it would also have been nice to feel that I was able to follow the progress of events such as the high jump and hammer throw.  Thankfully, races on the track were rather easier to engage with.  I've no intention of describing each event in detail, so what follows is a selection of my photos from the evening, but I have to say that seeing Christine Ohuruogu win her 400m silver medal and Oscar Pistorius make history simply by competing certainly stand out as unexpected highlights.

Of course the highlight of the evening was undoubtedly the 100m final, though unlike many of the people sat around me, I don't subscribe to the hero-worship handed to 100m runners - I feel that other many other athletes and events deserve far higher plaudits for their achievements.  The two semi finals went without incident, though it was clear that Usain Bolt was on good form - both in terms of running and mugging to the camera.  You no doubt saw the final on TV and it naturally didn't last long so I'm not going to describe it, but here again are some photos of the race and of Bolt parading around in celebration.

I only found out afterwards that there had been a bottle throwing incident (nobody in our part of the stadium had any clue that anything untoward had occurred).  In a way though, I'm not surprised.  Although the atmosphere was incredible, and it was heartening to see athletes of all nations being applauded enthusiastically, I was surprised to see glass beer bottles being sold inside the stadium.  As a football fan, and therefore used to even the lids of pop bottles being seen as offensive items, it seemed incredible and many people were clearly using the opportunity to have more than a few drinks.  I've no idea whether drink was involved in this incident, but the whole set-up seemed to be asking for trouble.

So there it was - my first experience of the Olympic games, and an unexpectedly positive one.  Overall, considering the worldwide importance of the event, everything seemed very well organised and relaxed.  Special mention has to be given to the multitude of volunteers, who apart from simply giving their time were unfailingly enthusiastic, friendly and welcoming even at the end of the night when some of them must have been exhausted.  They deserve huge plaudits for all their efforts.

And thus ends part one of my Olympic experiences - part two will come in September when we are fortunate enough to have tickets for the Paralympics to see swimming, table tennis and basketball.  Look out for a similar update then.

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