I was, like many others, deeply cynical when it came to the Olympic games. I thought the city would be swamped with well meaning but annoyingly meandering groups of people in matching back packs. I fully expected travel chaos on a unprecedented scale on our tube networks. I imagined that as a city we’d somehow screw up hosting the worlds biggest sporting event. And you know what? So far NONE of that has come to pass.
Wenlock or Mandeville (or is it Wenlock?) addresses the masses
What am I supposed to bitch about? I literally have nothing. From the moment that Danny Boyle’s delightfully batshit opening ceremony started I was instantly charmed. In fact, in the run up to the Opening Ceremony there had been a general thawing feelings towards the games. I visited Stratford a week before and was surprised to see people walking around with broad grins on their faces, there was a definite buzz in the air. A trip to an almost unrecognisably snazzy looking Leyton suggested that all the talk about East London regeneration and legacy might not have all been bollocks after all. This all felt like uncharted territory.
Last week I got to visit the Olympic Park and have a bit of a nose around. I’d tried and failed like so many others to get tickets to an event….any event…but after my initial attempts failed I found searching around the ticketing website too soul sapping an activity to pursue so I settled with just gaining entry to the park and soaking up a bit of the old atmosphere.
From miles away you can feel the pull of the place. Getting the train there you notice people clutching Union Jack’s, wearing stupid hats or carrying homemade banners of support. All these people are being drawn towards the Park like some huge swirling vortex of sport and when you’re eventually spat out at Stratford International the madness really begins. The closest thing that I could liken the feeling to is attending a massive gig somewhere…only this time there’s no lone teenager puking his or her guts out whilst their friends consider ditching them, everyone is wearing Team GB merchandise in place of band t-shirts and instead of ticket touts you get find nice gentlemen like this….
I was stealing myself for a full cavity search when passing through the security checks into the games but instead was whisked through quite fast and, for once, not given any hassle for carrying a massive camera with me. So far, so efficient. The soliders running the security were incredibly cheerful not being on kill duty and genuinely seemed to be enjoying themselves. More than once I heard members of the public thank them for stepping in at the last minute and picking up the pieces that G4S left behind. Then, to my surprise, I found myself saying thank you as well. I’m not sure what exactly caused me to, but somewhere I felt that for them to hear that from the public at large would probably mean more to them than hearing it from David Cameron or, God forbid, Jeremy Cunt… sorry Hunt!….that is a tricksy one that name. These were our soldiers looking after our games that we’d paid for and it only seemed right they were thanked. We spotted some sharpshooters positioned on the roof of John Lewis and attempted to thank them with some dramatic waving and hand gestures but all they did was raise their binoculars to get a better look at us and, for all we knew, consider whether we were worth shooting or not.
Once you get into the park you get a definite sense that you’re not in London anymore. For a start everyone there is disarmingly friendly….it’s almost like being in the U.S.A. Walking up the main thoroughfare to the stadium purple shirted and giant foam handed volunteers were offering everyone high fives. I felt as if I’d won a competition or something, like a sick kid being taken to Disneyworld.
In fact the whole place felt a bit like a theme park but without any rides (the lack of tickets to any event suddenly began to be an issue when you could hear cheering coming from the various arenas), there were certainly enough creatively dressed people to give it a theme park feel. It was interesting to see how different nationalities dressed themselves in various combinations of their flag and elements of their stereotypical national dress. You kind of got the feeling that the “Come on Tiiiiiim” crowd exist all over the world and had all chosen this place to gather.
Without any tickets we had to watch the events on the huge screens that had been erected in the middle of the river. Space around these screens was at a premium and families had taken to cutting their own paths through the vast, steep banks of wildflowers that skirt the river and watching from any vantage points they could find in the undergrowth. We watched as some of our swimmers were awarded medals, the crowd all sang the national anthem, booming out the chorus and muttering the words to the second verse which it became apparent nobody knew, myself included. The biggest cheers came whenever the screen showed a shot of the assembled crowd. People went absolutely mental then, I’m not sure why. Imagine if you reacted like that every time you saw your own reflection. Life would take forever.
The park itself is landscaped something like Tellytubbyland….and I mean that in the best possible sense. You get a sense that it’s either going to turn out to be a much loved public space for the 21st century or go exactly the opposite way and turn into some kind of fenced off, interestingly landscaped, wasteland haunted by the ghosts of 2012. Personally I hope for the former.
Do NOT climb on this to have your picture taken. You will be shouted at. Trust me.
The BP pavillion. “Fuelling the Future” – presumably using horse shit
One thing that is completely unescapable at the park is the Union Jack flag. I managed to completely miss all the jubilee celebrations because I was out of the country and was genuinely surprised to see the country bedecked with so many Union flags when I got back home. For a long time the flag has struggled to shake of it’s negative connotations – the BNP, National Front, Geri Halliwell…. so to see so many people walking around with them draped over their shoulders, wearing Union Jack t-shirts and waving mini flags was an odd sight to me. Good but odd. I wonder if in the same way that Americans embraced their flag post 9/11 and haven’t let up since, we’ll do the same with the Union Flag. Could the Olympics, the Jubilee and even last years Royal Wedding have been it’s final rehabilitation? Are we going to start seeing the flag flying outside public buildings, schools and even homes from now on?
“Mum, what are those people wearing?”
“Shut up and eat your McFlurry”
Happy Hula Hoop Girls – should be mandatory at all great British events. Even The Proms.
Aside from watching the sport on a the giant screen, visiting the gift shop, queuing to buy beer, queuing to buy food and queuing to buy beer again there really isn’t that much to do at the park ( like I said, having no tickets to any events was beginning to feel like a bit of a bummer ) except soak up atmosphere. As a group I think we’d soaked up as much atmosphere and we could and so being on the verge of culturally bankrupt I decided that we must visit McDonald’s.
“Why would you want to visit McDonald’s?”… you may rightly ask. This isn’t any old McDonald’s, no, this is the largest McDonald’s on Earth, the largest McDonald’s on the entire planet ( as yet there have been no other McD’s discovered in our solar system…unless Mars rover Curiosity makes some perplexing findings in the next few months ). I felt duty bound to have a look, to stand within this temple to the cheeseburger. This is Ronald’s Angkor Wat, his great pyramid at Giza, his Chichen Itza, a place where all the nations on Earth can gather holding hands basking in the reassuring glow from the golden arches… and the large shoed one has decided to build it here in London. I’m no McDonald’s hater, to me it seems as futile as hating, I don’t know, the wind. It’s just too huge to rail against, if you don’t like the place then don’t go in. I’ve got a soft spot for it. I know it’s terrible, I know that it’s “wrong” but I just can’t help it. Like I said, culturally bankrupt.
Mystifyingly, they don’t serve any large portions. I asked the girl at the counter why and she shrugged, smiled and said “It’s just ‘lympics, y’know” which was a good enough an answer for me. The place was huge, the upstairs seating area resembling an Hieronymus Bosch painting with french fries. To be honest it gave me the fear. Man was never supposed to create fast food places that large. We left.
Joining the exodus from the park, again it didn’t feel like London. Everyone says goodbye to you and hopes that you’ve had a good day. Towards the exit the high fiving begins again in earnest. This time everyone is high fiving. The volunteers in their purple shirts hold their palms up, the people picking up litter, the police are all it, even the police horses look ready to rear up and hold a hoof aloft. The intensity of the high fiving only increased the closer you got to the station. I began to suspect that the large pink foam hands people were wearing actually served as some kind of protection from the thousands of hand slaps they must have to carry out every day. “Where are you going sir? Ah, you’ll want the javelin train for that. High five!” Even at St. Pancras there was a delegation of purple shirts high fiving people all the way to the underground.
The defining feature of the whole trip to the park was just how happy everyone seemed. It wasn’t even a forced happiness, at least it didn’t seem that way. It was a good feeling to be surrounded by happy people, by people being nice to each other, talking to strangers. Maybe the Romans were right about “bread and circuses”. It seems all we need is a big unifying event now and again to make us happy. Maybe, because we all lead such fractured lives these days, events like this can bring as together and when we all have something to focus on, some common ground to discuss with strangers, it just makes us happier. Times like these make me understand why some older people claimed that the war years were the best of their lives. How we as a city can keep this spirit of good will going is another matter. It was only a year ago that half the city was boarded up, in flames or without anywhere to go and buy a mobile phone or trainers for a couple of days.
Whatever happens London, after these past few months of flag waving and partying, when the final chicken bone or corn husk is swept up after carnival, I think we’re in for one hell of a comedown.