London Calling! X&HT Went To The Olympics

I’m not a sporty person. Far from it. I’m a clumsy goof who was always picked last for games at school, and most sporting events leave me not just cold but catatonic.

The Olympics is different. There’s something about it that stirs me. Maybe it’s the sheer sense of endeavour, the drama that comes from so many people spending years and years in the pursuit of a dream. Once every four years I buy into that dream, completely and wholeheartedly. And with the Olympics in London, well, let’s face it. TLC and I had to be there.


Even in the early stages of the competition there’s been excitement, spectacle and controversy. Danny Boyle’s extraordinary, mind-mangling Opening Ceremony was seen by most as a triumph–unless you were watching the show on America’s NBC network, who cut out the 7/7 tribute and larded commentary over the top by people who didn’t seem to know what they were talking about. Comments by Tory blowhard Aiden Burley and the Daily Mail, who seemed deeply discomfited by Boyle’s vision of a multicultural Britain were widely derided as at best out of touch, and at worst inflammatory* and racist. Britain’s been multicultural for centuries. Get over it.

Shockingly, there were arrests outside the Olympic Park, as the peaceful Critical Mass bike ride, which has been riding the streets of Newham without trouble for years, was corralled, kettled and arrested. Pepper spray was used, and the riders, including one 13 year old, were held without charge for 9 hours. The policing of protest in the UK has become a matter of real concern over the past few years, and these unfounded, urn-necessary arrests will do nothing to help the already tarnished reputation of the Met. More on that over at The Guardian.

Onwards. The competition itself got off to a cracking start, if a little bit slowly for the England Expects brigade. Medals yesterday for Lizzie Armitstead in the women’s cycling road race (neatly pipping the Tour de France heroes Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins, who were lost in the peloton on Saturday) and Rebecca Adlington’s brave, brilliant bronze have helped to quell the jitters a bit, and there’s plenty to come. We also have the makings of a full-blown scandal, as blocks of seats for popular events remain visibly empty. This is a pie in the face for Lord Coe and LOCOG, who were always insistent that tickets had sold out quickly, but that they had been fairly distributed. When you have to call in the army to fill up empty seats, questions are going to get asked. This one isn’t going to go away anytime soon.

Enough grumbling and bleakness. Our Olympic experience began yesterday, with a trip to Docklands and the ExCel arena. We had snagged tickets for the fencing, a sport of which TLC and I knew little. Isn’t that the sort of thing Errol Flynn did? Buckling of swashes, doing of derring? The pointy end goes in the other man, right?

If there are any fencing fans out there–ok, yes, I know, put the epée away, I’m sorry. Fencing is a brutally fast, cerebral and unforgiving sport that’s both tactically and physically demanding. We went to the Men’s Individual Sabre contest, which is probably the fastest of the lot. Matches last on an average for ten minutes, and both contestants will give their all. Over the course of four matches, the sport won itself a new couple of converts. We were both on our feet with the crowd at the end, roaring our approval at the extraordinary display of courage, tenacity and skill on the field of combat. Yes, combat. Let’s not be coy here. It’s in the rules. At the beginning of each match, the referee is instructed to “start the fight.” The Tron-style graphics, where the whole floor lit up whenever a fighter scored a point only helped to make the matches more thrilling for an SF fan like me. The masks and speed of the thing just made it feel more like a futuresport to me. Frankly, I still hanker for Olympic Rollerball, but until then, the fencing is a pretty fair substitute.

As to the whole experience–well, it was fine. Despite typically English grumbling about transport and logistics, and baleful predictions of armed soldiers strong-arming the citizenry, there was an ease and a lightness of touch about how we were treated that left us feeling very positive indeed. The DLR whisked us in and out of central London without fuss. The “airport-style security” was managed with smiles, humour and a breezy efficiency. There were soldiers around helping out, but they were courteous and respectful, and I saw no-one toting an HK.

Yes, sure, the ExCel was corporate and expensive. What world-class entertainment isn’t these days? In fact, I was reminded a lot of the last couple of arena gigs we’d been to. Beer and food will cost you, but it’s part of the experience, and London’s hardly alone in being a pricy tourist hub. Eat somewhere else first if it’s that much of a problem. We did, and had a great time with a beer and a burger in a pub down the road watching Lizzie Armitstead snag the silver.  

But the day didn’t feel half as corporate as it might have, and for that you have to thank the volunteers. They were everywhere, smiling, helpful and clearly having the time of their lives. Their enthusiasm rubbed off on the rest of us, and meant that everyone was a little calmer, a little more patient, a little less inclined to let a minor irritation blow up into a major incident. That’s a lot more than I can say for a lot of big events that I’ve attended. Event organisers can learn a lot from this example. I’m not talking about snagging free help to help shift the masses around. I’m talking about what happens when people are clearly engaged and enjoying their job. That’s not as tough a prospect as it sounds. Treat your employees with a modicum of respect and allow them a little dignity, even if they’re serving food or emptying the bins, and they’ll do what they do with a smile. LOCOG, for all their foibles, have at least figured this out. You can see it in every volunteer’s face. They’re there because they want to be, and they value the experience. And we’re bringing the love right back in exchange.

Let’s put it like this. The biggest, most spontaneous round of applause on the night of the Opening Ceremony was reserved for the volunteers. I think that, despite the obvious and justified accusations of commercialism levied at the Games, they’re showing the true spirit of the Olympics. In a lot of ways, I wish I’d gone for it now. I look great in purple. 


*no pun intended. 


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Writer. Film-maker. Cartoonist. Cook. Lover.

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