Wednesday, August 15, 2012

My Olympics

It’s over! The best two weeks of 2012, and possibly the entire decade, has come to a joyous end. 
I was determined to make the most of the London Olympics and, despite failing to get any tickets, I strove to enjoy it.
My Olympic odyssey began with me taking a week off to see what I could watch without access. Nothing, seemed to be the answer at first. 
I travelled from from my home in Hove, East Sussex, to Stratford in East London with the wildly optimistic idea that I might be able to buy a spare ticket for the Olympic Park to have a look around. Fat chance! 
I became more and more depressed during the long, long walk from West Ham Tube Station, as the crazed volunteers yelled that you would not get in without a ticket, and I soon discovered that I could not get anywhere near the venue without a ticket for an event. 
Even though the Park was only a faction full (it was the first Monday of the Game), there was not a cat’s chance in hell of me gaining entry to sacred site.
Despondent, I had a walk around the area. On the edge of the Park, a council house, part of the Carpenter's Estate, had an external exhibition of photographs of elderly and disabled people who had been evicted from their homes, reportedly because of the Games. 
A gateway to the Park, beside a “Welcome” notice, was blocked off. The locals were whiling away their time on street corners. 

One resident later told the Evening Standard newspaper: “Go back four years, remember Beijing and how Locog [the Olympics organising committee] said they would never destroy people's houses the way they did in China to make way for the Olympics. Well, it has happened here, just in a different way, by stealth, and led by Newham Council. Yes, the Olympics has been a triumph for Team GB, but for us on the Carpenter's, it's a disaster."
I walked to Stratford Tube Station in a state of shock. 
The shopping centre there was overwhelmed with visitors. It was bedlam! I could not wait to get out of there. 
I took the Tube to Bradley Wiggins’ old manor, Kilburn, North London, and had a drink or two with my old friend Chris Bramble, a renowned potter. 

In Kilburn I saw absolutely no sign that London was hosting the Olympics. But it was a fine night out all the same!
The next day, having read that reports of the banks of vacant seats had shamed the Olympic authorities into releasing more seats on its website, I attempted online to buy a ticket – any ticket. No joy! 
Most of the events allegedly had no tickets available and where there were the site utterly failed to sell them to you. 

I tried repeatedly over the next week but could not land a single affordable ticket. 
I was also shocked that single sessions of Olympic sport were priced at up to £790 – way out of my price range. Even the first week of the Beach Volleyball at Horse Guard’s Parade, which by all accounts had available ticktets, would not sell them to me online or when I unwisely queued up at their so-called ticket office which, I was told, was “not permitted to sell spare tickets”. 
Walking away, I took a photograph of a man on a park bench trying to get some shut-eye with his dog sound asleep on top of him. I felt great empathy with them.
I traipsed over to Hyde Park and queued up to go through the airport security to watch Olympic sport with thousands of others on big screens. 

Far from ideal and very commercial, but at least they had made an effort to do something for the millions of fans without tickets. 

At the music stage I particularly enjoyed a young reggae band called The Skints, who are from East London.
So, was my Olympics set to become a purely televisual experience? I certainly enjoyed the opening ceremony on the gogglebox – awesome in its scale and ambition. 
The BBC’s coverage was nothing if not comprehensive. Admittedly, at times it had a kids’ TV feel to it, with Jake, Gaby and that strange bloke from Radio One becoming thoroughly puerile and celebrity-obsessed. 
But it is the pictures that count and, although the Beeb didn’t seem to have much control over them despite being the "Olympic broadcaster", the golden moments for Team GB were all there, bringing tears to my eyes.
But I was determined to see some Olympic action with mine own peeps, ticket or no ticket. 
I decided to go to Weymouth, which an expensive radio advertising campaign had warned me for months on end would be crammed to the gills with visitors. 
Very luckily, I thought, I managed to bag a bed-and- breakfast room for the night online and also surprisingly inexpensive train tickets. I was over the moon! 
Weymouth is one of my favourite places in the world. Naturally, the Olympic alleged “venue” – The Nothe – was fully booked up - "sold out" - even though it comprised no more than a windswept grassy knoll upon which the fortunate few could sit for a mere £35 a day, thank you very much indeed.
It was a very pleasant journey from Brighton along the coast and through the New Forest, passing through my old home town of Poole, to get to Weymouth. 

When I arrived, I was absolutely amazed to find that Weymouth was all but deserted – far, far less busy than it would have been at that time of year without the Olympics. 
It transpired that the costly radio campaign – which gave the impression that Weymouth was in lock-down and best avoided – had been a PR and marketing disaster! The town's traders were furious. 

All along the long seafront, hotels and B&Bs had “Vancancies” signs displayed. The railway station had a massive queuing system in place which was utterly unnecessary. What a cock-up!
The Olympics volunteers at the station obligingly advised me that you could not get near The Nothe without a ticket, but added that the view of the Olympic sailing from there was rubbish anyway and I was much better off going to the public pier to watch. 
This I did and was told by a jobsworth that I would have to pay a quid to go to the end of the jetty because it was part of the Weymouth Bay Festival! 
This I also did to find, to my absolute delight, I could inexpensively buy passage on a beautiful old ship, the MV Balmoral, to watch the Olympic sailing close up – and have my pound refunded. What a break! At last!

It turned out that this wondrous old vessel had motored all the way from northern Scotland to benefit from the supposed Olympics trade but had also been caught out. 

Now there were virtually giving away tickets. 

For a song, I got two days on the ship in the best seat on the top deck, which had been previously advertised online for £200 a day! It was glorious. 

I basked in the sunshine, chatted to old seadogs and watched the Olympic sailing, albeit at some distance because of the massive security provided by Royal Navy gunboats and choppers.

Still, we had a vastly better view that the lubbers on the Nothe which was in reality nowhere full. From the sailing action, you could just about make out the people on the horizon! 

A fellow passenger told me that previous Olympics sailing regattas had not even tried to charge spectators, unlike here. Oh, how they had been ripped off!
The MV Balmoral even had a restaurant and a bar and, because so few people were on the ship, you could fantasise it was your own personal yacht! 

 On the first day, I witnessed Nick Dempsey win in a windsurfing race - in a dramatic photo finish. 

On the second day, we cheered as the great Ben Ainsley, whose regatta had got off to a very bad start, started his fight-back which, amazingly, led to Olympic Gold for the fourth consecutive Games.
After Weymouth, I returned to London because I had heard from a fellow passenger during my sea voyages that you could purchase spare Olympics tickets from Wembley. I had never been to the new “Wem – ber – ley” Stadium. Indeed, the only times I had visited the old Wembley Stadium were in the 1980s for the Free Nelson Mandela concert and also to see the late and great Wacko Jacko strut his stuff.
On this occasion, the box office was closed and, when I visited the neighbouring Wembley Arena Olympics box office and asked why I couldn’t buy tickets from the ticket offices, one of the volunteers was very rude to me, before giving me what turned out to be a premium rate telephone number on which you also could not buy tickets. What a sham!

One thing that has not changed since the 1980s is the amount of tat on sale around Wembley! Del Boys were openly advertising souvenir scarves from every nation!

I resigned myself to watching the rest of the Olympics on the telly at home in Hove. And what a show it was! 

The rowing was awesome as was the cycling. Gold after gold after gold! 

Seeing Britain win gold is a very emotional experience for a British person, especially since our competitors seem as amazed as we spectators when it happens. 

To have to do it so often, for so many sports, is emotionally draining. I began to wish our bike girls would not win quite so often! I also started to understand why young women overtake me so often when I am bicycling myself along the promenade.

To sustain me through the athletics, I started a big curry which I renewed with fresh vegatables and spices every time we won a gold medal. 

I lost count of all the meals I have had out of it. As I write, it is still going strong.
My favourite Olympic moment was when Andy Murray beat Roger Federer at Wimbledon to claim gold. I had predicted the day before that Murray would win in straight sets. The reason for my confidence? 

They were playing for their nations, not for filthy lucre. I believe the Swiss do not have the same sense of national pride as we Brits do. They have made money their monarch. It is cash that drives them. 

I guess Federer could not raise his game for only one piece of gold. Murray was playing for Britain, inspired by the rest of Team GB, especially Mo Farah’s 10,000 metre victory the night before, and I guess he was playing too for those kids so tragically lost in his school in Dunblane back in 1996. 

Tears were in my eyes when he won, giving the Fed the Wimbledon Murray thrashing he so richly deserved. It was one of the greatest moments ever on that great Centre Court at Wimbledon. 

I felt particularly proud to see Andy Murray singing the national anthem.

Of course the core of any Olympics is the athletics. A track and field gold seems to me to be worth five in pool or the velodrome.

To win three in the first "Super Saturday" was extraordinary. Our generation's 1966 Moment!

Admittedly, the BBC pundits were extremely irksome, particularly Denise Lewis and Colin Jackson who completely lost control of themselves at any British success. Journalistic, it was not. Dear old Michael Jordan, an excellent pundit, looked embarrassed to hanging out with them.

I made two more little attempts to see the Olympics close up. On the last day of my holiday, I went up to London and walked to Hyde Park Corner to stand in the road to watch the men’s triathlon cyclists go past. 
I was there in time to be at the front but a long wait followed with a "financial recruitment manager" behind me trying to push me and telling his life story to anyone who would listen. Sheer torture!
Eventually, the athletes during the cycling part of the event went past at around 30mph. We all cheered everyone along. 
At the speed they were going, it was very hard to say who was British and who was not. I am sure I must have seen the Brownlee brothers, who won gold and bronze medals for Britain, go past. So, at least I played a little part in their success.
Back at work, I spent two lunchtimes trying to catch a little of the Olympic swimming in the Serpentine. The view in Hyde Park was great. You were almost as well off as the people who had paid £350 or more to be in the grandstand.  I saw a Brit come fourth on one day, and a medal ceremony not involving Brits on the other.
Hyde Park is where I usually go for my constitutional at lunchtime when I am at work, so it was great to see it enjoying some Olympic action.
After that, it was back to the telly. The media, including the BBC, was determined to give Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt maximum hype. 
I feel that the word “legend” is something we all award to someone special (like Winston Churchill or King Arthur) over a very long period of time, not something demanded by a person and quickly and repeatedly awarded by an Alan Partridge. Even the egotistical Bolt looked slightly embarrassed when the Beeb’s tactile track-side man kept using it.
Of course it was remarkable that after having a damn good time over the past four years, Bolt managed to get himself into the kind of shape where he could win again at 100m and 200m. The margins, however, were smaller than before and new records were not set. The really impressive race was the 4 x 100m relay in which Bolt’s friend and rival Yohan Blake - called The Beast because, I guess, he is a very messy eater, ran an incredible third leg, leaving Bolt to storm home setting a new world record.
And, to be fair to Bolt, he was very kind about Birmingham and the support he and his teammates had received from Brummies.
He and Mo Farah also brought a bit of fun to the Games. My favourite image of the London Olympics is of Bolt doing the so-called “Mobot” and Mo doing the "Lightning Bolt" while larking around on the medals podium. Hilarious!
So, in the final analysis, how did London 2012 go? The Chairman of the organising committee, Lord Seb Coe, has claimed that everything went very well and most of the media seem to believe him.
The truth is more mixed. Clearly, the security arrangements did not go well. 
Having to draft in troops at the eleventh hour to fill the gap was a big organisational failing and has seriously set back our armed forces at a time when they are heavily deployed in Afghanistan.
Also, the London Olympics 2012 website was not up to the job. Seb has tried to brush this failing under the carpet but it let down a lot of people and, as the geezer at the top of the pile, he should accept responsibility for this.
And, as all but the most deluded would acknowledge, the ticketing was a shambles. 
Even as Coe gave his final address at the closer ceremony, a huge bank of empty seats could be seen behind him. The Olympics authorities have launched an inquiry to try to ensure does not happen again at a future Games.
I think the reason the ticketing scandal has not received the publicity it deserves is because the media, politicians and celebrities were very well catered for, with free, prime seating when and where they chose, and, in the excitement, Joe Public was largely forgotten. 
This was not a people’s games, much as the British people yearned for it to be.
Coe and co have got away with it because the facilities looked great, although costing vastly over their original budget, and, of course, Team GB excelled all expectations by a mile.
For Britain, with a population of around 63 million people, to win 29 gold medals (as well as 17 silvers and 19 bronzes) at the Olympics Games, against the entire world, was absolutely extraordinary. 
That is only nine fewer than China which has a population of 1,341 million and takes any promising children away from their parents to train them for 10 years to win Olympic gold medals.
Britain won 22 gold medals more than Japan (population: 128 million), five more than Russia (pop: 143 million), 18 more than Germany (pop: 82 million), and 26 more than Brazil (pop: 197 million). It has been widely reported that the English county of Yorkshire did better than Australia!
America has a population of 314 million, generally very well fed and strong, but only managed 17 more gold medals than us. 
The British public that did get tickets to events responded by going absolutely ga-ga, lifting our athletes to heights of performance previously considered inconceivable.
No one really expected the ginger lad - Greg Rutherford - to win gold in the long jump for Team GB. With the yells of our crowd in his sails, he simply flew to victory.
I have watched a lot of athletics over the years but have never heard such a loud and totally engaged audience as we saw at the London Olympics.
On reflection, I believe it simply does not matter if you got tickets to Olympics events or not. 
To be a Briton in Britain, let alone to be in London and Weymouth, during these unique, unforgettable Olympics was to be an integral part of it.
I am half-German, and Germany is a country I like. But I have always felt 100 percent British. 
I am sure the same is true for most, if not all of the many others who have blood from other nations and live in this green and pleasant land.
Somalia-born Mo Farah, for instance, is as British as British can be. 
His pride at winning two historic Olympic golds for Britain and our pride at seeing him do so are totally authentic.
In a sense, despite the administrative cock-ups (which, incidentally, are also typically British), London 2012 has been triumph for multiculturalism, for the modern British way of life.
For the decades, we have welcomed in the world and it has worked for us. We have 29 new glistening gold medals to prove it.
No one around the world who watched the London Olympics on TV can have failed to have been impressed by our nation. It was an Olympics like no other.
I have no doubt that in my lifetime Britain will never better 29 golds in an Olympics. For a democratic country of our titchy size, it was an astounding, astonishing, magical achievement. It will probably not be matched until the Olympic Games return to London in 50 or 60 years’ time. Even then, the Team GB of the future will be pushed to achieve at this awesome level.
So, let us rejoice at what has been achieved. There will never be another Olympics like it.

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