Monday, 13 August 2012

Olympic London

Signs of the Olympics: Germany v Bulgaria at Earls Court
This is just a very quick piece now that the Olympics are over. As I recorded previously, along with most of the country, I had serious doubts about the Olympics before they started. But having seen the torch come through, and sampling the atmosphere around it, I felt we might have a party after all. And so it turned out. "Super Saturday" (Aug 4), when the UK’s athletes won 6 gold medals (6 times as many as in the whole of the 1996 Olympics) won me over.

I spent last Wednesday and Thursday in London trying to catch some of the spirit of the time.I've put a set of the resulting pictures on Flickr.

At St Pancras
Wednesday I was by myself: arriving at St Pancras, I walked, camera in hand, to Bond St via Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street; then on the Central Line to Bank, and a walk along to Tower Bridge and St Katherine’s Docks, over the Bridge and to London Bridge to get the Northern Line back to St Pancras.

 The thing I was surprised about was that although the media were super-saturated with Olympics, once outside St Pancras, there was little to be seen. Some nice people were handing out free ice creams (I desisted!) and bottles of water. There were some advertising posters featuring athletes, but other than that, there was little sign that the Olympics were on at all. The copyright police had done their job more thoroughly that I could ever have imagined.

The North Bank of the Thames between Southwark Bridge and Tower Bridge was full of tourists, as expected for a summer’s day. The French Olympic mission had taken up residence at one point, with a sailing ship moored opposite. At St Katherine’s Docks, the Danes had taken over. They had a wonderful lighthearted Viking invasion by the Dickens Inn, where kids were playing with the invaders.

On the South side of the Thames, a big screen had been set up where families and office workers were watching the Games. I got there in time to see Victoria Pendleton win silver in the cycling, followed by Chris Hoy winning gold for the (I’ve lost count – sixth??) time. Huge joy and much jumping around by the assembly.

On the Thursday, Martin kindly offered me a ticket to the men’s volleyball quarter-finals at Earls Court. His wife didn’t fancy the late evening finish, so I’m most grateful to be the beneficiary. We spent the day wandering, and after an excellent lunch at a South Indian restaurant in Percy Street, came to Hyde Park. The big screens were set up there too, behind fencing on the parade ground. We had to go through airport-style security, but with better humour than you ever find at Heathrow. A restriction on photographic equipment longer than 6 inches was in force: I was amused to be asked to reverse the lens hood on my zoom to make it look shorter!

Finally to Earls Court. Poland v Russia, followed by Germany v Bulgaria. It was a home game for the Poles: the bulk of the crowd were Poland fans. We were surrounded in our seats by a wonderful, loud and highly partisan bunch of them. Their flags festooned the arena.

Russia won the game to the dismay of the people around us. Martin and I didn’t expect the disappointed Polish supporters to return after the break: they did, but only after a longish time for suitable consoling refreshment. As a result of the corresponding gaps in the crowd, we became aware of the Bulgarian supporters just along from us – just as loud and partisan as the Poles.

I’m no volleyball fan, having never even played a game, but Martin is (and has a coaching qualification). So it was great to be there with an expert to explain the finer points. I was totally caught up in the whole experience, and could not have enjoyed myself more: many, many thanks, Martin, for the ticket.

So, in all the Olympics have been a huge boost for the country's mood. It has been a real lift to the spirits in otherwise depressing times. I’m always skeptical of medals tables, since the games are about individuals, not national teams; in any case, I grew up with the Soviet Union and East Germany dominating them, which is scarcely a recommendation. Nonetheless, the fact the UK finished third is testimony to the many individual triumphs of our athletes. All our politicians now have a wonderful opportunity to keep their traps shut and not spoil the mood.

The Olympics closed last night, with a huge party in the main stadium. I probably enjoyed the closing ceremony more than the opening. The opening ceremony kept me wondering what on Earth the overseas audience (who make up the bulk of the watchers) would make of it. Wallander in a top hat with a cigar reciting The Tempest? I loved the Queen jumping out of a helicopter with James Bond – how surreal can things get? But unless you’re intimately aware of the cultural references, I can’t imagine that the opening ceremony would mean much. The closing ceremony was simple party, and none the worse for it (although the sight of Wormtail in a bowler spluttering the same lines as Wallander left me a bit bemused!). I can’t wait for Rio: where better for the party to continue?

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