My Olympic Week: Part One

You can read the whole of My Olympic Week by clicking over to The Huffington Post UK.

It’s the end of the first week of the London 2012 Olympics and I’ve learned two valuable life lessons: first, grown men will fight small children for the chance to sit at the front of the DLR and pretend to be the driver; and second, don’t jump up for a full-on Mexican Wave whilst holding a plastic pint glass full of lager.

I’ll admit it, I’ve had conflicted feelings about the 2012 Olympics ever since London won the bid. And I’m not sure that my new hobby of watching the Games from the sofa with a packet of Tunnocks Caramel Wafers and a bottle of rosé is quite what the organisers meant by “Olympics legacy”. However, since the glorious Opening Ceremony I’ve been rethinking my attitude.

I’d been dreading the ceremony, fearing a reprise of the toe-curling “This is London” section of the closing ceremony in Beijing. I don’t think many of us could have swallowed any more giant topiary with Leona Lewis rising up out of it like one of Professor Sprout’s mandrakes. So, thanks again, Danny Boyle et al. for not mortifying us on the world stage. Class act, Mr B.

Not to be outdone, of course, Mayor Boris Johnson presented the world premiere of his “Great Dangle” performance art piece mid-week, hinting at what could have been had they not upped the budget for the Opening Ceremony.

Like everyone else without handy corporate connections and unlimited funds to get my hands on great tickets, I put my bids into the lottery and crossed my fingers I wouldn’t bankrupt myself. Having failed to get any tickets at all, I then spent a good few days stubbornly trawling throught the ticketing system before surfacing for air with some tickets to niche sports grasped firmly in my virtual fingers. So, my up-close and personal experience of the London Olympics consists of beach volleyball, fencing and women’s football.

One of the best things about the London Olympics for me has been the concurrent 2012 Festival, which offers up a boatload of great (often free) events around the country. On Tuesday I kicked off my last day as an Olympics virgin with a trip to one of the festival’s more eccentric offerings: a life-sized bouncy castle replica of Stonehenge. What’s not to love?

Jeremy Deller’s “Sacrilege” is free to all and adult-friendly. It was the first time in years that I’d been on a bouncy castle, and you know what? It was brilliant. In fact, the only thing that could have made it better was if Derek Smalls had popped out from behind the ‘henge with some dancing dwarfs.

Shoes off, bouncing in and out of the standing stones, doing seat drops in the middle, the kids and I agreed it was loads better than when we visited the real thing last year. Then we sat glumly in the car park eating tepid, curled-up sandwiches after looking at the stones in the mist from behind ropes.

From “Sacrilege” I headed into town to have a look at the short-lived “Hatwalk“. In a pop-up event celebrating London’s creativity and heritage, some of the most famous milliners in the world created hats for some of the most iconic statues in the capital. I must confess, my outright favourite was Stephen Jones’ blingtastic creation for the sour-faced King George IV (and his horse) in Trafalgar Square, but Lord Nelson’s patriotic confection took the silver.

Having decided to follow official advice to hoof it everywhere, I walked across Westminster Bridge to the South Bank to see if I could take a boat to the ExCel later on in the week. The pavements were crammed with soldiers, civilians, stewards and genial “Games Ambassadors.”

Yes, there were the obligatory flocks of tourists who inexplicably stop mid-stride and look upwards, only to incur the incandescent sweary wrath of locals, but overall it was a pretty relaxed scene.

Down by the river I spoke to a friendly, yet clueless, ticketing agent. “Can I take a boat to the ExCel?” — “Yes, to the O2.” — “Isn’t that on the other side of the river?” — “From what?” — “The ExCel.” — “No: the ExCel is in the O2. … Isn’t it?” — “Er, no. It’s on the other side of the river. So, do you stop on the north side of the river at all?” — “I don’t know. Which side is the north?” Sigh. I refrained from pointing to the giant clue that was The South Bank Centre looming over us and decided to take the tube instead.

Back to Westminster and St James’ Park, where I was overtaken by several squads of soldiers marching in quick formation towards the beach volleyball arena as I meandered towards a bench to eat my chicken sandwich and fend off hordes of pigeons.

From the off, I’ve suspected that beach volleyball was one of the must-have tickets for lads’ night out corporate jollies. A bunch of lithe, tanned, almost naked, seriously fit girls jumping around and shrieking in the name of serious sports? Hey, what’s not to like, chaps?

Rather cleverly, the man sitting next to me seemed to be on a first date. How great is that? You get to woo someone with Olympics tickets whilst watching great-looking girls in bikinis jump up and down. Sounds like a win-win situation to me.

Previous fears of taking hours to go through “airport-style security” were allayed by the polite and efficient young soldiers on security detail who got us all through the metal detectors smoothly. Then we were greeted by a phalanx of lovely, enthusiastic ladies of a certain age who told us where the bar was and warned us not to drink too much. Aw, bless.

Which takes me on to the loos. Now, our medal campaign may just have been given a massive kick up the Wiggins (huzzah), but if queuing for the loo was an Olympic sport then British women (honourable mention to the Irish) would be world-beaters. Happily, if the loos at Horseguards are some of Michael Eavis’ then they must be from his personal collection for very close friends and family only. They’re far removed from the fetid plastic hellholes I’ve endured at Glastonbury. In fact, they were actual proper loos with running water and everything.

Ten points to the organisers, though I may have to detract a few hundredths of a point for the petty white-out stickers over the brand names on the hand driers. Really, LOCOG? Was “Blue Peter” filming in there or something?

Finally, having located the bar, bumped into some friends and bought drinks at a not completely outrageous mark-up, my husband and I took our seats in the arena and admired the frankly breathtaking scene. We were fairly low down so didn’t have the spectacular views of the London Eye that people above us did, but we could still see the tops of the Houses of Parliament, the Admiralty and Horseguards crowded in around us. I was instantly smitten and ready to forgive Seb Coe and LOCOG almost everything.

While we waited for the action to start we were were greeted by a preternaturally perky girlie host, who was there to introduce the DJs and MC and help whip us into a frenzy of audience participation. She was backed up by a troupe of limber young dancers in ’50s beach wear and some comedy sand rakers. Unlike many other sports, which require absolute silence from the crowd during play, beach volleyball positively encourages a big element of audience participation and so we had many campy Frankie Avalon-style beach capers and formation raking to the “Benny Hill Show” theme tune throughout the evening.

When the players came out for the first match of the night the men around us were gutted that the Canadian players had chosen to hide their assets under black leggings. However, the hardy Russian pair delighted with their teeny tiny hot pink bikini bottoms, which produced some hyper-ventilating in the row behind us and a thunderstruck, “Oh my god! They’re really fit! Oh my god! I can’t believe it!

Time for the first Mexican Wave of the night, which resulted in me dousing myself in lager after I jumped up too enthusiastically, drink in hand.

Despite the novelty value of scantily glad girls jumping after balls right in front of us, the atmosphere took a while to get going. Initially, the crowd seemed unwilling to get into the spirit of things and it felt like being in the audience warm-up for “Gladiators,” albeit without the over-excited toddlers and handwritten “I love Jet” signs.

The DJs did their best to get the crowd going — “Altogether now, ooooooh-laaayyyy!” — but for the first hour it just felt a little bit forced: more Pontin’s than Pacha.

Big screens displayed neon instructions in the official Olympics font — “Clapping!”, “Ball Out” — to get us in the mood, but they just reminded me of my friend Big Alice’s karaoke bar, where her ultra-cheap system tried to encourage singers with messages like, “You lovely sing well!” and “Yes doll baby!”

The players, so the increasingly exasperated MC told us, feed off the crowd’s energy, so it was beyond time to unleash the dad dancing, out-of-time clapping and faintly embarrassed foot-stamping. As the night progressed and, in our section at least, the booze started to flow more freely, everyone loosened up a lot. Plus, as darkness fell the empty corporate/sponsor/official seats started to fill up on one side with well-oiled men in expensive raincoats carrying trays of beer, and on the other with delighted young squaddies.

The producers even ramped up the audience participation by sending the girlie commentator up into the crowd where she egged on fans dressed as Team USA gimps to shake their booty for the cameras.

The men’s matches were largely an excuse for the predominantly male crowd to nip to the bar and/or loo, but the men’s outfits drew some justified outrage from the watching women. Personally, I don’t get all hot and bothered by the sight of big blokes jumping around in budgie-smugglers, but some of my closest friends do. Plus, hello, what about at least a nod to equal opportunity, beach volleyball? The Americans (gasp) hadn’t even bothered to wax their legs, and the Spanish had decided to play dressed as painters and decorators for some reason.

Later on, the Italian men turned up fully dressed, wearing what looked like full wetsuits under their vests and knee-length shorts. Come on, it wasn’t that cold. I tell you, girls: it’s just not cricket.

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