My Olympic Week: Part Deux

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

It was a completely different scene at the women’s fencing Thursday night, where the only flesh on display was one demure (but presumably potentially lethal) hand per fencer.

I’d been absolutely dreading the commute from my corner of far west London to the ExCel in the far east, two under-10s in tow, but I have to say, it happily turned out to be competely without mishap. Yes, it took an hour and half, but for once the District Line actually didn’t grind to a standstill on either side of Earl’s Court, and that’s always a result for me, at any rate.

The DLR from Tower Gateway to Custom House was a fun ride in the sunshine and our carriage was almost empty. Unimpeded, the kids did their usual schtick of sitting at the front and pretending to drive the train. My only slight moan would be that neither the TFL website nor the Olympics journey planner had been updated to reflect the change in route. When I consulted them Thursday morning they both said I had to change at Canning Town, but actually the trains were running straight through to Custom House and Prince Regent for the ExCel.

We buzzed past the Emirates Air Line cable car service, which goes across the Thames from the O2 in Greenwich to the Royal Docks, and it looked like a really fun ride. Next time, I think I’ll try it.

During the 2010 World Cup I wrote about the arguments that arise from watching international sports with my American-born children. Two years on, and after regular trips back to the mothership they’re still unwavering in their loyalty to the country of their birth.

Not having genned-up enough on the fencing results, we left home thinking it was possible we’d see one or both of the USA and Team GB in the women’s team foil finals. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth after I failed to produce either an American flag or face paints. The only USA-themed t-shirts in the house were from a non-sponsor shop and fearing a visit from the hand drier police I convinced the kids to wear their official London 2012 t-shirts instead (thanks to my mum). In the end, neither team made it through to the finals, so the kids resolved to support South Korea and Russia instead.

Again, the ranks of volunteers at the ExCel were welcoming and enthusiastic, but the vast echoing expanses of such a huge venue lacks the easy friendliness of Horseguards Parade and, to be honest, we were a bit bored by the time we were let into the “Fencing Spectator Zone.”

Perhaps I was spoilt by the open air Horseguards, but being ushered into what feels like a giant aircraft hanger with thousands of other people to wait for an hour or so was a mood-killer. Much has been written this week about organisational failures at the London Games and while I feel like everything and everyone at the ExCel was well-intentioned, atmosphere seemed to have been sacrificed to issues of foot traffic management and crowd control.

Plus, there was a lack of easy access to free tap water. Now, I don’t have a problem with not being allowed to bring in drinks to a venue when I’ve been promised access to free drinking water. But I do have a problem with expectations not being met.

My experience at the ExCel was that free drinking water was available only in the spectator zones, not in the general areas. So, we arrived as requested, at 4pm for an event starting at 6pm. We were then told we’d be allowed into the spectator zone at 4.30, but actually didn’t make it in until just after 5pm. So for the first hour or so we couldn’t have water to drink unless we bought a small bottle for £1.50. Now, the kids and I are fit and healthy, so for me it’s a matter of principle rather than life and death, but it’s annoying and smacks of cynicism.

Because there wasn’t much else to do except queue, we were near the front of the line to get into the spectator zone so just walked over to the drinking fountains and filled up our bottles, but within 15 minutes or so of getting in there, there was a long snaking line of people queuing up for water. Not the loos, just water. The fencing arena seats 8,000, but there were only six small drinking water taps made available for spectators. Yes, that’s six. Lucky it wasn’t a hot day, eh?

I found that we could only fill up a small bottle from two of the six taps, and the others were of the bend-over-and-slurp school variety. Now, I think that’s pretty poor. Yes, let’s agree that sponsors must be allowed to make money, but don’t tell people they can get drinking water easily when they, in reality, can’t.

But, top marks to the loos again, even though the hand driers had once again been visited by the white tape brigade.

One really nice touch was that a group of fencers from Team GB fencing support was there offering quick taster lessons for kids and adults. It was a fun event that deserved more space and time than it was given. Just as the kids were masqued-up there was a series of announcements intended to move people from the specator zone into the arena, promising a fencing display inside. Which bafflingly never materialised and was never mentioned again once we’d sat down. The whole point of being at the ExCel was to watch the bronze and gold/silver medal fights, followed by the medal ceremony, but a display would have been an interesting and informative way to kick things off.

And it probably would have generated more crowd energy than the perky young male host in the arena. He just couldn’t quite whip us into a frenzy despite making the DJ play “We Will Rock You” repeatedly, and so basically gave up trying to do so relatively early on. The crowd in our section was largely families and older couples, and a lot of ecstatic Italian fans, so perhaps he lost the audience through a combination of language barriers and egg sandwiches being unwrapped.

We’d paid the same price for our seats at the fencing as for the beach volleyball but the way the arena was configured meant that although we were in the fourth row from the front we had an oblique line of sight to the piste where the action took place. Straight in front of us were lots of seated men in blazers doing I’m not quite sure what, and while I’m sure it was terribly important and interesting, that’s not what I’d paid to see. So I alternated between sitting sideways-on to watch the action live to my right, or sitting sideways-on to watch it on a big screen to my left. It was galling that what looked like the best seats in the house remained stubbornly empty until late on in the proceedings when a bunch of flag-draped Italian fans moved in.

The first match was for the bronze medal between France and South Korea. It was entertaining, but the neither team seemed to have enough fans in the crowd to get everyone else involved, and really most people just wanted the main event to start. There were a few desultory cries of “allez les bleus” and “Ko-ree-ah!” and a lot of polite clapping, but you couldn’t help be amazed by the change of pace when the gold medal fight started.

When the mighty Italian team came out with the Russsian Federation fencers the Italian fans just about blew the roof off. Foot-stamping, singing, chanting, clapping — it was brilliant! And so much more spirited than any faux-excitement that could be generated by a “get off your tush, yeah”-spouting host armed only with a pair of eye-wateringly tight trousers and a Queen riff.

After the first couple of three-minute fights in which the Italians wiped the floor with the Russians, my children (as always) switched allegiance to the sure-fire winners and joined in the chants of “Italia!” reverberating through the arena. They even saw one of their friends with his dad higher up in the stands (better view than us, natch), which just about made their day. Finally, despite a thrilling last-ditch comeback, the Russians had to bow before the veteran Italians and accept the silver medal.

The crowd went wild, and everyone started chanting and stamping as we waited for the medal ceremony. And waited. And waited some more. I believe I may even have seen a tumbleweed drift across at one point. As the stage crew came on and took what seemed like an age to construct the surprisingly complicated-looking medal podium we were treated to the most irritatingly anodyne lift music playing on a loop.

Podium complete, the ceremony still didn’t start, the muzak continued, and we were given no explanation for the lengthy wait, despite the slow hand claps, boos and frankly pissed-off faces all around the arena. Hey, maybe all the medal ceremonies have taken that long to get going, but would it have killed someone to say “it’s going to be another five minutes”, or for the DJ to play some decent music?

When the teams finally came out it looked like we’d been waiting while they got changed and did their hair and makeup. The Russians, especially, looked suspiciously well-coiffed for a bunch of women who’d just sweatily fenced their way to an Olympics silver medal. But really, who can blame them for wanting a bit of lippy in their moment of glory? As someone once said, a picture lasts a lifetime.

Listening to the Italian national anthem blaring out, part of me experienced the familiar wish that we had a bouncy, uplifting national anthem too, but then watching everyone struggling to sing the words in time with the accelerating music I realised that there is something to be said for an altogether more sedate anthem.

Our journey home was long, but fairly uneventful. No delays, no overcrowding, no vomiting. The only blip was was the middle-aged man who unwisely competed against the children for the coveted place at the front of the DLR carriage at Prince Regent station. Having failed to push past me and the kids when the door opened he then barged my 8 year-old out of the way in the short dash along the aisle to the front. Winning the race he then plonked himself down and assumed the “look at me, I’m a train driver!” pose chiefly associated with little kids on funfair rides. The kids sat on the other side of the aisle and glared at him and his wife who, poor woman,looked mortified.

Next up: more beach volleyball. I can’t wait!

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