Paralimpified

So now I get it – the Olympics were just the build up for the main event – the Paras! It was in the Paralympics that we got into the Olympic Park, sat in the fabulous new stadium with 80,000 other people and felt the rush of gold medals being won and lost.

I have to be honest, it was a slow start. We sat down to the Paralympics Opening Ceremony with great excitement, only to find it a little long and earnest. Then to our dismay, Channel 4 went to an advert break just as the USA Paralympic team entered the stadium, when one of our number had been waiting all evening for them to appear! In the papers the next morning, the reviews were all so positive, we felt a bit churlish to complain, and thinking back, there doesn’t seem anything to complain about. That Umbrella song burrowed into my brain to repeat itself for the next week like the earworm it is, only to be replaced by a version of Coldplay’s Paradise sung by some girls behind us in the Olympic Stadium, “Para-Para-Paralympics”.

There have been some excuses. People said that they couldn’t get into it, that they had Olympics fatigue. Grumpy couldn’t get along with Channel 4’s constant advert breaks to begin with, so it took us a couple of days. But if there is one thing I know, when it comes to a mega sport event, you have to make a decision to step into the spectacle. You have to invest. So we switched our radio to 5 Live and woke up to the “Paralympics station” and very quickly, there we were – hooked, like no-one has ever been hooked before.

We were even sceptical about C4’s presentation team – but the relationship between Clare Balding and Ade Adepitan was charming, with great contributions from jolly Iwan Thomas in the studio and smiley Danny Crates at the stadium. Even more than the Olympics, this is how I want sport to be televised.

My American friend (not quite over the blanking out of her team in the opening ceremony) offered an insight on the way the reporters treated the Paralympians in interview: “Why can’t they be this nice to all athletes?”, she asked. Reporters should always be like this.

Grumpy observed that every Paralympian asked to comment on their triumph or defeat communicated such depth of character – articulate and reflective. Sportspeople should always be like this.

I was told that the Olympic Park was like a fantasy world. It was. A place where no-one could be unhappy. When we went, it was so sunny, the sky had the same eerie blue of the Leap for London images from over four years ago. We saw everything – the velodrome, the giant Macdonalds, the wild flowers (on their last legs admittedly), Anish Kapoor’s helter-skelter Orbit tower. It was fantastic. As we sat and ate quite a nice meal and looked out at the Park, Grumpy said, “Don’t you think, it feels like we’re on holiday?”. It did.

The stadium was packed. We saw some great action – albeit from a distance, high up in the rafters. Jason Smyth ran way out in front, so we could pick him out without the aid of binoculars. Same with Oscar Pistorius. The sound was incredible.

The closing ceremony will start in half an hour. Grumpy and I will be sad to see it end. We had an experience of a lifetime, no question about it. It seems like some things have changed. Women’s sport has taken centre stage. Paralympic sport has finally been credited as just great sport. The Lea Valley looks beautiful and buzzing with people.

Now the party is over, the real discussion starts. What sense can we make of it. Is there such a thing as legacy? What legacy? Whose legacy? Or was it just bread and circuses?

Advertisements

Park Life

Days are numbered for the Olympic Park Walking Tour, I am told, on the grounds that they are actually planning to finish the building site upon which it is based. Yesterday, I took the tour for the final time with my group of resilient games-seeking students, braving the inclement (i.e. freezing) weather conditions, the main roads and the unattractive Tesco at Bromley-by-Bow station, where it all starts.

So, in case you do not get to experience the tour, here it is in pictures.

At Three Mills Island, we were regaled with tales of the smells of East London past – animal glue, animal fat soap, animal bone china, sewage works … I could go on. We looked at 3Mills Studios from the outside, and heard that Danny Boyle might actually be in there, planning the 2012 Opening Ceremony, at that very moment our knees were knocking on the cold cobbles below.

Then onto the Fat Walk, so called, apparently, because it is wide and has things on either side. Nothing to do with the current obesity moral panic, then. Since the last time I was there, table tennis tables have sprouted up as well as landscaped seating areas, like little sylvan grottos.

One day this new planting will be a thick wood, and these fragile saplings a mere memory, much like the Games themselves (actually, they’ll last a lot longer since the whole thing is going to be over in a matter of weeks).

After the Fat Walk, we cross Stratford High Street and note the temporary bridge for the duration of the Olympics only.

Finally we are in spitting distance of the building site and Pudding Mill Lane DLR station. As we made our way through the maze of hoardings, a panicked student enquired “is this the way people are going to come?” I was able to be reassuring: “No, this is the backway. They’re going to arrive through the Shopping Centre – you know, enter through the gift shop“. “OK, that makes sense”, was my student’s measured reply.

The big news at the Olympic Park was evidence of the construction of the world’s largest Macdonalds (the square building with that recognisable green hue).

The Olympic Stadium is coming along as well, and they’ve got the athlete training area finished. The view from the DLR to Stratford shows all the little tents, like a 21st Century jousting arena. This is Britain after all.

The viewing gallery at John Lewis gave once more upon the scene, and below we saw in readiness, not just the Aquatic Centre but the rows of security tents. We have already had first hand experience of both.

 In the next few days, Grumpy and I will be doing our own Olympic Walk. Inspired by the revelation of the route of the Olympic Torch Relay, we are planning to walk the Merton section in South London. Check back on Sunday to find out how we got on.

Diving under the belly of the whale

Diving is a minimalist sport. This was our observation as we walked into the afternoon sunshine after the Women’s 3m Springboard preliminaries. It was a contrast to the array of visual spectacle of athletics, say, or gymnastics, where your attention is drawn to multiple sources of stimuli as someone vaults over here or throws a somersault over there. In diving you focus. It’s all over in a flash. Then they do it again. And again. And again.

My more expert companion explained that the water sprays improve the visibility of the surface of the diving pool as you leap in from a great height

The more you watch something the more you understand it. By the end of Round 1, I could predict the score, more or less. OK, my scores were a bit more than theirs, but I’ve always been a generous marker. And anyway, they discount the bottom two and the top two, so that makes me spot on. The free programme tells you what you need to look for: starting postiion, approach (the run up), take-off, flight and entry. Now, it would strike me that one of these things is way harder than the rest. The flight is actually where they do the impossible acrobatics, twists and turns. Nevertheless, if you see a splash – in the prescient words of Grumpy from last week – they’ve blown it.

The building was very good. The programme tells you all about it. It is designed so that you feel that you are under the belly of the whale. It has been freezing in London for too long now, but the freak nice weather made us feel a bit like we were inside the belly getting a bit too warmed up. Remember that for the Olympics, folks – it is hot in there!

Gasping for air and food (Question: when would you actually miss Mcdonalds? Answer: when there is no alternative), we made our way to the surface and back through the gates to the joys of Westfield. No-one body searched us on the way out. Simultaneously, we were put in mind of our trip to the dressage in Hong Kong – exciting for the aficionado, but nothing much happening for us plebs.

Headline reads "Dressage proves not a draw just a bore" with pictures of people asleep

It wasn't that bad ...

Going up Westfield

We didn’t feel much Olympic spirit as we struggled along The Street in a bleak, rain-swept Westfield on Saturday afternoon. I was just checking I knew the way to the Aquatic Centre before I turned up with a bunch of students for the diving next Thursday afternoon. My grumpy companion (he doesn’t like the rain) was giving indications that he would rather be downloading apps for his new iPad, but we found the “signs” to follow without too much problem. Lots of people were going to the cycling so we fell into line and were waved across the road by helpers in red anoraks, who looked half-drowned but nevertheless quite official with “Olympic Park” written on their backs. Since we didn’t have a ticket for the cycling, we had to make a subtle U-turn and pretend we were with the exit group as we were waved back over the crossing two minutes later.

Grumpy hadn’t been out that way before, so despite his protestations, and the limited visibility occasioned by the downpour, we found the entrance to John Lewis to seek out their viewing gallery over the Olympic Park. We floated up the escalator past the many shiny things on display to reach the third floor, where for the first time a flicker of interest played across the countenance of my companion. “What is that?” and “Why is there more than one building?” he asked. The Aquatic Centre looked magnificent, and so did the Olympic Stadium, but I wasn’t so sure about what appeared to be the water polo building that looked like a giant, grey inflatable.

Grumpy didn’t want to leave John Lewis without checking out the London 2012 shop. By this time, he was warming up and I overheard him by the strangely coloured Union Jack Minis and Concordes advising another browser that there were “London buses over there”. I wanted to investigate the mugs. I, personally, am not taken with the London 2012 mascot. I think it is silly. Since images of the mascot grace nearly everything, this is a drawback for me. What is worse is that the mugs are the wrong shape. Geographically, I have come quite close to the last few Olympics (e.g. Hong Kong during Beijing and Edmonton during Vancover) and have been bringing back Olympic mugs for a friend of mine. Admittedly, she is also in London for this one, and so can buy her own, but I felt I should look anyway. But they didn’t have any regular shaped mugs, just the sort that taper at the base. This was a big disappointment. And even when I cast an eye over the glassware as an alternative, I couldn’t help thinking they were quite horrible. As Grumpy observed, “I think they’ve blown it”.

I was starting to tire, but my companion was fast becoming entranced by the magic of Westfield and insisted we cover all the three floors of shopping centre. I was taken aback a little by the video screens showing Iranian Female Ninja Assassins on an ITN news loop, somersaulting their way through an indoor assault course. Was this a real news story or a fashion-meets-fitness promo? I couldn’t decide.

Westfield is something to behold, on a Saturday afternoon. Gorged with people, it is reminiscent of a very nice airport. Where else do you see smart people hanging out in imprecisely demarcated champagne bars with hordes of people aimlessly milling around them as if they hadn’t noticed? The food floor offered all kinds, with KFC and McDonalds giving way to more upmarket eateries as you neared the entrance to Waitrose. And there’s a big Jamie Oliver presence all over the place.

Roll on Thursday, when I will actually get to see inside the Park!

London prepares … for security checks

In the next two weeks, I will be visiting two Olympic venues with a group of American students – Wimbledon and the Olympic Park Aquatic Centre for the FINA Diving World Cup. I am used to negotiating the circuitous public transport route to Wimbledon with a horde of people in tow. It is a bizarre journey for out-of-towners, but an authentic Wimbledon experience necessarily entails going on a magical mystery tour to the heart of surburbia. It is no surprise that there is only one bus that serves the All England Club, and that is diverted during the Championships. It is all part of the exclusiveness that is built into the Wimbledon brand.

Getting into the Olympic Park is new to me, though, so I made sure to look up where to go. The London Prepares website informs me that I need to get to Stratford station and follow the “signs” to the Olympic Park. Another mystery journey to look forward to. I was a little perturbed by their advice to leave 70 minutes to go through security. The diving event we are going to only lasts 120 minutes. A little excessive, perhaps?

The list of prohibited items in the Olympic venues was announced late last year. The BBC said there were to be no water bottles, no food (except baby food), no alcohol … even in venues (like Wimbledon) where you are normally allowed to come fully self-catered.  Rules for the diving differentiate between restricted items (allowed but not to be used as you would like) and prohibited items. There may be some confusion. You can bring in food, but can you eat it? You can keep your vuvuzela, but can you play it? Will the logos on your clothing be considered ambush marketing? Think twice maybe about wearing your Superdry jacket.

You might think sport spectating is all about letting your hair down and yelling for your team. Just as much of the experience is about standing in line to submit to surveillance and then modifying our behaviour inside the venues so they can keep us under control. But even if they take your sandwiches away, you are always free to buy some more inside the park…