Wow! It’s the O’Lympics


SORRY I DIDN’T get to talk to you about the Opening Ceremony in a more timely fashion: I was drunk. There, I said it. What happened was this: I went to a friend’s 40th birthday party, which was in a pub. Briefly, he and I chatted about a book we had both recently read, a furious, no-holds-barred anti-sports polemic. Let’s just say that he was more of a fan than I was, and so, when a few glasses in it came time for Danny Boyle and the giant baby, I was pleasantly surprised that the tiny television in the corner of the room got turned on at all. I wouldn’t say that I could exactly hear anything – the TV set was, by the looks of it, pre-millennial, the pub was packed and the atmosphere was resolutely in favour of audience participation. Hence, I returned home with the details hazy but a general sense of bonhomie and enjoyment. Then I watched the whole thing through again, pausing only to crack open another beer and weep another bucket.

Since then, let me tell you, I have remained determinedly sober; it’s kind of important when you are up for a minimum of 18 hours out of every 24, and when you have to master a fiendishly intricate television schedule and a variety of sports, some of which you have barely heard of. Throw into the mix having to convince your employers you’re still working steadily away and the need to maintain a basic level, however haphazard, of hydration and nutrition, and you’ll understand how busy it can get. There have been days in the last week or so where I’ve hardly had twenty minutes to myself to witter inanely/suck up to someone important/tear someone off a strip on social media.

Here, then, a few observations on life inside the five-ring circus:

Preparation is key. Streamline your viewing area: you need merely a television and one seat per viewer. Any more seats encourages choice, which is a time-waster, and worse than that: VISITORS. The last thing we need here is people who don’t know very much about sport dropping by to say hello and then filling every moment of silence with a complicated question about the scoring system for the men’s individual pursuit. Jesus. Some of these people don’t even know their ippon from their waza-ari.

That eating-drinking thing. I often start these long-haul televisual events with a sort of Martha Stewart fantasy of themed refreshment (seafood canapés during the swimming, cucumber sandwiches during the dressage, etc). Forget it. Multiple packets of trail mix, juice-boxes, beef jerky, etc. The best thing I did was put a mini-fridge in the corner of the sitting-room.

You might also want to develop an alternative Olympics should a moment of longueur set in. There is, of course, the widespread pastime of working out which sport you could take up in time to make the team for Rio 2016 (my heart goes out to the actual winners of the archery and shooting, which everyone seems to think they could do). But there is even more arcane fun to be had. My cohabitant, who is of Irish descent, has devised an alternative medals table, in which the diaspora is taken into account. For example, he contends that had the forebears of athletes with clearly Irish names not been forced from the old country during 800 years of oppression, Ireland would be topping the medals table with ease. In support, he cites Ryan Cochrane (swimming, Canada), Ed Clancy (cycling, GB), Shalane Flanagan (marathon, USA), Flora Duffy (triathlon, Bermuda), Andrew Riley (hurdler, Jamaica). And this, as he points out darkly, is betting without those whose Irish name has been erased from history by the patriarchy.

At the point where this rival – one might even say occult – Olympics is reaching its zenith, I strike a blow for common sense by suggesting that we should tear ourselves away from the television and venture out onto the streets. Yes, I know I said we could stay here until it finished; I know we’re confused by the endlessly conflicting bulletins (London is full; London is empty; the trains are so efficient that you often arrive at your destination before you’ve left the house; the trains aren’t working at all; the Olympics is full; the Olympics is empty; hotels are charging £1200 for a glass of water; hotels are so under-occupied you can hire a suite at the Ritz for a year for a dollar). But look! We have tickets! Let’s find our umbrellas! Let’s chant, “We are the mods, we are the mods, we are we are we are the Mods” at our life-size cardboard cut-out of Bradley Wiggins and go and experience some Olympic fun at first-hand!

First off, let’s get to the Olympic Park: we’re thrilled to discover that we can take something called the Javelin train directly there, from nearby our house, in seven minutes. Wow! In London, it’s rare to get to the end of your road in seven minutes; and a journey of such a distance might normally take anywhere between one and three days, requiring a stopover in a cheap hotel and a meal-deal from a local burger outlet. There is, admittedly, a slight hiccup; from arriving at the station (wrong entrance, it turns out), it takes us 22 minutes to find the right platform. From then on in, however, it’s like travelling to the future, particularly the part where you are disgorged from the train into a giant shopping mall.

We wander in the general direction of sport. I must say, I admire the organisers’ determination to improve the health of the nation and kickstart the economic fightback in one fell swoop: by the time we get to the Aquatics Center, we have walked a lengthy route that takes us past many, many commercial outlets. I am particularly interested to see two things: 1) the MacDonald’s, described ahead of the Games as so enormous that it was on the verge of declaring independence and appointing its own diplomatic staff and 2) the Anish Kapoor helter-skelter. Well: 1) not really that big. Grow up, vegans! 2) Not my idea of a fairground ride. Grow up, art-lovers! Far more fascinating are the groups of grown men swapping Olympic badges and buttons in the Pin Trading area. So sweet!

World's largest helter skelter? No, that would be Anish Kapoor's ArcelorMittal (sic, it's one word, we swear) Orbit.

Unlike the previous week, when we had sat virtually alone in a stand to watch the climax of the women’s cycling road race, the swimming pool was busy. (Perhaps people had taken notice of Sebastian Coe, reported to have been “seething” at the coverage of the empty seats. I felt at the time he was rather missing the point. Unless he actually believed that news corporations were photoshopping empty seats onto actual pictures of bustling venues. At the road race, it felt as though we were outnumbered by the wonderful University of Florida Gators Marching Band, who had come to entertain us while we waiting for the cyclists to arrive.) Largely, it was busy with a vast American contingent come to cheer Michael Phelps in his last Olympic race. My companion scrutinised any passing lanyards carefully and quickly recategorized their wearers as Irish.

The Florida Gators Marching Band all the way in London to keep you entertained.

Here is where the strange thing happened. We sat in our seats for an hour or so, mainly because I had been determined to arrive in plenty of time to osmose atmosphere. Also, frankly, because our seats cost £180 (about $280) each. (Cut to pricing headquarters, a year ago: “But it’s only for four races! And one of them’s a 50m sprint!” “I think you underestimate the number of middle-aged sports fans who know their pensions are crocked and don’t give a shit any more.”) We were, at this point, exposed to some mildly irritating things: mostly, the fluffers who kept taking to the microphone to ratchet up our enthusiasm levels. “Guys!” they kept shouting (we had been called “guys” on about 40 separate occasions on the way in; it is clearly the designated non-sexist chummy mode of address du jour. I don’t like it). “London! Can you hear me?” It was just one of those weird situations where the fact of someone trying to make you more excited conspires to make you feel the wool is being pulled over your eyes and plants the seed that the whole thing is less exciting than it really is. Worst moment: “We have four more gold medals to give away tonight!” Man: you’re not giving them away. It’s not Wheel of Fortune.

But then it started. We watched a Dutch woman win a sprint, a Chinese man break the world record by swimming 30 lengths as if he were a fish with an outboard motor and two medley teams. I love to watch swimming, but I am by no means an expert in its technical features nor its personnel. Why, then, did my heart pound, why did I screech as Sun Yang smashed his way to gold, why did I not want to leave?

The Life Aquatic Center (or if you're in London that's "centre")

It has been like this throughout. You sit and snort with annoyance at the bits of corporate lunacy (“We are proud to accept only Visa”), the organisational SNAFUs, the cheesy broadcasting. And then the sport starts and it is just utterly, overwhelmingly brilliant. And it is in your back garden.

We trooped out obediently to wend our way back to the Javelin train. Wow, I said, that Sun Yang. Could you believe that? Sure, said my companion. And I think his mum’s from Tipperary.

About Alex Clark

Alex Clark is a freelance journalist living in London, writing about books, arts, football and a whole host of other things for papers such as The Guardian and The Observer. She is also editor at large of Union Books and the former editor of Granta.
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