By Adam Samuel
I love Olympic Games. I’ve been watching them since 1972 and the memorial service for the murdered Israeli athletes at Munich. I can recite the winners and their times for the men’s 100, 200 and 400 metres races at Mexico in 1968 and the Brit who won bronze in the 400 metres hurdles behind David Hemery that year (John Sherwood).
Yet, like many, I was ambiguous about the London Olympic bid and did not jump up and down when its success was announced (unlike the South African lady I was with at the time). Britain does not do public events terribly well as the millennium celebrations illustrated. At least, I knew that someone had sensibly delegated stadium construction to an Australian firm and that the key venues had been tested beforehand.
Somehow, though, I never put in for Olympic tickets at the right time. I still don’t know exactly why. Then came a stroke of luck or perhaps reward for virtue? 25 years ago, I befriended a young woman in the Swiss Institute of Comparative Law where I worked at the time. Her employer gave her a merit award this year which involved flying her and a spouse, partner or friend into London and giving her a couple of days of Olympics. Being single and knowing of my love of armchair sportsmanship, she made me her “husband” purely for Olympic purposes.
Things started well when, at a Royal Opera House reception put on by the company, I spotted Michael Johnson. My friend had no idea who he was. I was reading his book at the time. After a quick briefing (full of Olympic medals and personal best times), we realised that nobody was talking to the great man. So we did. He could not have been more charming and professional. Listening to his speech later on was a bit like hearing the professor lecture after he has given you his book to read in advance. Beijing Olympic decathlon champion, Bryan Clay was also there, earning his sponsorship money even though he failed to qualify for the Games.
Our first event was a tour around the Olympic Park and some water polo. I took an instant dislike to the Anish Kapoor tower which disfigures the area. (My father claims that at night it looks better.) While the athletics stadium is suitably magnificent, the other Park venues are nothing startling. The desolateness of the area still remains. Having said that, the soon to be knocked down water polo venue actually had very good sight lines which is more than can be said for the Sydney main Olympic stadium where it is probably easier to watch a rugby international from the big screen than by looking at the real action. Anyway, at water polo, I discovered that all female centre forwards are huge, none more so than the fabulous Elisa Cassanova, a woman who instantly brought to mind Bill McLaren and brick outhouses. Live sport even if you barely understand is so much better than the television version.
Back at the gaudy St Martin’s Lane Hotel (built on my favourite cheap Italian restaurant of the late 70s, Alcove), the entertainment company hired to run things told us that the first beach volleyball game wasn’t that important. Well, it involved the Swiss! For the first time, my friend and I declared UDI and we went on our own; but you can understand from this why in the first week, there were so many empty seats. Putting beach volleyball in the middle of the British Government was so brilliantly, magnificently English. So, was the stadium announcer team (including a near doppelganger for Stuart Hall) and the on-running disco and random excuses for barely clad youngsters to come on and dance. The atmosphere, including an artist on a nearby building’s roof painting the scene, was It’s a Knockout at its best crossed by serious Olympic sport.
I don’t have much experience of corporate entertainment but it is a bit like going back to school except that the teachers are half the age of most of the pupils. When a sheet was handed around during the beach volleyball asking for us to tick the relevant box for our chosen beverage, my friend and I caused chaos by adding a new and highly popular category of “hot chocolate”. This sent the entertainment company team into a 20 minute spin before, to their credit, they emerged with our cocoa.
The second day promised the finals of the fencing foil competition at the Ex-Cell Centre and a dinner cruise on the Thames. I fenced a bit as a teenager but of all of the sports, it was the most unwatchable. Too many bodies moving at speed prevented one from being able to appreciate when a hit had been scored. Again, though, our “teachers” wanted us to leave before the end which received the appropriate bum’s rush. Neither of us had ever seen a medal ceremony live and an Egyptian was in the final. Did anyone around us know how the Egyptian national anthem went? Anyway, using our own steam (some decent running and a well-placed unused taxi-rank), we made it to the cruise before everyone else.
Strangely, I managed to buy another pair of beach volleyball tickets after many hours of frustration on the ticketing website. We really ought to boycott Ticketmaster for at least a year for its wretched arrangements and website. Rumour has it that LOCOG contacted its main sponsors after a few days of empty seats appearing on telly and asked them to return the tickets they did not need which explains why things improved a bit. Nevertheless, nobody ever grasped the problem of tickets appearing on the website to be available and then it being impossible to buy them.
I then strolled down to Hyde Park for the woman’s open water swim where reasonable views could be had for free. This contrasted with the mess for men’s cycling road race where those with tickets would have seen almost nothing of interest for two minutes and everyone else was shut out from any position on the Mall where you could see anything. The start of the Tour de France in London a few years ago was a much more pleasant occasion with free views and the place buzzing with cycling enthusiasts viewing the team buses and warming up athletes.
The Hyde Park queues on the second Sunday for watching the big screen there were too off-putting which rather defeated the object of the exercise. It is hard to understand why LOCOG did not put a big screen in Trafalgar Square which would have really added to the atmosphere. If they can do it for the Paralympics, why not for the original one?
As for the peripheries, local cafes are reporting a significant loss of business, presumably due to locals leaving town and the business community taking a holiday. Tube congestion may have been kept under control by locals who decided to walk or take buses. (I walked to and from Hyde Park on two occasions.) Soho seemed a bit busier than normal and it was fun telling wide-eyed kids that television was invented on the site of Bar Italia and adults that the Battle of Soho began there. Did Fitzrovia turn its head away from the Olympics? Should it have a strategy in place for the Athletics World Championships in five years time? Definitely.
The big problem with the Olympics is that one could almost certainly do it better a second time. The ticketing nightmare and the decisions on what to make public free access could be sorted out. We could avoid commissioning Anish Kapoor to build a sculpture. Fitzrovia has some great things to show visitors. Perhaps, we could embrace that next time a big sporting event comes to London – the Paralympics.