London 2012 Olympics

Keith at OlympicsLike so many in the country I had applied to get tickets for an event (well, any event!) in the London 2012 Olympic Games without success in both the first and second and third ballots, so I’d pretty much resigned myself to not getting to see any of the Olympics live, which was a little disappointing as having them visit one’s country is a once-in-alifetime event (well, OK, technically for a small number of people London 2012 is the third-in-their-lifetime opportunity given that London uniquely has hosting the Olympics 3 times [1908, 1948 and 2012] but you know what I mean). So when a friend posted on Facebook that he had a spare ticket for an event on Monday, I jumped at the chance! We weren’t even sure what the event was, it was probably either Hockey or Basketball, he wouldn’t find out until the next day, but it didn’t matter – I was going to the Olympics after all, and to the Olympic Park at that! (OK, not the Stadium itself, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers).

(I should explain how my friend came to have 2 free tickets. He works for one of the sponsors of the Games, and they had some tickets which clients were not going to be able to use. So, unlike some of the other sponsors who initially made no effort to re-use their tickets, this company offered the spares to their staff. At least the tickets got used! And no, we are not talking top-tier 4-figure tickets, these were more reasonably priced 3rd tier, and good seats they were too as you can see from the photos above).

So came the Monday morning, and off we headed to the Park. Meeting at Paddington station we were initially going to just use the Central line up to Stratford, but the “official advise” with the tickets was to use the Hammersmith & City line to West Ham and walk from there so we decided (uncharacteristically it has to be said!) to take the recommended route even though it was longer both in distance and time. And thank goodness we did – the train was never packed, we got seats the entire way, and when we got to West Ham it was a pleasant 20 minute stroll from the station along well-signed route to the Park itself, with a steady stream of fellow visitors but no crowds. All in all a very pleasant journey, no hassles or crowds. We heard later that the Central line was pretty packed, and Stratford was described as “extremely busy”, so taking the recommended alternative route was definitely the right thing to do! Indeed, once we were in the Park we did walk past the main entrance from Stratford and you could see the huge crowds coming from there. But more of that later.

Walking the Greenway to the Park you start to catch the odd glimpse of the Orbit and the Stadium and then, over a massive footbridge, you come face to face with the Park – quite a sight. Again no queues to get in at this side, just a swift and efficient set of entrances. Complete with airport-style scanner to check nobody was carrying metal objects it would appear. And here we saw the first sign of how major a fiasco the whole G4S issue has been, for whilst there were plenty of squaddies in uniform manning the entrances and scanners, there were no sign of any civilian guards at all. The whole G4S situation being a very salutary lesson to anyone who thinks it is a good idea to award their contracts to the lowest bidder – there’s a reason the lowest bidder is cheaper than anyone else, and it’s rarely a reason in your favour! The security check was swift and painless, with everyone in good humour including the squaddies laughing and joking with the visitors (quite a difference from most airport security). Yes, it’s the usual placing of bags and coats on the conveyor to be scanned, along with any metal you might have like wallets, keys, coins, belts and the like – I did ask if I should take my belt off, the attendant said I could chance it but it’s better to take the belt off rather than to get searched. I did look over at the squaddies in their uniforms and thought “Oh, I don’t know…” but decided to go with their advice anyway 😉

Once in to the Park, we discovered we had entered pretty much at the very east of the park, with our venue being at the very west. Which meant we would get to explore the entire park without having to double-back on ourselves (except for going out again), which was useful. The landscapers have done a great job, there being masses of flowers as you enter, making the whole think look beautiful. One we entered and started walking past the Stadium, we encountered a food court. Deciding to give in and chance it, we were pleasantly surprised at just how quick the service was with minimal queues we got served in under a couple of minutes at the most. Plenty of seating too, we managed to grab a table in the shadow of the Orbit which, it turns out, you need to buy a ticket to go up, and you must buy them in advance. It didn’t look that busy which made us wonder whether people realised you could buy tickets – apparently you get excellent views from the top of what can best be described as a roller coaster someone left out to melt in the sun!

Strolling through the Park en route to the 15,000 seater Riverbank Arena where our event (mens hockey as it turned out) was to take place, we first passed the main entrance from Stratford. Now, this is also right next to the Waterpolo Arena and Aquatics Centre, but even so the crowds here were massive, clear indication of just how busy Stratford must be! That said even at its busiest, the park was no unbearable, and crowds soon thinned out as you moved pass the pinch point.

There’s plenty to see, especially in terms of landscaping which suggests a decent legacy, it was very pleasant strolling through the grounds, past the various exhibitions and “installations” as we meandered to our arena, catching a glimpse of what must have been the BBC outdoor studio (judging by its placement and view) perched atop a pile of shipping containers!

Once in our seats for the Spain v Pakistan match, we settled down to 70 minutes of world-class action from two well-matched teams, as reflected by the final 1-1 score – both goals being scored within 1 minute of each other as Pakistan got the first goal and Spain then rushed up the pitch and scored the equaliser right away. Now, I know very little about hockey so I can’t really say much about it other than it was fun to watch, with plenty of action across the pitch, although toward the end of the game the crowd were becoming noticeable restless – a Mexican wave was started and went round the arena 4 times before the pitch action picked up and the wave died down. After the match finished we headed out of the arena, noticing that many people were staying in their seats. Turned out that the ticket was for a session which comprises 2 matches, not just the one. Bonus! Thankfully we discovered this before leaving the Arena completely, so back we went to our seats ready for the second match, Netherlands v India (well that would explain the groups of people throughout the audience dressed in orange, at least). Sitting back down after the warm-up and the National Anthems, we were treated to a much faster paced game this time, leading to an overall 3-2 win for Netherlands after a cracking game (you could tell it was much more exciting, no Mexican waves).

A quick word on the inevitable question of Empty Seats. The west stand across from us obviously had the top price corporate seating, and yes it is fair to say that even at the peak there were a lot of empty seats over there. However, the rest of the arena (which comprised the vast majority of the seats) was well over 99% full, with only the occasional empty seat here and there.

After the matches were over it was time to stroll back through the Park to the Greenway, detouring via the Megastore naturally for a bit of a browse. We timed our arrival very well, as the queue to get in was fast-moving (a good walking pace throughout the entire queue) whereas when we came out there was a much more noticeable and slower queue. Inside the shop is huge, and sells pretty much all the sort of stuff you would expect from key rings and pins through t-shirts and bags to collectible signed framed photos and on to cups, mugs, coins, memorabilia for the first two London Olympics, cushions… you name it they probably had it, with the sort of pricing one would expect. Not really much more to say about the shop; it’s a merchandise store. And yes I bought myself a couple of T-shirts (having bought the obligatory Games souvenir programme earlier in the day – at £10 for a 196 page packed A4 book it is certainly far better value than pretty much any other programme I’ve ever seen, I must admit).

Our exit (Greenway again) was very lightly populated, although it was quite strange seeing so many people coming in as we were leaving, but that’s the advantage of having so many sessions spread throughout the entire day. The marshals who had done a wonderful job of guiding people on the way in were doing an equally good job of being cheerful and guiding people out, bidding them goodbye and so forth. If you get a chance, high-five at least one of them. I did, and it made her day as it was the first time anyone had done so she said 🙂
Trains back from West Ham were also nicely empty (not empty, but plenty of seats) and the journey back round to Paddington was suitably sedate. Definitely going to follow travel recommendations from event organisers in the future!

And so that was my day out at the Olympics. Unexpected, but extremely good fun! I’m so glad I got the opportunity to go, it really is a once-in-a-lifetime thing and I can look back fondly in years to come and remember that I Was There. It was helped by the weather being lovely all day, of that there is no doubt, but the Olympic Park is beautiful, and I am particularly pleased to note that they plan to keep most of it for the future – after the Olympics they will close it for 1 year whilst they remodel, move some of the venues, scaling them back but keeping them, then re-opening in July 2013 as a sports venue (presumably also concert venue) and people will be able to swim in the Aquatics centre as well as admire the landscaped park itself.

A most memorable day out, hopefully some of the photos convey a glimpse of what it was like (and we were even seen in the crowd on the telly). Thanks for the ticket, Wai!