It's the end of the first week of the London 2012 Olympics and I've learned two valuable life lessons: first, grown men will fight small children for the chance to sit at the front of the DLR and pretend to be the driver; and second, don't jump up for a full-on Mexican Wave whilst holding a plastic pint glass full of lager.
I'll admit it, I've had conflicted feelings about the 2012 Olympics ever since London won the bid. And I'm not sure that my new hobby of watching the Games from the sofa with a packet of Tunnocks Caramel Wafers and a bottle of rose is quite what the organisers meant by "Olympics legacy". However, since the glorious Opening Ceremony I've been rethinking my attitude.
I'd been dreading the ceremony, fearing a reprise of the toe-curling "This is London" section of the closing ceremony in Beijing. I don't think many of us could have swallowed any more giant topiary with Leona Lewis rising up out of it like one of Professor Sprout's mandrakes. So, thanks again, Danny Boyle et el. for not mortifying us on the world stage. Class act, Mr B. Not to be outdone, of course, Mayor Boris Johnson presented the world premiere of his "Great Dangle" performance art piece mid-week, hinting at what could have been had they not upped the budget for the Opening Ceremony.
Like everyone else without handy corporate connections and unlimited funds to get my hands on great tickets, I put my bids into the lottery and crossed my fingers I wouldn't bankrupt myself. Having failed to get any tickets at all, I then spent a good few days stubbornly trawling throught the ticketing system before surfacing for air with some tickets to niche sports grasped firmly in my virtual fingers. So, my up-close and personal experience of the London Olympics consists of beach volleyball, fencing and women's football.
One of the best things about the London Olympics for me has been the concurrent 2012 Festival (http://festival.london2012.com/), which offers up a boatload of great (often free) events around the country. On Tuesday I kicked off my last day as an Olympics virgin with a trip to one of the festival's more eccentric offerings: a life-sized bouncy castle replica of Stonehenge. What's not to love?
Jeremy Deller's "Sacrilege" is free to all and adult-friendly. It was the first time in years that I'd been on a bouncy castle, and you know what? It was brilliant. In fact, the only thing that could have made it better was if Derek Smalls had popped out from behind the 'henge with some dancing dwarfs.
Shoes off, bouncing in and out of the standing stones, doing seat drops in the middle, the kids and I agreed it was loads better than when we visited the real thing last year. Then we sat glumly in the car park eating tepid, curled-up sandwiches after looking at the 'henge in the mist from behind ropes.
From "Sacrilege" I headed into town to have a look at the short-lived "Hatwalk". In a pop-up event celebrating London's creativity and heritage, some of the most famous milliners in the world created hats for some of the most iconic statues in the capital. I must confess, my outright favourite was Stephen Jones' blingtastic creation for the sour-faced King George IV (and his horse) in Trafalgar Square, but Lord Nelson's patriotic confection took the silver.
Having decided to follow official advice to hoof it everywhere, I walked across Westminster Bridge to the South Bank to see if I could take a boat to the ExCel later on in the week. The pavements were crammed with soldiers, civilians, stewards and genial "Games Ambassadors." Yes, there were the obligatory flocks of tourists who inexplicably stop mid-stride and look upwards, only to incur the incandescent sweary wrath of locals, but overall it was a pretty relaxed scene.
Down by the river I spoke to a friendly, yet clueless, ticketing agent. "Can I take a boat to the ExCel?" -- "Yes, to the O2." -- "Isn't that on the other side of the river?" -- "From what?" -- "The ExCel." -- "No: the ExCel is in the O2. ... Isn't it?" -- "Er, no. It's on the other side of the river. So, do you stop on the north side of the river at all?" -- "I don't know. Which side is the north?" Sigh. I refrained from pointing out the giant clue that was The South Bank Centre looming over us and decided to take the tube instead.
Back to Westminster and St James' Park, where I was overtaken by several squads of soldiers marching in quick formation towards the beach volleyball arena as I meandered towards a bench to eat my chicken sandwich and fend off hordes of birds.
From the off, I've suspected that beach volleyball was one of the must-have tickets for lads' night out corporate jollies. A bunch of lithe, tanned, almost naked, seriously fit girls jumping around and shrieking in the name of serious sports? Hey, what's not to like, chaps? Rather cleverly, the man sitting next to me seemed to be on a first date. How great is that? You get to woo someone with Olympics tickets whilst watching great-looking girls in bikinis jump up and down. Sounds like a win-win situation to me.
Previous fears of taking hours to go through "airport-style security" were allayed by the polite and efficient young soldiers on security detail who got us all through the metal detectors smoothly. Then we were greeted by a phalanx of lovely, enthusiastic ladies of a certain age who told us where the bar was and warned us not to drink too much. Aw, bless.
Which takes me on to the loos. Now, our medal campaign may just have been given a massive kick up the Wiggins (huzzah), but if queuing for the loo was an Olympic sport then British women (honourable mention to the Irish) would be world-beaters. Happily, if the loos at Horseguards are some of Michael Eavis' then they must be from his personal collection for very close friends and family only. They're far removed from the fetid plastic hellholes I've endured at Glastonbury. In fact, they were actual proper loos with running water and everything. Ten points to the organisers, though I may have to detract a few hundredths of a point for the petty white-out stickers over the brand names on the hand driers. Really, LOCOG? Was "Blue Peter" filming in there or something?
Finally, having located the bar, bumped into some friends and bought drinks at a not completely outrageous mark-up, my husband and I took our seats in the arena and admired the frankly breathtaking scene. We were fairly low down so didn't have the spectacular views of the London Eye that people above us did, but we could still see the tops of the Houses of Parliament, the Admiralty and Horseguards crowded in around us. I was instantly smitten and ready to forgive Seb Coe and LOCOG almost everything.
While we waited for the action to start we were were greeted by a preternaturally perky girlie host, who was there to introduce the DJs and MC and help whip us into a frenzy of audience participation. She was backed up by a troupe of limber young dancers in '50s beach wear and some comedy sand rakers. Unlike many other sports, which require absolute silence from the crowd during play, beach volleyball positively encourages a big element of audience participation and so we had many campy Frankie Avalon-style beach capers and formation raking to the "Benny Hill Show" theme tune throughout the evening.
When the players came out for the first match of the night the men around us were gutted that the Canadian players had chosen to hide their assets under black leggings. However, the hardy Russian pair delighted with their teeny tiny hot pink bikini bottoms, which produced some hyper-ventilating in the row behind us and a thunderstruck, "Oh my god! They're really fit! Oh my god! I can't believe it!" Time for the first Mexican Wave of the night, which resulted in me dousing myself in lager after I jumped up too enthusiastically, drink in hand.
Despite the novelty value of scantily glad girls jumping after balls right in front of us, the atmosphere took a while to get going. Initially, the crowd seemed unwilling to get into the spirit of things and it felt like being in the audience warm-up for "Gladiators," albeit without the over-excited toddlers and handwritten "I love Jet" signs. The DJs did their best to get the crowd going -- "Altogether now, oooooo-laaayyyy!" -- but for the hour it just felt a little bit forced: more Pontin's than Pacha. Big screens displayed neon instructions in the official Olympics font -- "Clapping!", "Ball Out" -- to get us in the mood, but they just reminded me of my friend Big Alice's karaoke bar, where her ultra-cheap system tried to encourage singers with messages like, "You lovely sing well!" and "Yes doll baby!"
The players, so the increasingly exasperated MC told us, feed off the crowd's energy, so it was beyond time to unleash the dad dancing, out-of-time clapping and faintly embarrassed foot-stamping. As the night progressed and, in our section at least, the booze started to flow more freely, everyone loosened up a lot. Plus, as darkness fell the empty corporate/sponsor/official seats started to fill up on one side with well-oiled men in expensive raincoats carrying trays of beer, and on the other with delighted young squaddies. The producers even ramped up the audience participation by sending the girlie commentator up into the crowd where she egged on fans dressed as Team USA gimps to shake their booty for the cameras.
The men's matches were largely an excuse for the predominantly male crowd to nip to the bar and/or loo, but the men's outfits drew some justified outrage from the watching women. Personally, I don't get all hot and bothered by the sight of big blokes jumping around in budgie-smugglers, but some of my closest friends do. Plus, hello, what about at least a nod to equal opportunity, beach volleyball? The Americans (gasp) hadn't even bothered to wax their legs, and the Spanish had decided to play dressed as painters and decorators for some reason. Later on, the Italian men turned up fully dressed, wearing what looked like full wetsuits under their vests and knee-length shorts. Come on, it wasn't that cold. I tell you, girls: it's just not cricket.
It was a completely different scene at the women's fencing Thursday night, where the only flesh on display was one demure (nut 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 completely 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!