Wenlock Watch: breaking news!

Having exposed what has quickly become known around the world as Wenlockgate, the scandal of the missing Olympic mascot, this blog is staying ahead of the pack with the latest news on this major story. I can report that Wenlock apparently re-emerged yesterday but serious questions remain about his welfare and wellbeing.
First, Wenlock’s Twitter feed twitched into life after several days of silence:

But expert mascotologists noted there was no evidence of Wenlock himself in the picture, raising questions about whether he had actually been at the rowing at all. The Twitter account later posted a picture of a bizarre statue of the fugitive figurehead but once again there was no clear sign of life.
Even if these tweets come from the real Wenlock, that still makes him about as active on Twitter as an empty seat at an Olympic venue, which has its own Twitter feed. Three tweets since the start of the Games is really not much Wenlock.
Later came the most exciting development of the day. One of this blog’s many correspondents spotted him in the Olympic Park and captured this undercover shot:
Wenlock was apparently posing with visitors in the park, a clear improvement on Sunday, when he was nowhere to be seen. But surely I cannot be alone in finding this picture deeply disturbing? It seems Wenlock has been cornered by Olympic “volunteers” and is about to be forcibly returned to a secure location.
Concerns mounted for the enigmatic girder offshoot even as this report was going to press when it emerged the London 2012 mascots’ official website had gone offline:
Surely the use of police uniform cannot be lightly dismissed. Is this a coded cry for help to Scotland Yard?
Among the other questions requiring urgent answers:
Was Wenlock stung into making a bit of an effort by this blog’s stunning exposé yesterday? Is he the world’s laziest mascot and just not capable of any more?
Is he a member of the Amalgamated Mascotworkers and Other Adults In Fancy Dress Union and bound by their strict restrictions on working hours? Is he not allowed to work weekends or is he protesting against his pay and conditions by working to rule?
Does he remain in the clutches of terrorists or criminals who let him out briefly in an effort to put the world’s media off the scent after yesterday’s scoop? Did he make a brief break for freedom before being recaptured, as the picture clearly suggests?
Did Sebastian Coe, the chairman of the Games organising committee, decide to run around in a Wenlock suit for a few hours yesterday just to get a break from all those questions about empty seats?
Any sightings of Wenlock, or theories about his bizarre behaviour, can be posted below or reported to dispatchesfrom2012 (at) gmail (dot) com. They will, of course, be treated with the seriousness and sensitivity this matter deserves.

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A walk in the park, part three: Tales of the Riverbank

The hockey at London 2012 is held in the Riverbank Arena. It’s called the Riverbank Arena because it sounds better than The Temporary Stadium With No Roof In The City Where It  Rains A Lot.
On Sunday evening, it rained a lot. But the downpours stopped before the main event, the British women’s opening game against Japan. I had, of course, done extensive research to prepare for the match. The Guardian’s guide to the Games revealed that the British women’s team were even better than the men’s and were also a “likeable, photogenic bunch” (what a British liberal upmarket newspaper has to say when it wants to say “hot!!!!”). It also noted that some of the teams they need to beat — Argentina, Germany and Australia — “bring out the bulldog spirit in the British fans” (what a British liberal upmarket newspaper has to say when it wants to say “countries we fought wars against or dumped convicts in”).
The temperature on the exposed seating was chilly but the atmosphere was decidedly jolly. Lots of people waving union jack flags and dressed in red, white and blue. There was even a baby in a union jack romper suit and hat. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more British, in walked the country’s ultimate Olympic darlings, ice dance champions Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, to watch the match. A trumpeter and drummer blasted out tunes and Mexican waves swept around the arena. “Hockey, hockey, hockey!” shouted someone. “Oi, oi, oi!” came the reply.
Olympic events generally follow the American approach to sports presentation these days and hockey is no exception. A couple of hosts entertained the crowd on the big screen. Every time a penalty corner was awarded, tense, slow beats thumped out from the speakers. Video review of an umpire’s decision? Time to play Rockwell’s Somebody’s Watching Me. The big screen even flashed up the message “Applause!” when it felt we weren’t being enthusiastic enough.
On the field (and it’s quite a field — a bright blue artificial surface with bright pink edges), the British women took to their task with gusto. You could hear the whack of stick on ball and stick on stick, and see the water slosh up under the floodlights as the players swept their sticks across the surface. This blog is not in the business of match reports (you can find those here and here) but can record that the British team demolished the Japanese 4-0. They scored all four of their goals before half time and looked very impressive to this untrained eye. The untrained eye also learned that hockey is a tough game — British captain Kate Walsh was hit so hard with a stick during the game that she needed surgery for a fractured jaw.
The eye was caught not just by the British players’ performance but also by their all-red kit. Stella McCartney’s designs for the British Olympic team have been criticised for being generally too blue, partly because teams in red are apparently more successful. On the basis of the British display on Sunday night, there might be something to that. The British men who won a surprise bronze in the gymnastics yesterday also wore red outfits. Any chance we can throw some red bibs over our medal hopes in the athletics next week?

A walk in the park, part two: Ten things…

…you may or may not learn from a visit to London’s Olympic Park:

1. London 2012 may have been short of private security guards but it definitely isn’t short of volunteers. The “games makers” in their purple jackets practically formed a guard of honour along the route from Stratford station yesterday, pointing the way with big foam hands and shouting directions through loudspeakers from high chairs.
2. The Olympic Park can feel like the grounds of a giant trade fair or exhibition. But there’s an impressive, proper park in there, with wild flowers, grass, trees and other greenery. Some quiet corners of the park looked positively rural yesterday.
3. You can buy food and drink that’s not from McDonald’s and Coca Cola. It’s almost all fast food but Mexican, Asian, hog roast, pizzas, pretzels and more are all on offer. Even the smell of Cornish pasties was wafting around.
The thing about the sponsorship by Coke, McDonald’s and others is that no competing brands are allowed at Olympic venues. So you can have fried chicken in the Olympic Park but it’s generic “Southern Fried Chicken”. (The only colonel round here would be one of those soldiers drafted in to plug the security gaps.) There’s no Starbucks but there is “speciality coffee”, whatever that is. It is a little strange, like living in a parallel world in which most other commercial brands have been wiped out.
4. While you can choose not to eat at McDonald’s and not to drink Coke, you can’t choose to pay with any card other than Visa. Signs above the tills at the concession stalls declare that they are “proud” to accept only Visa. This is truly baffling. Would any normal shop put up a sign saying they were “proud” not to serve certain people?
5. A small bottle of Coke will set you back £2.30. Fancy an Olympic T-shirt? That’ll be £23.
6. There don’t seem to be many covered areas, which seems like a bit of an oversight in a city where the weather is notoriously changeable.
Almost all the sports venues have roofs but there aren’t many places to shelter if you’re wandering in the park. Only the giant McDonald’s, the London 2012 megastore and the sponsors’ pavilions seem to be an option and you have to queue to get into most of those. It rained yesterday so there were plenty of ponchos in evidence and more than a few spectator soakings. “Once in a lifetime experience,” smiled one cold and wet visitor.
7. Those sponsors’ pavilions are scattered around the park but their logos are not visible inside the sports arenas.
8. Loudspeakers around the park blare out up-tempo pop music from the likes of Take That, Wham!, Chaka Kahn. And…er… Radiohead.
9. People were definitely having a good time. But I’m not sure it’s quite got the full festival atmosphere yet. Maybe the organisers should scoop up some street entertainers (the good ones) from Covent Garden and send them east.
10. The velodrome, nicknamed “The Pringle” (which must be very annoying to the Olympic marketing people as it’s not the official provider to London 2012 of snacks composed of dehydrated potatoes, vegetable oil, vegetable fat, rice flour, wheat starch, emulsifier (E 471), maltodextrin, salt and modified rice starch) looks great.

The mystery of the missing mascot

More dispatches from the Olympic Park will follow later but one question simply cannot wait: Where’s Wenlock?
Wenlock, for the uninitiated, is the official London 2012 Olympic mascot and this blog was under strict instructions to secure photographs of him in his natural habitat for some of its younger followers. I took those instructions very seriously. The motto of these Games is Inspire A Generation, and what could be more inspiring than pictures of a grown man or woman dressed up as a weird one-eyed being with a taxi light on its head?
The Olympic Park is spread over 2.5 square kilometres, the equivalent of 257 football pitches. I trekked all over this unforgiving terrain for hours but I could see no sign of a “live” mascot. In the end, I had to settle for a statue of the elusive creature, guarded by London 2012 volunteers who made sure no one hogged too much time with him.
Frankly, I expected to be besieged by a welter of Wenlocks (maybe with Mandeville, the Paralympic mascot), posing for pictures with children and making fools of adults in the way that only men in ridiculous costumes can. But Wenlock has clearly gone AWOL or MIA.
I have conducted extensive investigative work to confirm my thesis. There can be no doubt. Searches of both Google and Flickr show no recent images of the real Wenlock, despite many thousands of people having visited the Olympic Park in the past few days. Even his Twitter feed has gone ominously quiet.
This begs some obvious questions:
Is this another contract security company G4S has failed to fulfil? Had they promised to supply 500 Wenlocks only to confess at the last minute that they had failed to find a single suitable person with a three-pointed head?
Does this mean our troops will again have to step into the breach? Are soldiers fresh from the front line in Helmand  about to discover their next assignment requires a rather different uniform? And will they get a shoulder patch or medal adorned with Wenlock as recognition for saving the nation’s blushes once more?
Will Mitt Romney declare the mascot mess-up “disconcerting” and find himself again assailed by every British politician and journalist as if he had suggested that we have outsourced the running of the Olympics to Syria’s Assad regime? (Romney must have been glad to move onto the safer ground of Middle East politics the other day after discovering just how dangerous it was to respond to the question “Is Britain ready for the Olympics?” with the answer “I don’t really know”.)
Has Wenlock been kidnapped by terrorists or organised criminals? Has a news blackout been imposed? Is this why the major media outlets have not reported on the biggest story of the Games so far?
There is a slightly serious point to all of this. The organisers have already deprived most visitors to the Olympic Park of one obvious photo opportunity by keeping the Olympic flame inside the stadium. They could at least get a few volunteers into Wenlock costumes so kids can get their picture taken with him.

Olympic power, poncho recycling and the last word on that ceremony

As the train approached its stop last night, I walked to the back of the carriage to be a vital few seconds closer to the station exit. I leapt onto the platform, vaulted the steps two at a time, sprinted home and raced up more stairs in the hope of catching Hannah Miley of Scotland and Great Britain in the final of the women’s 400 metre individual medley swimming.
Before yesterday, I had barely heard of Hannah Miley. I could easily have confused her with a character in a Disney teen movie. But she had been identified in the morning as one of Britain’s main medal hopes of the day.
That’s the power of the Olympics. Or, depending on your point of view, to paraphrase the New Radicals, maybe I’ve been brainwashed too.
I made it just in time to root for Miley. Unfortunately, she finished fifth.
That’s as close as I got to Olympic action on the first day. Away from the Olympic bubble, life in London seemed seemed remarkably unaffected by the Games. In parts of the north and southeast of the city, stations were not crowded, trains were not busy.
My first visit to the Olympic Park is later today but this blog’s northwest London correspondent was there yesterday and gave it a general thumbs-up. The landscaping, complete with wild flowers, was declared a success, the atmosphere was friendly and there was plenty of space. Attempts to hype up the mood in the basketball arena — kiss cams, bongo cams and incitations to do the macarena — were, however, not appreciated.
The organisers like to stress that these are green Games and this apparently extends to having poncho recycling bins on the site.
One thing that struck me about the park, also highlighted in some media reports, is that the Olympic flame can’t be seen outside the stadium. That seems a shame, especially as the cauldron was one of the outstanding elements of the opening ceremony.
And finally, about that ceremony. I wasn’t there (my only connection was that from my living room I could hear the fireworks booming) but my impression was that it sprang from a monster brainstorming session, quite possibly involving large amounts of drugs, in which someone yelled the word “Britain” and people shouted back whatever came into their heads.
With a bit more time to reflect, I can appreciate the energy, invention and amazing technical skill that went into the spectacle.
The British media and public seem overwhelmingly to have loved it, with a Conservative MP pretty much the only dissenting voice.
The verdict from this blog’s worldwide network of correspondents was, in that time-honoured journalistic phrase, mixed. A Perthshire correspondent used the word “hideous” at one point and reported that her six-and-half year-old son had gone off to bed in disgust after watching the first 20 minutes. Her four and three-quarter year-old daughter was, however, “loving it”.
A dispatch on Facebook from the United States declared: “Someday, someone is going to have to explain London’s Opening Ceremony to me. The best thing about it was the kids choirs at the beginning. From the nation that gave the world the Magna Carta, Parliament, Shakespeare, the Beatles, and my mother, the best they could do was celebrate the National Health Service?”
A north London source declared the ceremony “bonkers”. I am pretty sure this was meant as a compliment.
But the last word goes to the blog’s chief Scotland correspondent (who also reported an impressive 37,000 crowd in Glasgow the other day for Spain v Japan in the men’s football). Well known for having his finger on the pulse of the popular mood, he pronounced the ceremony amazing: “Queen and James Bond, Mr Bean and Gregory’s Girl? What’s not to love?”

A tale of two torches

The official London 2012 Olympic torch is “made up of an inner and an outer aluminium alloy skin, held in place by a cast top piece and base, perforated by 8,000 circles“. In April, it won the award for Britain’s Design of the Year.
Its alter-ego is made from a toilet plunger, curled gold wrapping ribbon and strips of yellow felt with the words “End Poverty” emblazoned in red.
This afternoon in Clissold Park in north London, as children splashed in a paddling pool and people ate lunch in an outdoor cafe, a few dozen activists critical of the Olympics gathered to send this alternative torch on the latest leg of its own relay.
John Thornton and a fellow activist with the "poverty torch"This relay is rather different from the official one. Needless to say, there was no Coca Cola bus. Nor were there throngs of people trying to catch a glimpse of the “poverty torch”, created by activists opposed to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and handed on to London’s Counter Olympics Network. (It’s a safe bet, I think, that the acronym was not created by chance). They, in turn, plan to pass the torch to opponents of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. Two of those opponents were in Clissold Park today, one of them dressed in a traditional long green dress with gold trim.
The small crowd cheered and clapped as John Thornton, a local disabled activist, carried the torch in his wheelchair to the park gates to get the relay going.
“Although I’ve been always very keen on sports, I’ve always been horrified by the impact of the Olympics on the host countries,” Thornton said. “It’s usually an operation for the benefit of commercial organisations, not for sports.”
After the torch had gone on its way, Gail Chester, a co-founder of CON, wearing a white T-shirt with the London 2012 logo and the words “official protester”, was talking to me when a woman stopped to ask what she was protesting about. When Chester explained, the woman said she wasn’t happy missiles were being sited in London due to the Games but, she said defiantly as she turned away, “I think the Olympics are fantastic”.
“Do you like the fact that it’s costing £24 billion?” Chester called after her.*
Masked activist at the "poverty torch" relay*The official cost to taxpayers is about £9 billion but a Sky News investigation concluded in January that the true price was more than £12 billion and could be more than £24 billion if other items of Olympics-related spending were included.