Finishing lines

British athletes often described their experience of the London Olympics as “surreal”. They have been told that this is not strictly correct, unless they crossed the finishing line with a fish stapled to their heads. But you know what they mean. It’s felt both vividly real and strangely unreal at the same time. It’s been the same for people who live in London. The Olympics happen somewhere else, in faraway places. We’ve watched them on TV for decades. Can they really have been taking place just a few stops along the railway line? It doesn’t seem quite right. When the words “Olympic Stadium” flashed up during the TV coverage, I instinctively thought of somewhere overseas. Even the captions looked a little foreign. Were these nights of glittering athletics really coming from East London, not Berlin, Stockholm or Zurich?
But it was definitely here. We saw the Olympic rings and bright pink signs all over the city. We wandered in the bewildering new world known as the Olympic Park that had risen from an industrial wasteland. We saw extraordinary feats of athleticism and determination. We had a ball. We cried, yelled and despaired. We became enthused by sports we had never seen before. “Women’s handball on BBC 2 now!” is a text message I never thought I’d send.
The sheer intensity of the experience added to the strangeness. Many normal years of exhausting sporting drama were compressed into two weeks, befuddling our senses of proportion and time. Did Andy Murray really beat Roger Federer in a final at Wimbledon? And can that really have been only a week ago? So much has happened since then that it feels almost like a minor event from another era.
We have also been at the centre of a massive mind control exercise. The state broadcaster has manipulated our emotions with slick propaganda (and some of it has really been beautifully slick) on multiple TV channels and radio stations as well as the internet, incessantly pumping out the message that this is all truly amazing. We have been introduced to British athletes we did not know and felt ourselves feeling desperately connected to them only moments later. Advertising everywhere from billboards to chocolate bars has ensured there is no escape. Our systems have been shot through with a nerve-scrubbing, red, white and blue concoction of delirious excitement. Now suddenly someone has yanked out the needle. And that feels strange too. The skies have turned grey, the TV is back to normal and it’s an ordinary London day again.
If you have been to some exotic or interesting place as a journalist, people ask you afterwards: “What was it like?” I used to feel indignant about that. Read my stories, I’d think, then you’ll know what it was like. But I came to understand that news stories don’t do a great job of telling people “what it’s like”. They’re mainly about fitting quotes and facts into boxes. Good journalists try to give a sense of atmosphere and “local colour” but it’s hard to convey an experience completely. This blog has been an experiment, an attempt to transmit a little of what it’s been like to be a spectator and London resident during the Olympics through words, images and sounds.
It’s been great, it’s been moving, it’s been strange, it’s been ridiculous. It’s been part corporate mega-event, part giant love-in with a sporting theme.
I like to think the blog itself has been a bit like the Olympics. People from many nations have found their way here — more than 40 countries, apparently, from Chile to Malaysia. However you got here, whether it was because I badgered you into looking, because a friend recommended the site or because you typed “bongo cam Eton Dorney” or “how to make a Wenlock costume” into a search engine, thank you for stopping by. Special thanks to all those who have provided material for posts, ideas and feedback.
The blog is called Dispatches from 2012 because my experience of previous Olympics is that they’re almost like a foreign country or another planet. I’ve enjoyed creating these dispatches from Olympic London and hope you’ve enjoyed reading them.
Inexplicably, the International Olympic Committee has not seen fit to bestow a medal on this blog but readers may be relieved to know that I have procured my own reward for my services to the Olympic movement — a chocolate Wenlock.

Andrew Gray

Wenlock watch: the final chapter

Historic Handshake
With the Olympic flame extinguished, the last chapter in the biggest story of the Games can finally be told. I have withheld the conclusion to Wenlock-gate until now, fearing it would overshadow the entire global festival and relegate Bolt, Phelps, Farah, Hoy and Ennis to mere footnotes in a chapter of Olympic history that could so easily have been entitled not “London 2012” but “Where the hell was the mascot?”
As most of the world surely knows, this blog broke the sensational news that Wenlock was nowhere to be found at the Olympic Park on the first Sunday of the Games. It then stayed ahead of the chasing international media pack by reporting a rare sighting and raising serious questions about Wenlock’s welfare before finally, if regretfully, publishing a hard-hitting report of his shameless showboating.
Lesser news outlets may have rested on their laurels at that point and waited for the Pulitzers to pile up. But this blog forged fearlessly ahead. It returned to the Olympic Park last week determined to find the mysterious mascot and confront him over his erratic antics. With the help of an expert Wenlock-tracker, I visited the spot where he was last seen. But it was eerily empty. In a quiet corner at the other end of the park, however, we finally found some traces of our quarry.
Like any celebrity, Wenlock has “people”. A posse of volunteers stood guard at a sign that proclaimed he would appear later that evening. Being a big shot, Wenlock did not turn up on time. He was a whole 15 minutes late. He then sent his personal assistant Bianca onto a stage to whip a crowd of youngsters into a frenzy ahead of his arrival. The reclusive blob of cooled molten metal deigned to appear only when everyone had yelled his name several times.
He proceeded to show off to the crowd, flooring Bianca in a shock pseudo-judo move. In the best traditions of investigative journalism, I managed to capture some grainy undercover footage of the incident:

As children queued to have their photo taken with Wenlock, I challenged Bianca about his behaviour. In the interests of fairness, I have to note that Bianca appeared to have good answers to a lot of my questions. She pointed out that the sign stated clearly where and when Wenlock could be found each day. I boldly suggested Wenlock could have tweeted his appearances in advance so that more people would know how to find him. I even went so far as to allege that Wenlock may not be doing his own Twitter, as his paws did not seem well suited to mobile telephone keypads. Bianca calmly explained that “no one of importance” handled their own Twitter account.
In response to my suggestion that London 2012 could have employed several Wenlocks, she said there could be only one. (She may have been channelling Queen, who seem to have been a favourite in the soundtrack of London 2012). Apparently this same rule is followed by Disney in their theme parks. A leading authority on these matters has told me there is only one Mickey “in the house of mouse” at any one time.
Nevertheless I remained determined to confront Wenlock himself. I have asked questions of world leaders. I have covered wars. But as child after child hugged Wenlock and beamed at having a picture taken with him, I confess that my nerve faltered. Even the brave boys of our armed forces wanted to get a photo with the irascible renegade. In the face of such great affection, I could not find it in my heart to grill the girder offshoot. When I finally came face-to-camera with this one-eyed wonder, I decided it was time to embrace the Olympic spirit and shook his paw to seal our reconciliation. Some may even allege that I joined Wenlock in an Usain Bolt-style celebration. But photographic evidence of any such shenanigans will remain even more elusive than Wenlock himself.
As Wenlock heads off into the London sunset to join other former Games mascots in a life free of official burdens, this blog wishes him well and thanks him for providing material for several posts which might otherwise have required something resembling actual journalism.

Of basketball and bowler tossing

The Basketball Arena
At an arena in London’s Olympic Park, about 12,000 people sang songs by The Beatles and Oasis, stomped their feet and clapped their hands, rose up and down in Mexican waves and cheered displays by a group of gymnasts and the Crazy Dunkers, a troupe of trampolining French acrobats. Members of the crowd kissed, danced and played imaginary bongo drums on the big screens and heard about 150 short blasts of high-energy pop music.
Also in there somewhere were a couple of women’s basketball games.
The whole show (it’s nothing if not a show) was presided over by an American called Eddie, a stadium announcer, match commentator and master of ceremonies all rolled into one. Eddie has a deep “let’s get ready to rumble”-type voice and he knows how to use it. “We’re going to see some great basketball and most of all we’re going to have a great experience together, having fun and cheering on these wonderful athletes who have come so far and worked so hard to be here,” Eddie’s voice boomed ahead of the first game between Angola and Croatia.
In what has become a hallmark of my journalistic career, I prepared meticulously for the match by printing out background material and left it at home by mistake. I could just about remember that neither Croatia nor Angola had won a match at the Games so far. (This isn’t as bad as it might seem because, bizarrely, you get a point for losing in Olympic basketball.) I think it’s fair to say this match was not a classic, even though there were some nice bits of skill. Croatia built up a big lead and won comfortably.
But Eddie, assisted by English sidekick Andy, kept the crowd in high spirits. Yes, British people who had got up early on a Friday morning and travelled from far and wide in packed trains, and who were now sitting in a large windowless room watching players most of them didn’t know, were delighted to get involved in kiss cams, bongo cams and stomping along to Queen’s We Will Rock You. The Olympics seems to be bringing out the extrovert in a lot of people.
There certainly wasn’t any chance of catching a quiet nap. Silence is not golden at the basketball arena. No pause in play goes unpunctuated. This blog’s chief music critic counted more than 70 snippets of pop zapped out in the second match of the session, a classy and entertaining game in which Australia defeated Russia.
“Ladies and gentlemen, if you enjoyed this game, go ahead and tell your friends on social media. Tell them to snap up some tickets and come and visit us!” Eddie’s rich tones urged afterwards over more thumping music. “We hope that the session has entertained as well as inspired you to play and follow the wonderful game of basketball. Thank you!”
Outside, the park was much busier than earlier in the week. With the athletics starting in the main stadium, suddenly there were 200,000 people around instead of 100,000. It was manageable but you felt it wasn’t too far away from getting a bit uncomfortable. Did this prompt the organisers to suggest subliminally to people that things weren’t really that great so they should head home? How else to explain Radiohead, The Smiths and Joy Division coming out of the loudspeakers instead of the usual feel-good hits?
On the park’s main walkway, men in stripey blazers, straw boaters and tweed jackets accompanied by women in colourful summer dresses were taking a rather different approach to sport from Eddie and his gang at the Basketball Arena. These enthusiasts came from The Chap magazine, whose stated aim is to “take a wry look at the modern world through the steamed-up monocle of a more refined age”. They staged events such as the “tug of hair” (in which two teams pulled on the ends of an enormous handlebar moustache), sauntering and bowler hat tossing. The Chap stages its own Olympiad, which also features the cucumber sandwich discus and umbrella jousting.
Britain has moved ahead of France in the medals table and I can report another victory in the same vein. Two French people were tucking into pie and mash in the middle of the Olympic Park today without even a hint of disdain.

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.