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.

Final medals

The final medals have been awarded at London 2012 but this blog has a few more to bestow in events so far criminally overlooked by the International Olympic Committee:

Plain-speaking: Quotes with Candour
“I just want to go to Nando’s actually.” Nicola Adams, the world’s first women’s Olympic boxing champion, after winning her gold medal bout.
Silver: “Now and again rubbish things happen and this was one of those days.” Victoria Pendleton on disqualification in the women’s team cycling sprint.
Bronze: “I really hope it improves my pulling power with women, to be honest with you – yeah, I think that’s about it.” Show-jumper Scott Brash on how winning gold will change his life.

Synchronised Spinning: Don’t Blame Us!
Gold: Come to the Olympics and see the flame on telly! After hiding the flame at the bottom of the Olympic Stadium where most Olympic Park visitors couldn’t see it, organisers claimed this was no problem as it could be seen on big screens. These same people had, of course, raved about how wonderful it was to see the flame at first hand during the torch relay.
Silver: Blame Twitter! No timing data for the Olympic road race? It’s all the fault of spectators — shock horror! — using their mobile phones!
Bronze: Blame London! With baton-passing skills to rival the Jamaican sprint relay team, officials at Hampden Park in Glasgow swiftly shifted responsibility south for the Korean flag flap. BBC Scotland “understood” that it had a duty to help.

Catering without Credit: Best unbranded food at Olympic venues
Gold: Chicken balti pie, as sampled at Wembley stadium. Mutli-cultural fusion of Britain old and new. The spirit of London 2012 all wrapped up in a baked product?
Silver: Waffle served up outside the Basketball Arena (as well as on this blog). Surprisingly tasty. Belgium’s greatest contribution to the Games?
Not even worth bronze: Cheese jalapeño pretzel, served at the Riverbank Stadium. Disappointingly tasteless. But perhaps this is true of all pretzels.

It’s Official: Most ridiculous-sounding “official” suppliers
Gold: “Official Smoothie of London 2012”. Some people not happy about that.
Silver: “Official treat provider to Team GB”: Will Cadbury’s be taking Jessica Ennis, Bradley Wiggins and Mo Farah on a trip to the zoo or the cinema?
(No bronze awarded. It’s already too ridiculous)

Endurance Event: Olympic emailing
Gold: Only one team on the podium: the spam department of London 2012, long distance champions who relentlessly harried people around the world with messages they didn’t need to flog them stuff they didn’t know they wanted. Taking their cue from the giant John Lewis store next to the Olympic Park, they ensured these Games were never knowingly undersold.
As far back as April, they were excitedly declaring to international inboxes that it was “exactly one week until we celebrate 100 days to go to the start of the London 2012 Olympic Games”.
They kicked for home during the Games with daily “updates”, exhorting us to “celebrate Team GB medals with”… what else but… free postage and packing! They
proclaimed “Super Saturday”, followed by “Super Sunday” — signs of the imagination flagging there, but they soon rallied with “More Medals Monday” and kept up the unrelenting pace until the final day with an entreaty to “Keep on running to the London 2012 Shop”.
This blog has not bought so much as a Wenlock key ring from the London 2012 shop but it salutes the Olympian indefatigability of its keyboard-bashers. And it strongly suspects they’re not done yet.

On The Other Side 2: Words

At the Greenway café, where they serve Portuguese food, the Brazilian guy behind the counter says business is up because of the Olympics but not by as much as they’d hoped. A television journalist from Hong Kong and his cameraman sit at one of the tables. They’re struggling to come up with a news story every day because the Olympics are running so smoothly.
The Greenway is in Hackney Wick, where grimy and cool mingle. A refrigeration company, a car parts supplier and other unglamorous firms share the old, brown brick streetscape with artists’ studios, galleries and bars. Only the green water of a canal separates the area from the Olympic Park but this place has a very different feel. Tens of thousands of people were wandering around the park yesterday but streets in Hackney Wick were almost deserted in the hot sun. It felt a little like a small Mediterranean town at siesta time.
Some businesses here had hoped for an Olympic bonanza but it doesn’t look like they got one, maybe because they’re near one of the quieter park entrances and the official route from the station takes people around these streets, not through them.
Round the corner from the Greenway café stands The Fringe, a “pop-up” Olympic club spread over four floors. But the guy at the door says it won’t be opening today and probably won’t open again during the Olympics. There were 2,500 people there the first night but since then it’s been very quiet, he says.
By the side of the canal, an Olympic “water chariot” service looks very quiet too. (It has slashed its prices, presumably because people did not fancy paying up to £95 for a short boat trip.)
At Forman’s, an upmarket salmon smokery, they’ve gone for the corporate hospitality market in a big way. They’ve built a beach, complete with beach volleyball court, right by the canal opposite the Olympic Stadium and set up a giant screen. On the top floor, there’s a terrace bar with a view of the stadium, a small exhibition about Muhammad Ali and a big dining room (although they may not get many bookings after this review). The guy in the black suit on the door says business has been good. But it was quiet yesterday during the day. Maybe the place comes to life when Ronnie Scott’s jazz all stars strike up at night.
Along the road, at the Counter Café, inside the Stour Space gallery, a woman behind the (presumably eponymous) counter says trade is neither up nor down because of the Olympics. “Business as usual,” she says. A friendly Italian waitress at the Carlton café, where they serve elderflower iced tea on a terrace with a stadium view, says Olympic business is good but not spectacular.
The shopkeeper in the convenience store next door is not happy at all. He says the Olympics has “killed this area”. It’s never felt so dead in his three years here. He says landlords pushed up rents ahead of the Games, forcing people to move out, and some local businesses have closed down for the Olympics. They thought getting in and out of the area would be too difficult.
Outside his shop, a shiny big black taxi pulls up. An American woman in the back asks if there is a “prayer’s chance” of getting a ticket for the Olympic Park. I say it will be tough but her best bet is probably to try somewhere around the main entrance at Stratford. She says she has a good feeling and the taxi heads off in search of Olympic excitement.

(The previous post is a slideshow of Hackney Wick pictures.)

Olympic Parklife and the House of Handball

In the days of ballooning budgets, lampooned logos, ticketing fiascos, stadium wrangles and security crises, the organisers of the London Olympics must have dreamed of days like this.
Spectators glide east to Stratford on modern trains, step into a station that is busy but not overwhelming, walk the short distance to the Olympic Park and pass through security in just a few minutes.
Once inside, tens of thousands wander around in the sunshine, entertained by buskers and bands. Under the bright blue sky of a warm summer’s evening, people picnic on grassy slopes and watch athletics from the Olympic Stadium on giant screens. Cheers go up as British athletes enter the finishing strait. When a long jumper claps her hands above her head to get the crowd involved in her run-up, people on the grass clap along even though they can’t be heard in the stadium.
Even the mocked mascot Wenlock has played his part, posing for pictures with children who line up to hug him. (Yes, this blog finally came face-to-screen with the hard-to-find figurehead and a post on this historic encounter will follow later.)
That was the Olympic Park yesterday. It was a bit like walking inside one of those utopian artists’ impressions or computer animations that property developers like to produce.
This blog offers no judgement about whether this is a wise use of £9 billion of public money (or more than £12 billion or even £24 billion, or whatever the true cost). Nor does it take a definitive view on whether we are victims of a massive marketing and brainwashing operation. It simply offers this earth-splitting conclusion: People were having a good time.
The same was true inside the House of Handball. Until a day or two ago, this was the Basketball Arena. But basketball has moved to a bigger home for its final games and handball has also moved up the Olympic property ladder.
Knowing very little about handball before last night’s quarter-final between Croatia and Tunisia, I undertook the kind of painstaking research that readers have come to expect from this blog. I consulted one of the world’s leading Olympic handball experts. Or, as she might also be described, a friend who saw her first game a few days ago after winning the tickets on a chocolate wrapper. The expert imparted many deep secrets about the finer points of handball, including “there’s a ball”, “they hold it in their hands” and “there appear to be no limits on fouling, apart from when the referee randomly decides that something is unacceptable”. All of these insights proved remarkably profound.
I felt quite at home in the House of Handball. They had just about the right mix between razzmatazz and sport. (Or maybe I an just more open to being blasted with loud music at 9:30 in the evening than I am at 9 in the morning, when I was watching women’s basketball.) Handball itself looked to this untrained eye like a cross between football and basketball, with a few rugby tackles thrown in. It’s a seriously tough sport. Players seem to end up on the floor a lot. “Floor technicians” (a.k.a. volunteers with big mops) wipe away the sweat they leave behind.
It’s also a fast, high-scoring game and the players are serious athletes, even if the Croatian goalkeeper with his splodgy green top and baggy track suit bottoms looked suspiciously like he had come straight from a spot of painting and decorating.
Last night’s match had pretty much everything you could want in a spectator sport — goals, skill, athleticism, sin bin suspensions, a red card and a close contest. Tunisia were a point ahead at half time but Croatia ended up winning 25-23.
As seems to happen all over these Olympics, the crowd stomped, clapped, cheered and yelled, even though handball has absolutely no tradition in this country. (Britain created its own men’s and women’s handball teams from scratch for these Games.)
Afterwards, as people streamed towards Stratford station, the Olympic Park felt quite different from the first Sunday. There was a certain tension then. Some of the volunteers giving directions sounded a little bossy. Now, the place has found its rhythm and everyone seems relaxed. We’ve done it, their body language seems to say. We’ve done this now, day after day, and it works.
Outside the station, a volunteer in a hijab sitting on a lifeguard-style high chair sang “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands” through a loudspeaker. Down below, a young guy with a Spanish flag delighted in shouting to volunteers: “Can I have your finger?” He meant the big pink foam hands with outstretched fingers the volunteers use to point the way. The volunteers cheerfully declined. But the guy and his friends found a small pile of their objects of desire by the station entrance, grabbed one and made a run for it. Their Olympic experience was complete.