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.


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.

Wenlock watch update: Shameless showboating

This blog was created to convey the London Olympic experience by fusing years of journalistic practice with the glowing white heat of social media and citizen reporting. It is, therefore, something of a surprise to discover that its most popular work so far concerns a mouthless mascot.
Yet is that not a perfect metaphor for life itself? Sometimes someone thrusts a mutant Teletubby into your hand and you just have to run with it. Inspire A Generation indeed.
Having broken the biggest story of the Games so far by revealing Wenlock’s shock no-show at the Olympic Park and following up with an exclusive report of a rare sighting, this blog has continued to keep a close eye on the feckless figurehead’s movements.
It pains me to say that the evidence is incontrovertible: Wenlock is a shameless showboating mercenary who turns up only when he sees a chance of money and fame for himself. (Some may argue that this makes him a perfect mascot for London in 2012, particularly its bankers and politicians, but this blog chooses to take a less cynical view.)
I can exclusively reveal that Wenlock was nowhere to be seen at Wembley last week at the South Korea v Gabon match. Nor did he deign to put in an appearance at the women’s basketball on Friday morning. In fact, once again there was no sign of him anywhere in the Olympic Park that day.
I also scanned television pictures of the men’s tennis final but there was no trace of Wenlock even at Wimbledon. (He may have feared being attacked by a disgusted member of The Wombles, well known for their work ethic and surely appalled by his work-shy foppery.)
But where was Wenlock only too happy to be seen at the weekend? At the Olympic Stadium, of course. Cavorting around on prime-time television as Britain won triple gold on Saturday and Usain Bolt took the 100 metres title on Sunday. Most shamelessly of all, he was also thrusting golden Wenlocks into the hands of Olympic champions. There can be no doubt that he has signed a lucrative image rights deal with the Olympic organisers and will be rubbing himself with cash as innocent children pester their parents into ordering golden Wenlocks from the London 2012 website. But Wenlock is nothing if not a thoroughly modern mascot. Not content with this barefaced commercialism, he took to Twitter to boast about it and secure yet more free advertising:

Even here, Wenlock cannot help but reveal his true colours. A fan responds to his tweet by asking if he will be at the canoe sprint on Wednesday. His response is no surprise to those of us who have come to know him well — nothing but snooty silence. (I think by now we can all imagine him glancing at his phone in disbelief. “Canoe slalom? Are you kidding? I don’t get out of bed for anything less than a 20 million TV audience!”)
One other possible reason for Wenlock’s elusiveness has recently come to my attention. I have been struck by how some female readers of this blog have leapt to his defence. Despite having been branded creepy and terrifying by a leading American expert, Wenlock is clearly something of a ladies’ mascot. One female friend of the blog has described him as “very cute” and “quite cuddly when I met him”. I was, of course, too polite to ask any more but I suspect Wenlock may be especially hard to spot during the day as he is still sleeping off some high living from the night before.
Surely it is high time that Wenlock explained himself. If he wants to prove he is not just a  ruthless glory-hunter, I challenge him to meet me at the women’s football semi-final this afternoon or the handball quarter-finals on Wednesday night. Rest assured he will not escape tough questioning just because he is a non-human. An exemplary precedent has already been set in this area…

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.