An Evening at the Olympic Park

About a week into the Olympics, London is acquitting itself in commendable fashion. Questions were raised over the ability of the public transport system to withstand the strain of the thousands of tourists expected to flood the city for the Games, over the general readiness of London to host the event, and they have been confidently put to rest.

The easiest way to get to the Olympic Park is to take the Tube to Stratford from Central London. However, we had also been told to be prepared for large crowds and tried to find an alternative route on the Tube- but when a guard brushed it off with a smile and asked us not to worry, we took the plunge. We wanted to spend more time at the Olympic Park than on the excellent but rather stuffy underground, so off we went to Stratford.

Everytime I take the Tube- I have to read. It isn’t exactly an obsession, but it is something I feel called upon to do, and so I went on with On the Road, while I satisfied the little literary snob inside me by judging a woman for reading Fifty Shades Darker. Getting off at Stratford, we walked straight into Westfield Mall, then were caught up in the lines of people swarming towards the Olympic Park. The packed crowds predicted aren’t here yet, but that is probably because the athletics events are still to begin.

The Olympic Park houses the Olympic Stadium, aquatic venues, the Riverbank Arena and some other venues. It is also home to Anish Kapoor’s controversial structure, the Orbit; it isn’t exactly a strikingly beautiful sculpture, so I hope there were good reasons for approving its installation. Visa, McDonald’s and Coca Cola provide the commercial element within the Park, as do the souvenir shops. A notch above them is the BMW pavilion, exhibiting a couple of gorgeous electric cars and some other, more familiar models.

A bit of exploring done, we headed for the Riverbank Arena where we were watching hockey. With the first match slated to begin at 7 pm, we were in for an Abu Dhabi Grand Prix kind of experience (or so I think). From a lavish golden twilight among scarcely threatening clouds to silky, moonlit darkness, the sky underwent a glorious transformation as first Pakistan and Argentina, and then Germany and Korea faced off in their qualifiers.

I had my doubts about the colour scheme of the Riverbank Arena- the brilliant blue and pink leap off the screen and make you cringe when you watch the games on your laptop- but in real life, it isn’t half so hideous. In fact, it might be easier on the eye than the sight of tennis players in coloured clothes at Wimbledon. The turf looks slippery and water droplets can be seen shooting out of it during play- it must be a very different experience for the players as well.

Fair warning: I don’t follow hockey closely and know little about the relative merits of the participating teams, but from what I saw yesterday, Argentina looked clearly lacklustre against Pakistan, losing 0-2. Germany and Korea, on the other hand, seemed more evenly matched as they scrambled with each other furiously, with Germany winning 1-0. There was a minor moment of concern when a section of the floodlights went off, but as there was still plenty of light in the arena, play was resumed.

It was my first time watching a team sport live at a stadium, and what an overwhelming experience it was! I had too much to absorb and process at once, adding to it the fact that I was at the Olympics, and so things took quite a while to sink in. The flags of participating countries fluttered in the wind as the national anthems were played. I must admit the German anthem gave me goosebumps- I know its tune by heart, thanks to Michael Schumacher, and I have still not left off instinctively thinking that it is always followed by the disarmingly cheerful Italian anthem. I was quite hoping the German fans in the crowd would sing along, but they restricted themselves to various chants and a bit of dancing during the interval.

While the atmosphere during the first match was relatively sedate, with a few pockets of supporters scattered around the stadium providing the buzz, it was amazingly charged during the second. German fans largely outnumbered Korean supporters; however, a battle of Mexican waves took place in the crowd even as the teams battled it out on the field. Cheers and boos were taken up with equal gusto. That we were at the Olympics was proved by the international nature of the crowd: someone kicked off the familiar “Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi”, and a boy walked around with a kangaroo in his arms. Elsewhere, people wrapped themselves in the flags of countries which had nothing to do with the match at hand, and in some cases, with field hockey itself.

At the end of their matches, the teams did a lap around the stadium- a wonderful gesture to make the spectators feel more connected with the proceedings, stand up and applaud the players who have worked so hard to make it to the national team, and now proudly represent their countries at the Olympics. It was a wonderful evening, and while you want to see intense rivalry during the match, it is always pleasant to have things end amicably.

But there was one little surprise waiting for me yet. The exit led past some fancy pubs into a high-end shopping area. We stopped to peep at some ridiculously priced bags through the windows; then we came to the Hugo Boss store, which had a McLaren F1 car on display. It was flanked by uniformed, helmeted mannequins of Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton. I would have preferred a Ferrari display, of course, but I was pretty chuffed about the McLaren too- it provided the icing on the cake, so to speak.

*********

Any city that puts itself forward to host the Olympics is undertaking a massive responsibility, and London has done a splendid job this far. There have been glitches- the online ticketing controversies, the ineptness of those responsible for filling the empty seats, the slightly temperamental summer. However, none of this should be allowed to take away from the brilliant work of the volunteers and the officials who don’t quite make it into the limelight.

We got talking to one of the volunteers, who said she applied two-and-a-half years ago to work at the Park. Some interviews and plenty of training later, she was ready for her job, which she said required huge commitment. Her duties included guiding people around the venues, ensuring crowds kept moving, assisting with queries, and at times taking pictures when requested. The volunteers and railway officials we interacted with were extremely good-tempered and ready to help- no short answers, no annoyance despite the fact that they must be answering the same questions hundreds of times. I’m not sure about the residents of London but the Games surely are a delightful experience for tourists, highly recommended even to those who, for some unfathomable reason, do not enjoy sport.

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