A summer to remember..

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I’m going to take a bit of a break and not talk about food again (Yes, it does happen occasionally), but I just had to post something about the amazing summer we’ve had – I don’t mean the weather because that was quite frankly, awful. Actually, I do believe it was the wettest summer since records began so I’m definitely not on about that! Instead, I’m on about how the whole Country went crazy for sport, in particular the Olympics and Paralympics. Times are currently tough for everyone so for the whole nation to come together behind Team and Paralympic GB was a beautiful thing. I think it was the BBC that suggested it was going to be quite a year with both The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations and the Olympics this year, but I don’t think any of us could have anticipated just how brilliant it all was. And well, I just feel the need to note something down to remind myself just how amazing it was.

Leading up to the Olympics, there was a lot of hoo-har about various aspects of preparation for the Olympics – How much was it costing? Did Londoners really want it? Would the transport system (which barely copes on any normal day) be able to cope with the massive extra influx of visitors? After G4S failed to recruit enough people for the security of the Games, the armed services were drafted in and it was seen as yet another example of how London just wasn’t ready – Despite the best assurances of LOCOG and those in charge. People complained of how they couldn’t get tickets for events, of how the ticket site kept crashing so they lost whatever tickets they had in their (electronic) basket, so by the time they went through the whole rigmarole again, not only had they lost whatever tickets they originally wanted, but the only tickets that were left were the priced in the top tier which they couldn’t afford. Indeed, by the time of the Opening Ceremony, the only tickets that were left were the top priced £2012 tickets and I can’t speak for you, but I certainly couldn’t afford that. What started off 7 years ago when London was awarded the Olympic games as a moment of great National pride had slowly been chipped at by the sceptics amongst us all until just before the games, people were almost indifferent to the Games about to begin.

Personally, I was a bit excited anyway because I always enjoy the Olympics and whilst I had tickets to the Handball on the first day and Olympic Park tickets for the following week, I still wasn’t feeling like it was anything extra special because it was in London. That said, I tend to get quite emotional about these things (more about that later) and I was anticipating tears like during the Opening Ceremony for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. By the time of the Opening Ceremony for London 2012, I was nearly crying just from talking about the Olympics and the hype of anticipation leading up to the Opening Ceremony didn’t help. As it turns out, I didn’t cry that much but wasn’t that Opening Ceremony fantastic? You felt an absolute swell of pride to be British and for all of us wondering how the hell London was going to be able to follow Beijing after their spectacular Opening Ceremony, Danny Boyle and his creative team more than held their own and had us all (secretly) hoping that the next 16 days would be just as good..

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My own Olympic Experience started on Day 1 where I had tickets for the Handball in the Copper Box. Admittedly, I knew very little about Handball and only got tickets through W because we knew that it was in Olympic Park. The tickets were for the evening session and the clearly stated that if you arrived too early, you may not be admitted. Added to this how we were worried about having to queue for hours before being let in, we had to properly think through a) what time to get there, and b) how we would get there. We opted to jump on the Jubilee Line at one end at Stanmore and stay on there all the way to the other end of the line at Stratford. It may take about an hour, but at least we would get seats and there wasn’t any need to change trains or anything. Given it was day 1, there was a great deal of excitement in the air the closer you got to Olympic Park – The Gamesmakers all smiley and happy guiding you on your way. As for getting through the security checks, it was all very straightforward given we’re all used to such checks going through similar checks as at airports. There weren’t any major queues that we all feared – The whole process took 6 minutes.

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Once we were in, it’s hard to explain exactly how you feel when you actually see all of the different stadia; you kind of think to yourself “There must be more security checks because I just got in really easily” as you walk under part of the Aquatics Centre that is shaped so distinctly like a stingray with its wings. Then you realise just how close you are to the Olympic Stadium and the huge imposing Orbit tower alongside it, turning to the distance you spot the Copper Box, the velodrome, the Basketball and Riverbank Arenas.. The grounds were HUGE and I felt slightly overwhelmed by it all. YKL and I grabbed something to eat – We knew it was going to be fairly pricey but you pay above average prices at concerts in large venues anyway, so that’s how we had to view it. Again, any fears from reports that food was horrible and over-priced were exaggerated. The food, whilst not being exactly gourmet, filled any hunger holes you may have had.

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I mentioned earlier that the grounds were huge – I can’t stress enough how big the whole Olympic Park was. I mean, it takes a good 30mins to walk from one side to another and I’m sad to say that on that first day there, I didn’t have a knee support or wear comfortable shoes, so by the time I left the Park, I was a bit broken. But when you think about it, each stadium inside the Olympic Park had at least a 12,000 capacity (the Olympic Stadium seats 80,000) so you need grounds big enough to hold everyone – A massive logistical nightmare for the organisers, but they can’t be commended enough as there were never any massive queues and everything ran smoothly. Inside the Copper box itself (It’s not called that for nothing – It’s a box and made from copper as announced on the tannoy when we got there), one of the matches we got to see was the GB Women’s Handball team (vs Montenegro). The atmosphere inside was brilliant – Right from about 95% of the crowd admitting that they had never been to a Handball match before so didn’t know the rules, so they played a video guide to Handball for everyone to understand, to the cameras picking out people in the crowd (and cue some kid breakdancing on the stairs). GB Women weren’t really expected to win, but the crowd roared loudly every time they got the ball and when especially when GB scored a goal or the goalie saved a goal. Even when GB were behind, virtually everyone in the crowd were chanting “GB! GB! GB!” – You couldn’t help but be swayed by the pride and joy of supporting your home team at a home Olympics because we were all aware that this wasn’t something that happened too often. I absolutely loved it there and found myself watching whatever Handball matches were on TV once I was back at home. In fact, Handball ended up being one of my new favourite sports after going to see it live.

Handball Court DSC_5537 Go Team GB! Team GB looking proud

Despite having an utterly brilliant time, I left the Park slightly broken and in the immediate few days afterwards, I was a bit wary of going again. I only had Park tickets (along with a trip up Orbit), but I had trouble finding anyone to go with me – Either people couldn’t get leave or it was too short notice for them. I gave 2 tickets to W, but it wasn’t until the day before that I decided to go again – I just knew that I would regret not going otherwise. So for round 2, I got my knee support and better shoes – My feet still hurt by the end of the night, but I got to see a lot more of the Park this time around. Plus, I managed to go up Orbit which I really loved. I think there’s still something (as someone who doesn’t live or work in London) that’s still thrilling when you see the London Skyline (which is prolly why I like going on London Eye so much). I didn’t realise that you could see inside the Olympic Stadium from the viewing platform of Orbit, so that was an added highlight. As I only had a Park ticket, I could have queued for tickets once inside the Park for either Water Polo, Hockey or Basketball but I decided to go to the giant screen and we watched the cycling (from the Velodrome next to the giant screen), where the crowds were all shocked at Victoria Pendleton being disqualified, then cheering loudly as the men’s sprint broke the world record, then saw Sir Chris Hoy win his first gold medal of the games. Again, the amount of people not just cheering and supporting GB, waving their flags and whatever Union Jack-themed clothing or accessory they had was just brilliant to see. However, it’s easy to be taken in by it all because Team GB were doing really well and whilst it took a few days before Helen Glover and Heather Stanning got Team GB’s first gold medal of the games, the (gold) medals thereafter came thick and fast. Whilst in the souvenir shop in Olympic Park, the cashier was telling me how shocked everyone was at the mass outpouring of National Pride – So much that the shops got a new delivery of Union Jack flags and they had sold out by 10am.

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I also need to mention the Gamesmakers – People who gave up their time, jobs and volunteered to help out during both games. Honestly, there can’t be too much praise for these people who for me, made both the Olympics and Paralympics to be the huge success that they were. Right from arriving at Stratford station, they were friendly and helpful in every way possible – Asking for directions, help or gently pushing you along as you made your way through Westfield Shopping Centre to Olympic Park. Of course, there was the very British sense of humour with some of them too; I think there’s a You Tube clip of one Gamesmaker being very droll and monotonous on the megaphone, wishing everyone well and how this was “the happiest day of her life” or that “her Mother will be proud”. On the first night I was at Olympic Park, I kept laughing at the Gamesmakers trying to give marching orders to a group of Army squaddies walking past (Oh, and *how* much safer did we all feel knowing that the Armed Forces were there?), or how they tried to encourage someone going past on a mobility scooter to do a wheelie. And of course, the one Gamesmaker who couldn’t contain his glee at being given control of a megaphone: “THEY’VE LET ME HAVE THE MEGAPHONE – FOOLS!” before trying to get people walking past to join him in an impromptu rendition of “Gold”

With virtually every medal, there were tears as “God Save The Queen” was played, and as for highlights, there were so many; from Gemma Gibbons looking to the heavens and mouthing the words “Love you Mum” immediately after winning her medal (which held a particular resonance with me this year), to punching the air in delight when Team GB won their first Show Jumping gold medal in 60 years. From Usain Bolt storming to the 100 and 200 metres wins to Tom Daley showing such joy at winning an Olympic medal. From Nicola Adams being the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal in history to Jonnie Peacock winning the T44 100m gold. Then of course you’ve got Andy Murray putting aside the heartache of losing in the men’s singles final of Wimbledon just a couple of weeks previously to win the Olympic gold, and let’s not forget Ellie Simmonds coping with being the poster girl for the Paralympics and winning 2 golds, 1 silver and a bronze. And if I’m going to talk about medals, then I have to mention Katherine Grainger (and Anna Watkins) finally winning gold after 3 silver medals from the last 3 games. Here was a perfect example of an Olympian who never gave up in her dream and self belief that she could win an Olympic gold medal after winning silver for the past 3 Olympiad. Actually, The race commentary during the women’s double sculls was probably the best of the whole Olympic and Paralympic Games for me – Phrases like: “.. Everyone here in the media centre is on their feet and applauding YOU Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins…” and my absolute favourite “What you are seeing here ladies and gentlemen, is that dreams DO come true.” So very poetic, but also so very true in Katherine Grainger’s case; the Games’ motto was “Inspire a generation.” And how could you not be inspired by Katherine Grainger and the story of her quest for gold?

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But it wasn’t *just* about sport though (Although it would be easy to think it was), there was also the Cultural Olympiad which was a 4 year arts programme which ended with the London 2012 Festival (which ran alongside the Olympics and Paralympics). Indeed, at Olympic Park itself, there were plenty of art installations and exhibitions for people to enjoy (or get confused about). One of my particular highlights was Piccadilly Circus Circus where on one Sunday, Most of Piccadilly was closed down and taken over by various street performers and circus acts (think more Cirque du Soleil rather than circus clowns and caged animals). It was brilliant and I only wish that they would close Piccadilly more often so that people could come and see street artists and performers. I left before the finale, but the pictures showing all of Piccadilly covered in feathers was quite a sight and did make me slightly regret not staying.

Les Colporteurs ILONA JANTTI – A PONY IS A SMALL HORSE Transe Express Transe Express

As soon as it was announced that there would be a parade for Team GB, I booked the day off work immediately because I wasn’t going to miss out on one last opportunity to see Team GB, to thank and show my appreciation for them (and admittedly, desperately try to hold on to that Olympic Feeling). It may have meant an early start and again, break me by standing for several hours, but BT and I got lucky in that we got a spot where we saw both sides of the floats (incase our favourite athletes were on the “wrong” side of the float for us) and were right at the very front, so we had no idea how deep the crowds lining the pavements were until we saw photos and TV footage later in the day. I don’t think anyone could have guessed just how many people turned up – The predicted numbers were big, but I think the actual numbers exceeded them by a long way. There was a really nice banner made by the Gamesmakers at Eton Dorney of all the gold medal stamps that were produced with a heading “The Eton Dorney Gamesmakers salute our medal winners” and underneath “You were all First Class. We are proud of you” which was not only lovely of the Gamesmakers to do, but also to see all the rowers notice, then acknowledge the banner, it summed up the good good feeling that the nation felt. For those few hours, I felt that same conviviality, pride and joy that I felt both times at Olympic Park and also for Piccadilly Circus Circus and I thought about how the whole Nation has been brought together by the Olympics and Paralympics. And truly, it’s not one I (or any of us I suspect here in the UK) will ever forget.

DSC_6152 Waiting to start My view left Spotting the banner from the Gamesmakers Anna Watkins and Katherine Grainger reading the banner from the Eton Dorney Gamesmakers Anna Watkins and Katherine Grainger
Thumbs up for the Eton Dorney Gamesmakers (and their banner) Float 14: Rowing Jonnie Peacock GB Boxing heroes

Actually, I should add that I was fortunate to meet some Team GB rowing medalists (including Katherine Grainger, Greg Searle, Pete Reed and Alex Gregory) at the River and Rowing Museum for a Q+A session and it was great to not only see in action how they have managed to inspire people, but also how they were genuinely happy to pose for pictures, let people wear or hold their medals and chat to people – And they all did so with huge smiles on their faces. I was actually pleasantly surprised at how genuinely happy and down to earth they were – I’m too used to dealing with prima donna famous musicians or actors so it was refreshing to such genuine feelings from people. As Greg Searle said: “We’re not superhumans, we’re just normal people like the rest of you, so we’re very happy that people feel they can approach us and tell us how we’ve inspired them.” Well, they may be normal people, but each and every one of them are (IMHO) heroes. We won’t get to experience anything like the past summer in our lifetimes again, so for once let’s celebrate the success of London 2012. This I say to everyone involved in making London 2012 so very brilliant – Thanks for making me (and the rest of the nation) smile, laugh, cry, sing, proud but most of all, for making the summer of 2012 one we will all treasure and remember.

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You can see more of my photos from various events throughout the summer here, here, here and here

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