Olympics: Being There – Athletics

After the Games had started Alan Fisher managed to get an Athletics ticket for an evening session in which both David Rudisha and Usain Bolt made history on the track at the Olympic Stadium on Day 13 of the London 2012 Olympics.

Athletics, Olympic Stadium, Olympic Park

My first trip to the Olympic Park. Good timing for once – Thursday is the sunniest day of the summer. Everyone is so pleasant and helpful, everywhere you go. No customer care exercise this – transport staff as well as gamesmakers and paid security staff went out of their way to assist. I made the fatal mistake of looking confused for a microsecond. If they knew me they would not be unduly concerned as I spend much of the day appearing similarly bewildered, but three staff pounced to make sure all was well.

I could get used to this. Imagine, the lasting recollection of this once-in-three-generations opportunity is that people were nice to each other. TfL and the train companies now have a self-imposed legacy burden: they can make the transport system work under intense pressure but not when fewer people around. Public transport does work if it’s properly resourced.

The Olympics is all about legacy and these two weeks have re-established interest in that great British leisure activity in which we can all take part, queuing. Fast becoming either a relic of the past, as at London bustops, or a major irritant (have you been to my local Post Office lately?), the chance to queue has opened up to all, even if you aren’t attending an event but are just trying to commute into London. Yet here we are, patient, smiling, not impatiently treading on the heels of the person in front but chatting happily with strangers, keen to share our personal experience of the Games. We want to be part of it, even if it’s in the blazing midday sun in the endless snaking line for the London 2012 Megastore in the Park. My only question to the assembled nations around me was, “Why?” but I was in a minority of one.

The place is packed. A teenager sighs wearily as gran buys him a one-eyed mascot created by a graphic designer on acid, “just a bit of fun.” His brother hugs a giant Jess Ennis cardboard cut-out as mum takes a photo. The other figure of the games nearby, Philips Iduwo, is ignored. World Champion means nothing now.

Mind you, queuing was not for us. Luckily, my wife emerged from a sudden life-threatening illness five years ago unable to walk but at least it means we don’t have to wait for anything. We were ushered past thousands at the station straight to the barriers – so long suckers!

Being with a disabled person is the ultimate customer service test. It’s sadly no cliche that many people serve or talk to me rather than my wife. As we approach, say, a counter, I now steadfastly gaze at the floor but often even that doesn’t work. The older sporting venues are terrible. The disabled section at the Crystal Palace athletics is a temporary scaffolding and planks construction on the top bend, completely unprotected from the elements. One windswept, damp June we sat next to Tanni Grey Thompson and her family but she had had enough after four races and left us to it. But the Olympics passed the test admirably, with excellent accessibility built in unobtrusively to designs and pro-active staff who saw us coming and made a point of directing us to the best routes without us having the ask.

I confess the wheelchair gave us an unexpected advantage when booking tickets. In the ballot we faced even longer odds than others because of the limited supply. Sure enough, we only got one of many chosen events in the Park and no precious athletics tickets. When further seats were released once the Games began, we couldn’t buy online. However, there was a telephone number just for seats in the disabled section and 45 minutes at premium rates later, I pulled out a plum.

So here I am, Thursday night in the stadium. Above the lower tier there is a band of shadow with the dismal hallmark of corporate boxes but in fact most is taken up by the section for disabled people, a roomy and comfortable balcony with unobstructed sightlines. Not twenty yards below me, Usain Bolt ambles onto the 200 metre start. The crowd are on their feet, in a frenzy before he’s even taken his cap off. There’s a surge forward, but because this is the Olympics, it is a terribly polite and well-mannered “excuse my elbows” movement. They can’t get close to Bolt on this level, the rush is to have a shaky, ill-focused smartphone photo of a speck of a legend in the background. Not something that I’ve ever quite bought into. Photos are a lasting souvenir but the act of taking imposes a barrier between you and the activity. A major part of your effort is wasted in the photography, rather than total immersion in the moment itself, which after all is why you are there in the first place.

And of any individual on the planet, surely Bolt is the one worth watching. Amidst the bedlam he stands perfectly serene, contained in his own bubble. There’s nothing extrovert until his preparation is complete. Meticulously he takes from his bag a tape measure to mark precisely the distance between the start line and his blocks. It’s not an element of his racing that receives any prominence. Others pace it out in the lengths of their footprint, Bolt has it right to a millimetre.

Thus sorted, only then does he begin to chat, to Blake, to Spearmon, to a delighted and terrified young woman. Some gamesmakers checked tickets, others spent the day inside the lifts at Stratford Station, she gets the chance to hold the box that contains Usain Bolt’s tracksuit. She’s been told to stand up straight, just hold the box, then turn in unison and walk away, but Bolt is relentless and makes her laugh. Far from being nerveless, this is how he rids himself of the build-up of anxiety, by talking it out.

They settle on their blocks. No complete hush – some idiots have to shout, a few talk. The gun goes and the runners explode away. From the flesh and blood almost in touching distance, in a few seconds they become tiny figures, bit-part players against a backdrop of the greatest drama of them all. The echelon hurtles round the top bend, dwarfed by the towering sweep of the packed stands as a thousand flashguns twinkle. Dusk settles, the roar is ear-splitting. My lifetime of watching sport is stored away as a series of moments where time stands still. Before and after flows around them but that moment remains fresh and new, frozen in time. This is an unforgettable scene no photo could fully capture, a moment only sport could create.

Tonight, I’m spoilt. Earlier, in the 800 metres final David Rudisha sets off in the lead almost from the gun and by the time he glides past us, he has 3 metres on the field. He bathes in warm applause, others suffer as they trail in his wake. In contrast to the sudden imapct of the 200 metres, the crowd takes a while to fully realistic what they are seeing. The fans respond to a race – the tail end of the decathlon generated more noise than the first lap of this final even though nothing was at stake, because they were racing. The crowd can see the combatants – the battle against the clock needs time to sink in. The first lap in 49 seconds. The announcer, admirably restrained, makes it clear this is significant then leaves the runners to their work and fans to draw their own conclusions. I shouted at the top of my voice. Didn’t mean to but that’s what came out. I knew this was fast and by the time the Kenyan had 200 metres to go, everyone is behind him. Eyes on the scoreboard, a new world record. Spinetingling: no one has ever done that before, and we were there. Unlike the adulation and fan-worship than greeted the three Jamaicans, there’s genuine warmth for Rudisha on his lap of honour in recognition of the magnitude of his achievement.

As the evening draws to a close, the mood softens. A triple jumper collapses in the sand as his leg gives way. The crowd gasp, then cheer in sympathy. I hope that helped him because it took long enough before the first aiders reached him. As he’s carried off, the judge solemnly raises a red flag, just in case we weren’t sure that it was a no jump.

The stadium sound has been restrained for the most part. The announcer has a deep American timbre more suited to announcing boxers in a world title bout but he’s well-informed and points us in the right direction without making up our minds for us. Many British sports commentators should take note. Every slack second is filled with music. I’m not sure how ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ will add to the mood but at least it’s not overpoweringly loud. They might as well put a message up on the scoreboard to say, ‘We believe you lot have the attention span of a gnat on speed’, but we’re not insulted. How could we be after such a remarkable evening. And on the way home, everyone was so nice.

Alan Fisher

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