On My Travels – London Anniversary Games

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Queen Elizabeth Olympic Stadium, London

This particular “On My Travels” post may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but please bear with me.

To start this story, I need to cast my mind back a little more than a year ago.  Although I have a passing interest in Baseball and Basketball, my one true sporting passion was, and still is, Rugby League.  I was aware that the Olympic Games was due to take place in my home capital city of London, but I was what you could call a “cynic” about the success of the Games.  I mean, I couldn’t afford to attend any of the events and with the Games themselves primarily taking place approximately 200 miles from where I live, I failed to see what relevance or impact they had for my life.

And then, on 27th July 2012, Danny Boyle managed what various television pundits and newspaper columnists failed to do… he managed to fire up my enthusiasm for the Games.  For two weeks, my life revolved around London 2012 – my television viewing bordered upon obsessive with my weekends and evenings after work planned meticulously as to which sports I wanted to watch, for both the Olympics and the Paralympics, I would check out the results of the morning sessions on my lunchtimes and obsessively complete a wall chart with the Great Britain medal tally.  And then, on 10th September at around 5:00 pm at the end of the “Victory Parade”, the “Summer of Sport” was all over, sort of like a holiday romance which you enter into, but you know is going to end.

But, who am I kidding?  London 2012 wasn’t the of this obsession for me… it was the beginning.  Over the months that followed, I bought the Blu-Rays of the Olympic and Paralympic highlights along with the film “First” which followed athletes who were attending their first Olympics, I got Olympic related Christmas presents and met Olympic gold medal winning cyclist Victoria Pendleton and gold medal heptathlete Jessica Ennis (now Jessica Ennis-Hill).  But, the fervour continued and I attended the BT City Games in Manchester in May to see the likes of Alyson Felix, Perri Shakes-Drayton, Felix Sanchez, Alan Oliveira, Jonnie Peacock, Sophie Kamlish and Stef Reid competing along the main shopping street of Manchester.

Shortly before the City Games, I found out that there was to be a special Anniversary Games held over the weekend of 26th to 28th July at the Olympic Stadium, now called the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Stadium.  I decided that because missed attending the Olympics and Paralympics themselves, I wasn’t going to miss this party.  I remember the day when the tickets went on sale clearly – Friday 19th April and I took advantage of my working pattern to clock out of work and rush to the nearest cafe with WiFi before the 10 am ticket opening time.  I have to admit, I was lucky… very lucky… to have got tickets for all three days of the competition within ten minutes, especially as tickets for the first two days sold out within 75 minutes of going on sale.  But with just over three months to go until the weekend itself, how was I going to last this wait?

Day One – Friday 26th July

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Well, three months passed pretty quickly, to be honest.  Life carried on its normal pattern, despite my excitement, I got a year older and I was also busy with planning my trip to Holland for later this year.

Athletics-wise, my passion showed no sign of abating.  I had been to the City Games and was watching coverage of the Diamond League and various competitions on television.

The day of 26th July arrived with little ceremony.  In fact, it involved me getting up at 5:15 am to get my coach at 7:15.  After six and a half bum-numbing hours on the coach, plus negotiating the joys of negotiating the Tube network from Victoria to Tower Hill on a very warm afternoon, I arrived at the hotel that was going to be my base for the weekend.

 

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I didn’t really have the chance to rest up before heading off to the Olympic Park.  It was a case of grab a shower to make myself feel human again, get a change of clothes and it was back on the Tube to travel to Stratford.

Once I arrived at Stratford, I was aware that something special was going on whilst I walked through the Westfield shopping centre.  Hardcore athletics fans mixed with people who, like myself, had never set foot in an athletics stadium before.  That said, the atmosphere was a little subdued.   Let’s just say that the atmosphere was akin to the pre-dinner drinks phase of the party – all anticipation and polite smiles.

And then I arrived at the stadium itself and the atmosphere ramped up to true party proportions.  I was wearing a Team GB t-shirt on the first day and the first security guard I passed shouted, “Helloooooo, Team GB!!!!”

And it didn’t end there, tickets and bags were checked with the security staff smiling away as they carried out their tasks.  It was almost as if frowns and misery were banned.  The sun was out and the samba bands were playing.

 

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To ease myself in, I decided to have a wander round the spectators village, buy some souvenirs for the younger, sports mad, members of my family, soak in the atmosphere, check out the British Athletics “Icons” Museum… Oops… big queue… try again later, perhaps.

For me, the main priority was to get something to eat and drink before taking my seat.  Now, this was a little confusing for somebody who had never been inside the stadium complex itself before as I’m used to seeing the concessions stands within the stadium concourse itself.  However, the stands at the Olympic Stadium are based outside of stadium itself.  Never mind though as there was plenty to choose from – burgers, hot dogs, noodles, vegan, chicken with Reggae Reggae sauce – something for the most ardent junk foodie.

After being suitably fed and watered… well, beered.  It was time to make my way into the stadium itself.  Have to admit that there was a bit of nerves as I was walking in.  (I could have also done with an oxygen tank as I made my way up to Row 51 in the second tier of seats.)  I mean, a year earlier Danny Boyle and his cast of thousands opened up London 2012; Jessica Ennis (-Hill), Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah contributed to the one day spectacle known as “Super Saturday”; Usain Bolt was imperious in his second Olympic gold winning treble…  speaking of Bolt… isn’t that… can’t be?!?!?

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A few weeks earlier, the man who is currently probably one of the world’s most recognisable athletes, if not THE most recognisable athlete in the world today, made his way into a Diamond League fixture in a replica Formula 1 car.  To top this, Mr Bolt entered the Olympic Stadium on something akin to a combination of vehicle from The Jetsons and a chariot from The Hunger Games with “Dance Wiv Me” by Dizzee Rascal and Calvin Harris blaring out over the speakers.  Boy, that guy knows how to make an appearance.

I won’t bore you through the individual events (as there were fifty-one events throughout the whole weekend) and loads of photos but my first evening of live athletics was fantastic. It included a World Record attempt by Bohdan Bondarenko in the High Jump, a close run race by Zuzana Hejnova and Perri Shakes-Drayton, who captained the British team in the European Team Championships in Gateshead, in the 400m hurdles, a win by the British women’s 4 x 100 m relay team and then, just before 9:50 pm, the race that was the big draw… 100 m men’s final with a certain Usain St. Leo Bolt in top billing.

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As somebody who has previously watched athletics from the comfort of his armchair, I didn’t really get the whole buzz of the 100m race before last year’s Olympics.  I mean, in a quick race this event is over a done with in just under ten seconds.

When you watch a 100m race live it seems totally different to watching it on television.  Granted, watching it in either format isn’t really a “go out and grab a cup of tea” affair, but watching the 100m live seems faster, more thrilling – whether it be the nerves of watching the race live, your eyes playing tricks on you to make it faster or the lack of an action replay to allow you process what happened.

DSCF1953The length of time between the starting pistol and the bolts of flame signifying Bolt’s victory was a mere 9.58 seconds… and that was with a poor start.  I have to admit that my jaw was slackly hanging open.  Time to get a grip and stop the goldfish impersonations.

Bolt thanked the fans with his customary lap of honour and then it was all over for the first night.  Only the traffic of 75,000 pedestrians to fight through to so that I can get back to my hotel.  Thank goodness for the friendly volunteers (including one volunteer who turned his announcements of which way to go to the Underground as a song and dance number) to reduce any potential frayed tempers.

After a quick beer in the hotel bar, it was a check on Twitter for messages from friends in response of my message saying that I arrived safely earlier that afternoon and then it was off to bed.

Could Day Two live up to the promise of Day One?  With two participants from the legendary “Super Saturday” competing that day… you betcha.

Day Two – Saturday 27th July

The first thought in my head this particular morning, to be precise at 4:40 am this morning, was, “What the (insert appropriate curse/swear words (plural) here) is all that noise?”  I later found out that somebody had accidentally  set off the fire alarm.  Thank goodness it was only an accidental activation.  I would have looked a real sight in the bed shorts and t-shirt number I was wearing.

7:00 am and a shower, shave and a clean of the teeth, it was down for breakfast and then out to beat the crowds getting in.  I was a man on a mission.  I was getting into the ‘Icons’ Museum come hell or high water… well, considering the weather for the day, more sunburn than high water.

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Firstly, though, I had a little time to have a wander before I needed to catch my tube train.

I was fortunate to find out that the hotel I was staying in was roughly five minutes, if that, from the Tower of London and although I didn’t have the time in my schedule to have a wander around the Tower itself, especially as I was spending roughly six hours a day down at the Olympic Park, I did have a little time to wander down to the bank of the Thames to take some photos,  It had been a few years since I had the chance to visit this area of the city and although I knew of The Shard (pictured left), I didn’t realise how close it was.  Well, this had my Whovian (“Doctor Who” fans for the uninitiated among you) heart (or, more appropriately hearts) flipping over, especially as it had been four months since the Eleventh Doctor was seen riding up the side of this building thanks to an anti-gravity motorcycle in the episode “The Bells Of Saint John”.  In front of this building sat the former warship, and now part of the Imperial War Museum, HMS Belfast… the new and the old in one briefly taken snapshot.

Alongside The Shard was Tower Bridge, a monument that I had walked across roughly six years earlier and had its own place in Olympic and Paralympic iconography last year as the five Olympic rings (representing, alongside the white background of the Olympic flag, the colours which are represented in every flag across the globe) and the three Paralympic agitos (representing the Paralympic ideal of “Mind, Body, Spirit”) were hung from the bridge during the “Summer of Sport”.

Then, it was back to Tower Hill underground station for another trip to Stratford.  Fortunately, as I was going earlier in the day there wasn’t the same crush of getting on to a tube train as what had happened the day earlier.  That couldn’t be said for my destination though as shoppers, volunteers and spectators all congregated within the Westfield Shopping Centre and milled around in a scene reminiscent of “Dawn Of The Dead”.  All that was needed was that famous piece of music “The Gonk” to be playing over the loudspeakers.

As I couldn’t fully remember the layout  of the Shopping Centre, I decided to return to a place that I visited last August in the viewing gallery of the John Lewis store where I could look at the part from a different perspective.  Although the Stadium was in use for these Games, this was very much a one-off celebratory event before its redevelopment in readiness for the Rugby Union World Cup in 2015 and its shared tenancy as an athletic stadium and as the home ground for the West Ham United football club in 2016.  In addition to this, there was work going on at the swimming pool to  change it from the venue which has graced Olympians and Paralympians such as Rebecca Adlington, Tom Daley, Michael Phelps, Ellie Simmonds and Missy Franklin into a state of the art community swimming pool.

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After visiting the viewing platform and grabbing a cool drink, something that was extremely useful considering that the temperature was heading towards thirty degrees centigrade, I decided to wait for the gates to open to the park itself.

Like the previous day, there was a sense of anticipation mixed with a party atmosphere.  Once the gates were open and my bag was checked, I decided to make my first stop the ‘Icons’ museum.

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For a mobile museum, this particular one lived up to the name as it celebrated athletics history from early twentieth century through to the present.  Names like Eric Liddell, Harold Abrahams and Sir Roger Bannister mixed alongside athletics luminaries from my own childhood like Alan Wells (his vest can be seen in the photo above left) Steve Ovett, Sebastian Coe, Daley Thompson, Fatima Whitbread and Tessa Sanderson, and modern day heroes like Greg Rutherford, Jessica Ennis-Hill, Mo Farah, Hannah Cockcroft and Jonnie Peacock (his vest can be seen in the photo above right).

DSCF1997Amongst the various artifacts were autographed running spikes, Olympic gold medals, Olympic torches and, in pride of place, a waxwork model of Jessica Ennis-Hill donated by Madame Tussaud’s.  After meeting Jessica at a book signing last year, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to have a photo taken alongside her waxwork (pictured left).

I must admit that even at 41 years of age, I do get a little star struck… who am I kidding, I get a LOT star struck but in a polite sense.  After having my photo taken along the waxwork, I noticed a gentleman being guided around the museum.  I carefully turned my head in the direction of the gentleman concerned and realised that it was Colin Jackson – athlete and athletics pundit.  Unfortunately, my inner child escaped somewhat and the words that I hoped would stay within me, “That’s Colin Jackson”, were accidentally mimed out of my mouth… silently.  Hopefully, I didn’t make too much of a show of myself… well, not so much that I didn’t totally humiliate myself.

After visiting the museum, I decided to take the opportunity to grab an ice cream. Well, it was hot so I had a good excuse.  Once I’d had my fill of the spectator village for a second day, it was on to the food kiosks and taking my seat in the stadium.

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Much as with the previous day, the event started with television and radio presenter Colin Murray and UK and Commonwealth Games 400m record holder, and pundit, Iwan Thomas warming the crowd up for the event… if they needed any warming up, from an excitement and climate point of view, but an interview with Lord Sebastian Coe who recalled the hard work and reward of putting on the Olympics… along with his feeling on the day that he could relax during the Anniversary Games as he was not in charge along with some audience participation meant that the party atmosphere continued.

As with the day before, there was the serious issue of competition as this was not just an event to celebrate the events of the previous year, but the second day of a Diamond League competition.  Jessica Ennis-Hill (pictured right) was returning from an Achilles injury and was using the event as a proving ground against serious competition prior to the World Championships in Moscow.  Although she has decided not to compete at the “Worlds” to concentrate on a more complete rehabilitation, it was great to see her in the 100m hurdles and the long jump.

My personal highlights beyond this were New Zealander Valerie Adams returning to the scene of her (belated) Gold medal triumph with another winning performance in the shot put (more about her later), local athlete (and Great Britain captain for the forthcoming “Worlds”) Christine Ohuruogu winning the 400m, Renaud Lavillenie attempting to break Sergey Bubka’s long standing world record in the pole vault, and a win for the “Racers Track Club” in the 4 x 100m men’s relay – the team including 200m winner Warren Weir and the star from the night before, Usain Bolt.

DSCF2346But the real entertainer for the day was one of the three heroes of “Super Saturday” and originator of the craze known as “The Mobot”, Mo Farah (pictured left).  Last year, he had won the 5000m and 10000m races and following some blistering runs earlier in the season in various distances, he ran in the 3000m event, setting a cracking pace towards the end which resulted in a personal best over the distance.

The end of day two was pretty much as with day one, with loads of fans leaving the stadium with happy memories and, despite having to fight through the footfall traffic of this event, along with additional footfall from an event celebrating the Olympic Park area, I too had happy memories of the day.  But it wasn’t over yet.

As I returned to my hotel, I noticed the “British Athletics” logo shining out from an electronic advertising board, along with flags and the like for the organisation outside another hotel in the area where I was staying.  However, that was nothing in comparison to the sight of Jessica Ennis-Hill leaving a coach near to the hotel, with fans trailing behind her Pied Piper style.

As for my Valerie Adams story… well, after getting showered and seeing witnessing how sunburnt I was, I decided to go to one of the local restaurants (for this I mean pubs) for my evening meal.  After ordering my dinner, I noticed somebody who I recognised  out of the corner of my eye.  The “fanboy” gene activated as soon as noticed that it was Valerie.  Now, I’ve been brought up not to make a show of myself when it comes to seeing well known people when they are trying to relax.  After all, sporting personalities need “R&R” time like the rest of us.  But after my experience of not, at the very least, asking for Colin Jackson’s autograph, I decided… after some mental to-ing and fro-ing, to say something.  So, I went over to her table and simply said thank you for coming to the Games and for putting on a great show for the day.

Sometimes, it’s little moments like that which make an event like this special, and although I didn’t go over the top and ask for an autograph or a photo with her, I was grateful that Valerie spared the time simply to respond to a thank you… after all, 41 year olds need heroes as well sometimes.

Day Three – Sunday 28th July

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After the excitement of the day before, it was a more leisurely start on the Sunday, especially as the shops don’t normally open until noon.  So, I decided to do a one off experience and take a ride on the “Emirates Airline” from The O2 to the Docklands Light Railway station at the Royal Victoria Hospital.

Considering that the weather was predicted to go on a turn to the worse on either Saturday and Sunday, I’d been pretty lucky (despite being caught outside in a thunderstorm the previous evening) with the clear skies and warm weather that had dominated the weekend (even though my pale skin which was red with sunburn probably wouldn’t have agreed).

 

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Having never been in a cable car before, I have to admit that the view from above lends a new perspective… huge landmarks like the O2 arena, the Olympic Stadium and the Thames Barrier which I’d seen on ground level or on the Thames itself felt not so large… not no imposing.

On arrival at the Royal Victoria Hospital, it was a quick trip on the Docklands Light Railway to Stratford.  As the only shops that were open at the time was the restaurants and coffee shops, I made a quick dash to Starbucks for a large Mocha Cookie Crumble Frappucino.  What can I say?  I’m addicted to them.  Anyhow, whilst I was there, I noticed a display of signed Starbucks cups.  On closer examination, I noticed from athletes and coaching staff from the various nations that participated in the Olympics and Paralympics.

After grabbing my drink, it was over to the Olympic Park for the last day of competition and, for me, my favourite day – the International Para Challenge.  I was already getting that awful feeling in the pit of my stomach that the party was coming to an end, much like last year on the days of the Olympic and Paralympic closing ceremonies and the joint “Victory Parade”… but there was time to have those emotions later.  For now, it was a return to the spectators village to do a little shopping, including my own personal vest name like the athletes wear as a memento of the weekend.

After lunch, I decided to take my seat.  Unlike the first two days where I’d been sat in the upper tier on the back straight, this time I had got a seat  in the lower tier near to the 200m start line.  It was especially thrilling to sit there because I had been watching the IPC World Championships in Lyon for the whole of the week leading up to it.

DSCF2402I had already seen some of the para-athletes in competition at the BT City Games in Manchester, most notably longer jumpers Iris Pruysen and Stef Reid (pictured left warming up), and sprinters Jonnie Peacock, Alan Oliveira and Ronald Hertog.

Alongside these athletes were athletes who had become heroes through the course of the Paralympics including 100m and 200m double Gold winner “Hurricane” Hannah Cockroft – a woman whose infectious grin and sense of humour sat side-by-side with a fierce competitive determination; Richard Whitehead – a man who re-skilled from the marathon to the 200m because the marathon was not available in his classification; visually impaired sprinter Terezinha Guilhermina whose dancing skills matched the swiftness her feet; and David “The Weirwolf” Weir who won Gold in four different distances ranging from 100m to the marathon.  The list of names could go on and on.

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The afternoon was full of drama and spectacle with Hannah Cockroft (pictured right prior to her 100m race) claiming her third victory in a week following her 100m and 200m wins in Lyon; Richard Whitehead following up his “Captain’s Knock” from the week earlier in Lyon with another win… and another “Two Guns” celebration in the 200m; mighty displays in the shot put by Aled Davies, Dan Greaves in the discus and by Josie Pearson in the club throw; another stellar sprinting… and dancing … display by Terezinha Guilhermina; a great 800m race whose field included Michael McKillop and Paul Blake who both won Gold in Lyon; and an intriguing 100m race which led to not just one, but two, of the four world records attained that day being claimed by Alan Oliveira and Richard Browne Jr. in the duo’s battle with fellow sprinter Jonnie Peacock.

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But it the closing race of the day that probably generate the most excitement as David Weir (pictured left), who had decided not to compete in Lyon, returned to the Olympic Stadium to compete in the Mile event which he won convincingly.

Although the day itself was seen as a celebration of the Paralympics, the message hadn’t been relayed to the athletes themselves as the competition was as fierce, if not more so, than some of the events of the previous two days.  What made the event all the more remarkable was that the majority of the athletes were competing that very week in Lyon.

The last day of this party had been billed as the “Return Of The Superhumans” and it certainly lived up to its billing.

By the end of the three days that I spent at the Anniversary Games, I thought back to the morning of 19th April and my rushing around to find WiFi access to get tickets.  There was only one response… “Yep, it was worth it.”

As I returned to my hotel, I could only think that any sporting event that I go to from thereon in will be measured by the yardstick of this event.

My last day in London was spent wandering around the shopping areas of Covent Garden, Oxford Street, Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square for a couple of last minute items that had been requested of me and to spend my lunch at my favourite restaurant, Ed’s Easy Diner.  A great way to round off a memorable weekend.

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