For weeks now, there’s been something in the air here in London (and no, before you ask, I am not referring to clouds or rain!). There’s been a tangible air of excitement, tinged with annoyance and lightly sprinkled with apprehension. Every morning, there were more Olympic buses commuting along the Royal Docks towards the Olympic venues, and more people on the Tube with Olympic security passes dangling from their necks. At least once a week, there was a newspaper report about the seeming absurdity of depositing a missile launcher (!) and some troops on Blackheath – normally a spot reserved for kite, flying, dog walking and picnics. Passengers waiting on train platforms were suddenly assaulted by the sound of the mayor’s voice booming out to warn them that the transport network would be exceptionally busy for the next few weeks and that they need to make alternative travel plans. Leaked photos of the Olympic opening ceremony had everybody scratching their heads: why do we need fake clouds if we have plenty of natural ones? And of course, the press was having a field day predicting a mass-meltdown of London’s transport system as of 27 July. But buzzing along underneath all this, there was excitement plain and simple: we were all living in a city that was about to host the modern Olympic Games for a record third time, and if that’s not exciting, I do not know what is. I decided to fling myself fully into the spirit of the Games, spending this past weekend indulging in a variety of Olympic activities – here’s how it went down.
FRIDAY NIGHT: AN OLYMPIC OPENING CEREMONY PARTY & COURVOISIER PUNCH
OK, so there was never a chance of my getting tickets for the opening ceremony – these were probably the most highly desirable of all the tickets, particularly as news of Danny Boyle’s spectacular ceremony plans started filtering through via the grapevine. The next best thing, however, was to attend an opening ceremony party at a friend’s house in Bow – across the road from one of the big screens in Victoria Park, and within sight (well, from the end of her road!) of the Olympic stadium itself. I loved walking up the road from Mile End Tube station, surrounded by people streaming towards Victoria Park, many wearing their national flags draped round their shoulders, a tangible buzz in the air. And once I had arrived at the party and was on the deck overlooking the canal, we were treated to the sight of the Royal Air Force jets flying past literally over our heads en route to their Olympic stadium fly-past, trailing their red, white and blue smoke trails and making the deck vibrate with their engine noise.
Of course, a momentous occasion like this deserves a special drink and fortunately the lovely people at Courvoisier cognac had bent over backwards to ensure that a special delivery of punch ingredients reached our party despite the heavy Olympic traffic – thanks guys! Now I do love a cognac, usually sipped slowly after a wintry dinner dinner as I enjoy the spirit’s warming effect coursing through my veins. But I had never really thought of it as a summer drink to be enjoyed as a punch, so I was glad that in addition to cognac, a punch bowl and some ingredients, Courvoisier also sent along a recipe for a simple punch. Before you could say Usain Bolt, the punch was mixed and we were all toasting the Olympics on the deck.
The verdict: tastes like Pimms but nicer, fresher and not as sweet. Deliciousy grown up punch, and a novel way of drinking cognac – I’ll be doing this again.
And then we headed indoors to watch Danny Boyle’s ceremony that had been the subject of much speculation, after a positively inspired 60-second countdown video sequence. And yea, verily, there was a flock of sheep, some ducks, Morris dancers, cricketers, maidens baking bread, a weird spiral grassy knoll (and that pesky fake cloud!). Ummm… so was this it then?! Not much enthusiasm from our party at this point. And then the dancers started rolling up the green hills and the stage gave birth to the proverbial dark Satanic mills of the industrial revolution, all smoke and flames and darkness. The highlight for me was the forging of the olympic rings from what seemed to be molten steel, represented by fireworks – absolute awesomeness. This gave way to a celebration of all things British, like the national health Service, Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital, Britpop and even a nod to Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the interwebs. And somewhere in the middle there was the wonderfully eccentric clip of the Queen apparently jumping out of a helicopter in the company of James Bond (neatly timed to dovetail with her actual arrival at the stadium) and Mr Bean playing the keyboard in a rendition of the Chariots of Fire theme tune. And of course there was the obligatory march-past of all the athletes, followed by a couple of sings from veteran popster Paul McCartney and some truly glorious fireworks.
Photo © and courtesy of m q c
Photo © and courtesy of Maykal
Photo © and courtesy of Maykal
Photo © and courtesy of Maykal
Photo © and courtesy of Maykal
The verdict: LOVED: the forging of the rings, the Bond sequence, the Britpop sequence and the fireworks. NOT SO MUCH: the over-long children’s hospital scene with the unexplained arrival of villains including Cruella de Ville (!); Paul McCartney’s finale – surely he can be allowed to retire honourably now?? But overall I thought is was pretty damn fine!
SATURDAY MORNING: OLYMPIC ROWING AT ETON DORNEY
So: what’s the thing you most want to do on the morning following a party where a lot of cognac punch was consumed? I can assure you that getting up at 05h00 to catch a train will not be on that list… and yet that’s precisely what we did. Up at 5, and standing on the platform at Waterloo by 06h58 clutching a coffee and our Olympic rowing tickets and our free travelcard that was issued with each Olympic ticket. Sorted. The train was surprisingly empty, compared to the chaos of the annual Henley regatta trains, and took just under an hour to get to Windsor station. From there you had the option of a shuttle bus to the venue, or a walk along the river – we chose the latter as it was a lovely sunny day and it’s a rather lovely walk. The infrastructure is pretty amazing – smiley gamesmakers every few metres greeting you with a smile and ready to help you with any questions; clearly demarcated walking routes neatly laid with clip-together plastic tiles in case of mud, and not a shred of litter anywhere. 20 minutes later we arrived at the venue to be greeted as “sir” and “ma’am” by the friendly and super-efficient military personnel who were helping out with security. The whole process was over and done in a matter of minutes (wht can’t airports function like this?!). But do beware – a friend had her tweezers that she carries in her handbag make-up case confiscated, and remember that you can’t take liquids over 100ml through at any of the venues.
Once in the venue, we made our way onto the huge stands from where we had an excellent seat of the impressive 2.2km long rowing lake belonging to Eton school. Although you are further from the action than you would be at, say, the Henley Royal Regatta, there are big screens that show all the action, so you don’t miss a moment. I had wondered as we approached what the function of the tall white towers at either end of the lake was and it soon became apparent: there are cables suspended between them to which the overhead camera is attached, providing TV viewers and spectators alike with fantastic bird’s-eye-view overhead shots of the races. I loved it! The spirit in the stands was great with much chatting and banter between strangers, and it was great to see we were not the only ones waving the flag for South Africa when our men’s lightweight four (Matthew Brittain, Lawrence Ndlovu, John Smith, James Thompson) got through their heat into the quarter-finals. (They later qualified for the final, taking place tomorrow, Thursday 2 August!). Of course, there were huge cheers for Team GB every time they rowed, but the biggest cheer of the day was for Hamadou Djibo Issaka of Niger, a country made up of 80% Sahara desert. Hamadou, a 35 year old gardener and pool attendant from Niamey had only been rowing for three months prior to the games, and says he was “lucky not to tip the boat over on the starting line”. Despite finishing a minute and a half after the winner, he was cheered all the way across the finish line by the crowd – which is what I’d call the true Olympic spirit.
By noon, we were ready for a bite to eat so we wandered down to the catering area. No McDonalds here, you’ll be pleased to hear, just roasts, sausages, sandwiches and the like. Even though it was only noon and not properly lunchtime yet, the queues were snaking away alarmingly from the food sellers. So we patiently waited our turn at the sandwich caravan only to be told when we got there that they only had tuna sandwiches left. Good thing I like tuna – but I did wonder what the poor people at the back of the queue would get by the time 1pm rolled around. Ordered our tuna baguettes and a bottle of water, seeing as it was hot and we had not been allowed to bring liquids into the venue. Nope, all out of water. Coke? None of that either – in fact no soft drinks at all, and the same story next door at the Sunday roast stand. Mind boggling. And don’t even think of heading for the water fountain to fill up your own waterbottle – those queues are as long as or longer than the fast food queues! But it did give me the perfect excuse to try some of the official Olympic wine – both the white and the rosé are provided by my good friends Tertius and Kobie at the wonderful Stellenrust estate, and it’s certified Fairtrade. Well done, guys! And with that it was back to the stands for another couple of hours until the event finished just after 2pm. To avoid the crush, we decided to stay on at the venue and wandered down towards the start of the course, where we found ourselves some drinks and lay chatting on the grass till the crowds had dispersed.
The verdict: LOVED: the venue, the slick transport and security, the smiley gamesmakers, the excellent coverage on the big screens. NOT SO MUCH: the queues for food, the lack of soft-drinks by noon on a hot day, the crazy water fountain queues. Overall, a blissful Olympic introduction! See my Flickr album for extra photos.
SUNDAY EVENING: MEN’S INDIVIDUAL SABRE (FENCING) FINALS AT LONDON EXCEL
It’s not every day that I thank my lucky stars that I live in E16, but once a while it seriously is a godsend – usually during the London International Wine Fair, but also when you want to go and see an Olympic event at London ExCEL. You see, I can actually walk there from my house in under ten minutes. Doesn’t get much better than that in terms of convenience! So after recovering from the rowing, we set off late on Sunday afternoon to meet some friends to see some Olympic fencing. Again, the security arrangements were efficiently and cordially handled by some soldiers drafter in to help out and five minutes after arrival we were scanned, secure, and inside. I’ve seen Excel busy before, but this was pretty exceptional – not only was there fencing on but also ping-pong, werstling and various martial arts. I did love the surreal feeling of seeing the Olympic rings on such a familiar buliding! Once we were inside the fencing spectator area, we could watch other Olympic events on a big screen and have a drink (more Stellenrust wine!).
Walking into the actual fencing venue felt like walking onto the set of 80s sci-fi movie Tron: I was just astonished that a building I know so well could be transformed so utterly. Long banks of black seats lined the fencing court on two sides of the darkened space, while the court itself was outlined in neon light strips of varying colours – quite spectacular! While we waited for the match to begin, we were entertained by a military band and some dancers, as well as a rather useful video describing briefly the rules of the three types of fencing: epee, foil and sabre. Before long, the lights went down, the fencers appeared and the games had begun. I will freely confess to near-complete ignorance of the rules and nuances of fencing – Nick is the fencer in our house. The sport is unbelievably quick and although sabre matches generally last the longest of the three branches of fencing, they were still over in a flash. I was very grateful both for the large screens which showed slowed-down action replays of each point and for Nick who explained things to me as we went along!
After the first semi-final, I had started getting the hang of the right of attack and the disregarding of a simultaneous hit and was ready for the second semi. This proved to be completely entertaining, mostly because of the presence of Italian fencer Diego Occhiuzzi. He was a one-man vortex of emotions and hand gestures – almost a caricature of what you expect Italians to be. He shrugged his shoulders up to his ears; he requested video reviews of every second point; he stopped the match to tie his shoelace. It was priceless. Nick thought it was doing a disservice to the sport of fencing; I thought it was outstanding entertainment value. And when Diego met Hungarian Áron Szilágyi in the final, it was a bit like watching the Christmas panto, with cheers and boos and a stir caused when, on the penultimate point, the Italian seemed to suffer a foot or leg cramp and the match had to be briefly interrupted. Vintage stuff. In the end Hungary won and we got to watch our first Olympic medal ceremony. Walking out of the ExCel centre, we were astonished to hear the sounds of a vuvuzela (which I though were banned from Olympic venues) being enthusiastically blown by a bunch of Hungarians celebrating their victory. As there were queues to get to the DLR station, we decided instead to have a few drinks at the very lovely WXYZ bar at the Aloft Excel hotel – a stylish venue that would not be out of place in thre West End, and generous with their free bar snacks 🙂 Highly commended!
The verdict: LOVED: the surreal and dramatic Tron-like look of the fencing court; the pin-sharp big screens replaying the action; the efficient crowd control; the WXYZ bar at Aloft. NOT SO MUCH: the dismal venue catering options. See my Flickr album for a few extra photos.
In summary, I had an awesome opening Olympics weekend. It left me utterly impressed with the logistics, venues and organisation; proud to be a Londoner; and fired up to attend more events (good thing I have tickets to the hockey next weekend to watch South Africa play Spain!). Batches of tickets for both the Olympic and Paralympic Games are being released periodically on the official London 2012 website, so keep your eyes open and make sure you are registered.
And now for the punch!
COURVOISIER PUNCH (makes about 1 litre)
250ml Courvoisier VS cognac
20 dashes of Angostura aromatic bitters
orange and lemon slices
Combine all the ingredients and serve with ice and wheels of lemon and orange. Courvoisier VS is available from all major grocery stores from £23.79
DISCLOSURE: The punch bowl, ladle and ingredients pictured were sent to me free of charge by Courvoisier.