Olympic Follow-Up: Veni, Vidi, Vici!
In February and April of this year, I visited the UK with the expressed purpose to look at the then future Olympic site in the East London neighborhood of Stratford, a previously impoverished and derelict area that had gone unkept and de-shoveled for decades, if not centuries. It was my hope – and that of the British and London Government’s – that the Olympics and Paralympics would be a catalyst for a renaissance and revitalization of one of the poorest parts of Britain.
I wrote on the subject in May, expressing my views based on research on what I had seen and heard during my walk-abouts and interviews with officials regarding the Olympic Games of 2012. On both trips to Stratford, the Olympic Park was abuzz with hundreds of workers, construction vehicles of all types and a cacophony of noise, whistles, yelling, honking and beeping. Kind of like watching and listening to the building of the Second Avenue subway in Manhattan, but that’s another story.
I wondered at the time how they were ever going to finish on time for the July 27th Opening Ceremonies, let alone all the component parts and arenas inside and outside Olympic Park. To say I was a wee bit skeptical was an understatement. Of course all the officials at transport For London, Visit Britain, the British Airports Authority and LOCOG were insistent that everything would be hunky dory and finished on time.
Probably the worst skeptics of all the people I spoke with were the London taxi drivers; they were all predicting doom and gloom, blocked and clogged roadways and a never seen before stalled out London.
Two weeks ago to my great fortune, I was lucky enough to get to Olympic Park for two consecutive days during the second week of the Games. And what I saw and observed was complete order – very British style! The whole thing was a miracle of brilliant planning and organization.
The dark clouds of despair and fear created by the taxi drivers never materialized, at least I never saw anything resembling a traffic pile-up and I was in central London everyday for seven days, including the two days at the Games.
The main tube line to Stratford, the Jubilee Line, traveled with its normal pace and was never jammed beyond a regular business day. There were plenty of trains coming in and going out of the Stratford terminus and the intermediate stations along the way ran perfectly normal.
The Central Line as well as the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) worked perfectly well, but the real joy was the Javelin overground train making the run between Stratford and St. Pancras Station in seven minutes. The Javelin is a rather posh-looking express train connecting St. Pancras with various destinations in Southeastern England.
For the games during peak event times at the Olympic Park, the Javelins were running every 10 to 15 minutes. When I exited the park on the last Friday night along with thousands and thousands of other spectators, the Javelins were speeding back to St. Pancras as fast as they were being filled; in fact our train departed with empty seats just to keep the trains moving at a rapid clip without disrupting the schedules.
During the days I did not attend Olympic events, I was in central London, either walking, window shopping, a passenger in cars or buses or taking the tube. Never once did I witness or experience any back-ups or delays on any of these modes of transportation.
On the last Saturday, I did see a diversion caused by road works in London, but nothing caused by the supposedly dreaded Olympic Lanes, those special lanes designated only for buses or private autos carrying athletes or Olympic officials.
For several days, I wandered around the Oxford Street shopping area, and it was bustling with people meandering in and out of shops, restaurants – the usual Oxford Street scene. It does seem that lots of people decided to stay away from London, so it all balanced out between the Olympic visitors and those that refused to venture into central London. But back to Olympic Park.
Walking between Stratford station and Olympic Park at peak times was akin to moving within a huge wave of humanity – but it all swayed and moved in an orderly and timely fashion. There were always hundreds of volunteers in pink vests to point visitors in the right direction as well as to answer the obvious, “where’s the entrance to the Park?” or “how do I get to the London 2012 shops?” In addition to the pink-clad volunteers, points of interest or directions were signposted high-up and in large type so not to be missed.
And when I was walking in the Olympic Park or through the adjacent Westfield Stratford East London Shopping Mall, and despite the crowds, it was always civilized.
One of the great free sites within the 617 acre Olympic Park was ‘Park Live,‘ a dedicated area that featured giant screens and picnic lawns for up to 10,000 fans at a time. If you didn’t have tickets to a particular event, you just rolled up on the grass, enjoyed the company, the weather and the sports.
Besides watching sports and perhaps eating, the other vocation in an entertainment attraction like the Games, is the shopping. There were gift shops galore spotted all around the park – one even calling itself the London 2012 Mega-store. Most everyone I spoke with in New York before I left, or friends in London, demanded some sort of souvenir from Olympic Park and there was certainly no shortage of quantity or variety – everything from china and kitchen gadgets, linens and towels, clothing of every conceivable type and fashion, key chains, pins, plush toys and wrist bands. About the only thing I didn’t see was a pink or turquoise Olympic-branded Rolls Royce.
By and large the Olympics have been a big success – glory for the athletes, recognition for the sponsors and a huge spike in the joy of being British for a people who seem to always be in a state of struggle and proving themselves to the rest of the world. For the Olympic fortnight, the Empire surely struck back. But there’s more to come.
The Paralympics begin on Wednesday, Aug. 29th and finish on Sunday, Sept. 9th. Because of the incredible popularity and feverish pitch in London during the Olympics, most of the Paralympic events have been sold out.
If you happen to be in London, and have the time and inclination to be a part of the 2012 Games frenzy, by all means go. It only comes around every four years, and sometimes it’s located in remote parts of the world which sometimes is tough to justify on an expense or tax report.
And if Paralympic tickets are exhausted, take a quick trip to the Barbican Centre in ‘The City’ and venture into the James Bond retrospective, an exhibit celebrating the 50th anniversary of the James Bond films. It’s an interesting and fun piece of showmanship that you can do in 90 minutes, but only if you’re into James Bond. There’s usually no waiting or long queue whatsoever; the exhibit closes on Sept. 5th.
London is always a glorious city and this was certainly one of the more memorable times to be there.