The Olympic Games: A wonderful, expensive theme park

by Nick Wallis

IF the only reason you are intending to be at a given location is to say “I was there”, there is something wrong with you.

I wasn’t all that fussed about going to see the Olympics, especially after the ticket ballot fiasco. Then I realised my daughters would turn around in ten years time and say “What, you had the Greatest Sporting Occasion On Earth on our doorstep and couldn’t be bothered to take us?” Fair point.

So I went through the internet hassle when a second tranche of tickets was released. We decided the “experience” was the main thing – all the exterior pictures on telly are of the Olympic Park, so why not go Stratford?

Factoring in dates we could all do it, grandparental babycare availability and budget and we ended up with four tickets to the women’s hockey at the Riverbank Arena for £86. And of course we didn’t know which nations we’d be watching when we bought the tickets, so you can imagine how thrilled we were to find out we had Holland v China and Germany v South Africa.

We got up early. We got there in good time. The girls were dressed in official 2012 T-shirts with some official stick-on Team GB tattoos, red white and blue hairbands, and Lloyds TSB Official Team GB union flag bibs attached to their backs. Everyone was very nice. The games makers were nice. The stewards were nice. London looked nice.

The “airport-style” security we were told could take up to 2.5 hours was cleared in five minutes. I swear some of the smiling army blokes who dealt with us still had sand in their hair. They exuded such sure-footedness I can’t help feeling this self-important, brand-obsessed Games is being given an ill-deserved level of gravitas by their presence.

Once in, we had time to look around. The Olympic Park is a triumph. It looks exactly like it should. It’s huge, well designed and works on lots of different levels. The Orbit is as grim close up as it looks on the telly. I have nothing nice to say about it. It’s like the visual realisation of a very painful fart.

Most of the time before we had to go to the gated Riverbank Arena was spent watching the rowing on a big screen, queueing for free water (something I never expected to have to do in 21st century Britain), and trying to decide which piece of rip-off memorabilia to buy in the Olympic Megastore. We eventually handed over £17 for the cheapest things we could find – some sweatbands, and a toy bus for my absent boy.

So to the Riverbank Arena. Temporary, and therefore not as well-landscaped as the rest of the park. In fact, it is all scaffolding, branding, asphalt and concrete. We were trapped in there for two games over the course of four hours as they had a no pass-out rule.

Hockey, even at the very highest level, is a hard game to enjoy. The three twenty second moves that led to the goals we saw (over 140 minutes) were brilliant. The remaining 139 minutes … not so much.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Basketball is the perfect example of a game which knows its limitations. I went to see the Guildford Heat play last year, and the way the most of the energy was focussed on ensuring the crowd had a good time whether the game was a stinker or not was an education. At the Olympic basketball, they have apparently raised the bar yet again. Bongo cam, anyone?

Hockey has a long way to go. The first Mexican wave (a sure sign of boredom in a crowd) started 13 minutes into the first game. I’m amazed my girls lasted as long as they did. After we got out of the arena we tried to find something else to divert us. The idea of queueing for 45 minutes to do something vague in the Coca-Cola funhouse didn’t really appeal, so we bought some fish and chips (£8.50 per serving), ice-cream (£2.50 per cornetto) and fizzy pop (£2.30 per 500ml bottle).

Whilst wondering what to do next, I couldn’t escape the impression that we were at a wonderful, expensively-maintained theme park, paying for someone else to go on all the rides. In this case, the athletes.

That’s not to say their sacrifices and successes don’t deserve all the attention they are getting. But paying for it twice through my taxes and tickets didn’t – for me – provide enough of a return in terms of live entertainment to justify the expense. There’s a reason why hockey, shooting, swimming and rowing etc aren’t usually popular spectator sports.

Between the Olympic Park and Stratford station lies the Westfield shopping centre, which you have to go through to get to Stratford station. This “Exit Through The Gift Shop” strategy just serves to ram home a corporate determination to wring every last drip of disposable income out of every Olympic visitor. Mug punters in a holiday mood, sold on the prospect of a “once in a lifetime experience” are easily parted from their cash. As I trudged past high-end retail outlets I’m not successful enough to buy things from, I prayed our journey home would be easy, as the children were getting ragged.

I’m glad I went. Sometimes you have to watch awful films so you can have a valid opinion on them. I’m glad we made the effort for the girls’ sake. They loved it and can talk about their experience for years. My wife had a great time.

But for me, much of the Olympics only seems works when it’s packaged up on TV/radio/online/print with clever writers, producers, presenters and pundits delivering the reason why we should care about a particular participant in a particular sport.

I love it when broadcast media can get right into athletes’ faces during the most important ten seconds of their lives, and then spew out relevant stats, live interviews and raw emotions in the reckoning. Even Mrs Wallis complained that she felt more cut off from what was going on at the Olympics, because she was at the Olympics, rather than being whizzed directly to the heart of each drama via radio and TV.

We’re going back. We’ve got tickets for the Paralympics on September 2. If anyone’s got any ideas on how to enjoy it more next time round, I’m all ears. And if you have Olympic Park tickets and are remotely put off by my moaning, my advice is to ignore it.

It’s probably just me…

This piece first appeared on Nick’s blog.

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