On the first weekend of the London 2012 Paralympic Games, I returned to Olympic Park. As I walked through the Stratford gate full of glee to be back, I heard a little beeping sound behind me. It was an Olympic Park buggy driving steadily through the crowd with a very special guest on board:
I ran after him like a child trying to outrun an ice-cream van, screaming ‘Mandeville, Mandeville!’, but sadly the truck was going too fast to keep up with it.
Pulling myself together and remembering how old I really am, I decided to set off towards the Riverbank Arena to watch some football. The queue to get inside was long …
… but as soon as people were allowed in it moved along quickly, and there were plenty of seats for everyone.
The match was between the current gold medallists Ukraine, and the USA. Although I don’t usually care for football, I thoroughly enjoyed this game. It was an absolutely thrilling match … if you were not supporting USA that is, for the final score was a colossal 9-0 to Ukraine.
The atmosphere during the first half was strangely subdued which actually was rather pleasant: no rowdy yobs bellowing ridiculous monosyllabic chants, instead just civilised albeit half-hearted applause whenever Ukraine scored. At first I thought this was simply because the audience was made up of similar unseasonal football fans like myself and also because GB weren’t playing (their match was to follow). But it turned out this restrained collective behaviour was actually due to a bit of confusion as to who exactly were playing.
Most of the spectators mustn’t have realised that there were two types of football competitions taking place at the Paralympics: the 5-a-side and the 7-a-side. Apart from the size of the teams, the difference between the two competitions is that the former is made up of players with visual impairments who use a ball with a bell in it, and the latter is made up of players with varying mobility impairments (no bell in ball required). One can be forgiven to be curious about how blind footballers play football, and it would seem that most of the spectators around me were looking forward to watching such a game. After Ukraine impressively scored a hat-trick of goals within the first ten minutes of the game, I could hear whispers of doubt behind me as to how blind the players on the pitch really were and whether anyone besides the players could actually hear the ball.
Soon there was an echoing shuffle of papers as disgruntled bystanders started to refer to their programmes for an explanation, before looking up and mouthing with a lot of accentuation to the person two seats away from them (never the person beside them) the syllables ‘SIR-REE-BULL-PAUL-ZEE’. The receivers of this information instantly responded with a look of genuine surprise that quickly changed to a mixture of politically-correct concern, slight confusion and disappointment (that the players weren’t blind after all).
It was Wheelchair Basketball at the Basketball Arena after that to watch Japan play Germany. The speed at which those guys went around the court made for many a cringe-worthy moment with the anticipation of vulnerable fingers getting in the way of unavoidable collisions. I’ve heard Wheelchair Rugby, known ‘fondly’ (ha!) as ‘MurderBall’ is a lot, lot worse:
Goalball followed at the Copperbox and it was simply mesmerising. I watched China play Algeria. Goalball is made up of two teams of three players, all blindfolded so their sight impairments are equal. Each side takes it in turns to throw a large ball (with a bell in it) into their opponent’s goal. The game is made up of two halves of ten minutes. Players defend by literally throwing themselves across the mouth of the goal. The whole game is as one would expect, dependent on sound and of course spectators are asked to remain quiet during play. The female referee (who at one point mistook Algeria for Iran) had the air and appearance of a strict librarian. Her shrill demands for silence every time the ball was brought back into play seemed to do the trick, but I have a feeling that somebody else adopting a different approach was the real controller of the crowd that afternoon:
It would seem that this game in particular attracted a large number of parents with typically over-tired toddlers. Almost every couple of minutes during the game another hassled-stricken mother would try to stand up in slow motion to avoid her folding seat from creaking behind her whilst trying to balance several pieces of baggage and a screaming two-year-old in her arms before tiptoeing out of the venue. Oh dear.
Oh, it was so lovely being back in the Olympic Park again. It’s a magical world run by really nice, friendly fantasy people. Why can’t real people be like that in real London?
I continued my Paralympic tour a few days later at the ExCel Centre to watch Wheelchair Fencing. Clearly there was nothing wrong with the Chinese Women team’s vocal cords as every time one of their female fencers thought she’d won a point she’d screeched orgasmically. This was fine whenever she did win the point, but a little embarrassing when it was proven that she hadn’t. What must she be like in the bedroom?
Half way through the competition I’d noticed a rather pudgy, slightly dishevelled Scandinavian looking figure dressed up as a chicken wobble along and sit down in a seat a few rows in front of me:
If this was Boris, it was certainly an interesting way to wind down after a busy day at City Hall. Strangely, a chicken costume isn’t my first choice out of the wardrobe when I get home from work, but Boris’s unusual selection certainly looked comfy: like an extra-large poultry romper suit. I wonder whether he wears something similar in the office on ‘Dress Down Fridays’?
I just couldn’t keep away and returned to the magical park of niceness the following night, spending the evening in the Aquatics Centre. What an amazing venue. The ceiling is like a huge blue whale, the diving boards like tame vipers in defence mode, and anyone who suffers from Vertigo and/or shortness of breathe would be advised not to climb the very steep steps to sit up at the back. The rows go up so high I’m sure the air was thinner up there. At least there wasn’t a suffocating smell of chlorine floating in the air and the humidity was kind to my frizz-able hair.
ParalympicsGB did us proud with Oliver Hynd winning the first gold of the night:
Although I have been lucky enough to attend a number of Olympic and Paralympic events this Summer, this was the first I had been to where British athletes were actually taking part. The rapturous applause, screams and cheers from the thousands in the centre whenever ParalympicsGB were in the water was nothing I have ever heard nor experienced before on that scale, and probably never will again. It was truly, truly emotional.
During the controversial ticket ballots of last year I wasn’t very successful in securing tickets for any Olympic events, so thinking the Paralympic ballot would be just as disappointing for me if I didn’t try to increase my chances in securing those tickets, I decided to request more Paralympic tickets than I actually wanted (and could afford). As seems to be the case with such financially-risky plans, the worse case scenario actually occurred and I won almost all my selected tickets which I was obliged to pay for. This left an unfortunate dent in my current account, but organisers did allow ticket-winners to sell their tickets back a few months later for a full refund. Amongst my plethora of tickets I had a pair for two different nights of Athletics: one for the last Thursday night, and one for the last Friday night. Thinking that the Friday night would be the more exciting night simply because it was a Friday night, I had no issue at the time with selling my Thursday night tickets back. Oh how silly that decision seems now: last Thursday night turned out to be the best night on the track for ParalympicsGB with Gemma Cockroft and David Weir winning golds, and Jonnie Peacock beating legendary Oscar Pistorius in the most anticipated race – the T44 100m – ever seen in Paralympic Games history to date!
Even though the following day has been called ‘Frustrating Friday’ in comparison, it was still a fantastic experience sitting in the stadium listening to the roar of 80,000 well-behaved spectators.
After seeing Oscar cross the line barely out of breathe, the evening was over and it was time for me to leave to magical kingdom of the London 2012 Olympic Park forever. Never again will I laugh and joke with the fantasy nice people that live there in their purple-and-beige fairy track suits. Never again will I happily high-five their large rubber hands, experience their warm smiles and genuine desire to help, hear their infectious cheers and encouragement for everyone else to do the same and have a good time. In a few hours time they will all disappear and London will return to normal, where no one makes eye contact with anyone else unless they really have to, where ‘2 mins’ on a display to wait for the next Tube is a lifetime, where the slightest bodily contact with a stranger on the street or on the Tube results at best with a tut, at worse with a barrage of expletives. Yes, good ol’ cynical London returns next week and the happy, fantasy world of London 2012 will sadly be just a memory ….
Oh well, there’s always Rio 2016.