July 27, 2012–Everyone sees the Olympics differently. For the athletes, of course, it’s all about competition. For the fans, it’s about cheering on their favorites. For the patriots, it’s about national pride and inviting the whole world to share it. For the taxi driver who delivered me, exhausted, to my hotel tonight, it’s about traffic headaches and new rules that come with the Games, which are interfering with his way of making a living.
“I was rooting for Paris to get it,” he confided, thinking back to the dramatic moment when London was awarded the 2012 Olympics; he knew even then it meant trouble for him and many others whose lives have been disrupted.
Of course, it can’t be business as usual during the Olympics. Looking at the bigger picture, though, the effort involved has to be worth it. The mood is generally festive and even the weather has cooperated, as last month’s incessant rain has stopped. Not only the city, but the whole country, has gotten behind the Games in every way, and what was once a wasteland now proudly sports a landmark stadium. Flags and Olympic-boosting signs are everywhere. I particularly liked the British Airways billboard that said, “National anthems don’t sing themselves,” advising people “Don’t Fly, Support Team GB.”
For me, today was rather typical of what I’ve encountered at recent Olympics, only the details differ from country to country. A 5 a.m. start, then a two-hour slog by foot, bus and shuttle to get to the venue at Greenwich Park, many miles from the hotel that I was assigned by the London Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games. Or was it the Olympic Deliverance Commission. No, no, wait; the rather inept ODC was on the BBC series “Twenty Twelve” that I told you about earlier this week. But as I’ve said often here in the last 24 hours, sometimes it’s hard to tell reality from a comedy show. And when my bus passed a pub colorfully called “The Hung, Drawn and Quartered,” I felt as if it was named in my honor.
So then I’m told at the venue that I have to get the vest photographers are required to wear at the MPC, the Main Press Center, also many miles away. After an equestrian interlude in which I watched the first eventing horse inspection (everyone passed, more on that later) and a cross-country course walk with designer Sue Benson (give me a minute, I’ll get to that, too) I walked to a nearby train station (which now is being closed for the duration of the Games so people can walk further to a larger station), took one train, transferred to another (hauling my 75 pounds of cameras and computers) took a crowded shuttle bus and wound up at the MPC.
The noise level there generated by thousands of people churning out information and photos is a blur of languages. It has help desks for everything, a number of commercial tenants, a bank, souvenir shop (of course) and places where you can buy food (the one where I purchased water had run out of sandwiches hours before the opening ceremonies). I was trying to beat the clock and get out of there before they stopped running buses back to the train station, as they shut everything down for the ceremonies. I rode a vastly overcrowded bus to the station, which was swelling with early arrivals for the ceremonies. Luckily, I caught a train called the Javelin, which was great; fast and air conditioned. At that point, I think I was more impressed by it than the Olympic stadium. Then I found my cab driver, no mean feat since five people had told me five different places to go to get a taxi. I still wasn’t in the right spot, but he took pity on me. And that leads me to note that when you ask 20 different people here directions to get somewhere, you get 20 different answers. It’s probably because so many of those helping out are volunteers; you have to admire them, giving up vacations to do what are often exceedingly menial tasks, and in many cases they are not well-informed or directed properly by the ODC; sorry, I meant LOCOG. But they are always nice, including the young soldiers who go through all our bags at the entrance to every venue (think of polite airport searches with a charming British accent.)
Throughout the city, people are gathering to watch the opening ceremonies. I hope I can stay awake for them, but I doubt it. However, I’ve seen excerpts from the rehearsals and it is astounding.
They have created a British farm scene with live sheep and horses, not to mention a thatched cottage that has smoke coming out of the chimney. It’s a tableau that is exactly what you think of when considering the country’s pastoral tradition. That might be more astonishing than the special effects, which make up such a great portion of the ceremony.
With each Olympics, starting with the groundbreaking 1984 Los Angeles Games, the opening ceremonies have become grander and more of a production. I feel the parade of the athletes, which used to be the central reason for the ceremonies, is becoming less and less of a focus, which is too bad, since the athletes are the foundation of the Games.
That brings me full circle to fill you in on the action (or lack thereof) today at the venue. First of all, Greenwich Park is magnificent. The oldest royal park, it’s the home of the Royal Observatory, the Royal Naval College and the National Maritime Museum (where the press center is located). It’s also where Elizabeth I (not to be confused with the current queen) signed the death warrant for Mary Queen of Scots. Just thought I’d throw that in.
Facilities, including the arena and stables, are built over the ground on pylons or supports, so as not to damage the World Heritage Site. It’s a heart-stopping location, with a magnificent view of London, which was a little hazy today.
Empty stands (organizers didn’t want spectators there on opening ceremonies day) were the backdrop for the horse inspection. A couple of horses were held, including Peter Barry’s Kilrodan Abbott from Canada, but as I said, they all eventually passed. Peter, who is an amateur and a full-time businessman, made me think of the individual gold medalist four years ago, a German dentist. So it can be done, but won’t be this time, with a very high-powered field of professional riders vying for the medals.
Several horses had to be jogged twice consecutively. Among them was High Kingdom, Zara Phillips’ mount. Zara was not happy. One theory was that the ground jury asked her to go again so the photographers eagerly snapping away could get more photos of the queen’s granddaughter (and the daughter of U.S. Technical Advisor Mark Phillps, who is in his swan song appearance for the team here).
It was fun to see the different team outfits, like a little preview of the opening ceremonies. The U.S. squad was sharp in understated white and blue, with a touch of red, while the Brits shared those colors in their duds. But William Fox-Pitt, I must advise that shorts are not a good look for anyone as tall as you are; stick to long pants next time. And then there were the Dutch in their orange slacks; orange is their color. The Belgian men, among them, Georgia-based Carl Bouckaert, seemed snazzy in the front view with red-buttoned blue jackets to match red suede shoes and red vests. But the illusion was spoiled when they turned around to display the word “Belgium” in script across the back of their jackets, a style more suitable for a bowling league than equestrianism.
The course-walk showed off incredible eye-candy in a compact arrangement on ground with a steep slope. The optimum time is 10 minutes, 3 seconds, for 28 fences with 39 jumping efforts. The terrain is a much of a test as the fantastic jumps. I asked Sue, the designer, how much the fences cost and she said she honestly didn’t know. But she did have a budget and was requested twice to revisit her plans for financial reasons. Not that you could tell from the meticulous work on the fences. My favorite, and one that has special meaning for Sue, is the Wind in the Willows, with a water feature and all the creatures that we met in the pages of that much-loved book.
I guessed Sue would be teary-eyed at the end of cross-country day, when her five years of work wraps up.
“The saddest thing,” she told me, “is it’s all for six hours.”
After that, the jumps (all portable, so as not to damage the ground) will be taken away as the park is restored to its previous state. But Sue knows the jumps will be showing up around the country. The fences are coming under the control of the British Equestrian Federation and she expects some to be part of Burghley in September.
Each obstacle along the track is a work of art, with 25 course repair people and builders set to be on the scene during Monday’s competition to take care of anything that needs a touch up. The first fence is simple but so appropriate; a giant, open wood-clad steel diamond shape, in honor of the queen’s diamond jubilee this year, while the supporting piece is marked with the Olympic rings.
The competition gets under way tomorrow, with Boyd Martin leading off for the U.S. in the dressage on Otis Barbotiere, as part of the first team to go. In the meantime, enjoy watching from the comfort of your living room. You undoubtedly will have a better view than I will. But even with all the problems, there’s no substitute for being here.