Saturday, May 5, 2012

Oh sorry, haven't you been to the Olympics yet?

The route to the Olympic Park was bleak and empty, warmed only by an army of smiling volunteers pointing the way. We passed one who used his loudhailer to wish us a nice day at a range of six feet. Just testing, he said. This was London Prepares. Not the Olympics but a tryout to make sure everything was working and everyone knew what they were supposed to be doing.

We didn't get Olympic tickets, so I applied for this instead. London Prepares was sold out too by the time I looked - except Wheelchair Tennis. So, encouraged by the price (£5 a ticket), I signed up, and today arrived with my family at West Ham tube station.

The email had promised a walk with "great views of the Olympic Park and brand new public art installations". I'd describe it as a trek through an industrial wasteland. The only art we saw was graffiti.

When we arrived at the venue, we were greeted by another volunteer army: the British army, doing the airport security routine with a lot more charm and enthusiasm that you get at Heathrow.

More walking: all the way through the Olympic Park to the far end, past the big stadium (no, sorry, you can't have a look inside as you haven't got the right pass), past the funny sculpture thingy, past various other stadia (?) in different shapes and textures and then across a motorway to our venue, called Eton Manor.

Wheelchair tennis had started. We took our seats among about a thousand people in a 5000-seater venue. It was chilly and drizzly, but the tennis was fiercely competitive, entertaining, and evidently a big deal. At least this was an Olympic sport for which we thought we knew the rules. We didn't: in wheelchair tennis you can return the ball after it has bounced twice.

Between matches, a long queue formed at the catering truck, the only place where you could get food or drink within half a mile.

Eventually rain stopped play and there was nowhere to shelter except the Prayer and Quiet Room (below), discovered by a few lucky souls. In here it was actually warm, the perfect place to wait for tennis to resume. But soon the peace was disturbed by an official who told us to leave. People protested that they were praying for the weather to improve, but she wasn't impressed and we left without much fuss. 

It's hard to know how much the place will improve before the real thing. More catering, I assume, or there'll be big problems. Better weather, I hope. It's a really big site with some impressive looking constructions, but they seem to have been dumped onto an industrial landscape which is only starting to  get a sense of its new identity. In the end, if the sport is entertaining, I don't think that will matter as much as it did on our damp, rather anti-climactic day.

OK, it wasn't the Olympics, but surely we have earned some sort of bragging rights for having been there and seen some sport already?

We left, and found lunch in the nearby Westfield Centre at Stratford. It was packed. I hate to think how crowded it will be during the Olympics. If you can buy shares in it, that might be a good idea.

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