A British American Returns to Her Birthplace for the 2012 Olympics
The Olympics are always a mesmerizing time, full of hope and inspiration to the world. This past summer, there was an extra measure of excitement for me because I was able to enjoy much of the spectacle in person in my native England.
My husband and I had already planned to visit my family in England sometime in 2012, but knowing that the country was hosting and celebrating two huge events—the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics—gave us pause. We thought it would be great to be in the United Kingdom during either of these events, but could we pull this off in competition with thousands upon thousands of would-be visitors from around the world who had the same idea?
Late July to early August worked out to be the best time for us to go, so that meant being able to attend the Olympics. For months, I drove my sister crazy, hounding her to try to get us tickets. It was really tough. In the end, we reached this agreement: We would go to any venue, watch any sport and at any price. With that, she scored! We got tickets for Tuesday, July 31 to see an Olympics basketball game.
The Basketball Arena is a temporary structure that has been offered to Rio de Janeiro for the Olympics in 2016.Finb
This Wasn’t the First Time
London has hosted the Olympics two other times in the modern era. The first was in 1908. The Olympic Games were supposed to be held in Rome, but the devastating eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 1906 required the Italian government to divert monies from Olympics preparations so that it could deal with the calamity of the volcano.
The Olympics were also scheduled to be held in London in 1944, but those games were canceled because of World War II. The first post-war games were held in London in 1948. While 59 nations competed, Germany and Japan were not invited because of security concerns.
In 2005, my husband and I were in London when it was announced that London had won the bid to host the 2012 Olympics. The whole city went crazy. Even my mum said she “felt a tear.” I remember saying, “Mother, we are British! Stiff upper lip!” All the celebrating ended abruptly the next morning, July 7—also known as “7/7”—when bombs exploded in London buses and trains, killing 52 people.
Durand saw two basketball games: Lithuania vs. Nigeria and then Great Britain vs. Brazil. Wendy Durand
Back to Britain
Fast forward seven years. We had arrived! We spent the entire day on July 30 visiting relatives in Cambridge and, of course, watching the Olympics on the telly. Our excitement built. The next morning, we took the 50-minute train ride to King’s Cross station, and the atmosphere of happiness was potent among the crowds as we disembarked. We were amazed by the lines of volunteer “ambassadors” smiling and guiding us to another train, the “Javelin,” that would take us to Olympic Park.
Upon arrival, we took the escalators through a beautiful mall home to an Italian restaurant owned by Jamie Oliver, TV’s “Naked Chef.” The security area was our next stop. Even the sea of fatigue-clad security people were in great spirits.
Once we passed through security, we looked around in awe at the buildings, including the stadiums and the “ArcelorMittal Orbit,” simply referred to as the “Orbit. Built for the games, but not used for any sporting event, the “Orbit” is the largest piece of public art in the U.K. and was designed to be a lasting legacy of the London Olympics.
We could see Olympic Village, where various foreign flags hung from the balconies as a show of the loyalty and pride of the athletes. The theme song from “Chariots of Fire” played in my head—how could it not?
The Olympic Stadium, at the Olympic Park in Stratford, was the venue for athletic events, as well as the opening and closing ceremonies.Mary Gregory
Since we had several hours until our event began, we wandered over to the food park, where we saw what was temporarily the biggest McDonald’s restaurant in the world at 3,000 square feet. Actually, McDonald’s was the only visible food brand name, because Olympic officials took the official sponsor label seriously.
McDonald’s opened its biggest restaurant in the world, but it will be dismantled and recycled.
All of the other food vendors used signs in Olympic colors but with generic words like “fish and chips” and “cornish pasties.” We went with the tasty fish and chips. (The McDonald’s was a temporary structure and was demolished after the games ended.)
The food park was buzzing and busy at the time because a number of events were in progress—handball in the Copper Box, water polo in the Water Polo Arena and basketball in the Basketball Arena. I excitedly posted updates to Facebook and Foursquare.
I was surprised to learn in the food park that only Visa and cash were accepted. Those commercials about how you need a Visa credit card in some places in the world were true—it wasn’t a hype or an advertising gimmick. Vendors wouldn’t take anything else because Visa, like McDonald’s, was an official sponsor.
We Keep Strollin’ Along
The River Lee runs through Olympic Park, so planners incorporated a breathtaking wildflower walkway with benches where visitors could relax and people-watch amidst beautiful surroundings.
Next, we found ourselves at the Mega Store, which offered hundreds of Olympics items from T-shirts and caps to pins and blankets. It would have been impossible to get out of there for less than a few hundred dollars. (Once again, I was glad I had my Visa card!)
The next spectacle we encountered was a building that looked like big blue shipping containers stacked together. This turned out to be an excellent way to house meeting rooms, as well as all of the TV studios needed onsite. At 1 p.m. London time, we walked past Matt Lauer and the crew from “The Today Show” as they provided live coverage for the early hours of the broadcast on America’s East Coast.
A writer for Gizmodo.com described the “Orbit” as “an orgy of steel or a tentacle wrapping around a stunted Space Needle.”Wendy Durand
As we walked into the Basketball Arena, a stunning venue that some people think looked like it was constructed of giant marshmallows, I was overwhelmed with emotion—the colors, the Olympic branding and the fans. I kept thinking, “How cool is this?”
We saw two games—Lithuania vs. Nigeria and then Great Britain vs. Brazil. Both were great games. I was cheering for Nigeria and Great Britain. Lithuania and Brazil won…but the experience of simply being there meant a lot more to me than who won and who lost.
As we left the stadium around seven that evening, we were ushered by people with smiling faces back to the Javelin train. “Did you have a good time?” they kept asking. “We are so happy you enjoyed your day.”
The Olympic Broadcast Studios building in the Olympic Park is made up of 114 shipping containers.Wendy Durand
Good Going, Great Britain
In the end, I came away enormously impressed with the fantastic job the Brits did on construction. Everything was made with possible future reuse in mind. The Olympic Stadium, built in sections, can be reduced to 25,000 seats or increased to allow more seating.
The Aquatic Center’s wing seats were removable. The Basketball Arena was temporary and has been offered to Rio de Janeiro for the next Olympics.
As we boarded the final train, I thought, “Did we just visit the Olympics or Disneyland? Because that sure felt like the happiest place on earth.” Well done, G.B.!
Wendy Durand was born in Great Britain but has been living and working in Southern California for over 20 years.