a city through the eyes of a girl who's not sure how she ended up here

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Stratford's Olympic Park: the heart of the action of London 2012

A brand new postcode had to be created for Stratford's Olympic Park.  It's that big.  Covering two and a half square kilometres of East London, the Olympic Park has been several years and many, many millions of pounds in the making.  Whilst Olympic and Paralympic events are taking place not only in several locations across London but across many other parts of the UK, the Olympic Park is the focus of the action.  The site contains eight different purpose-built sporting venues, from Zaha Hadid's Aquatics Centre to the swooping, Pringle-shaped velodrome, and the peculiarly shrink-wrapped basketball arena to the enormous main Olympic Stadium, last seen as the backdrop for Danny Boyle's phenomenal opening ceremony.  It also contains the Orbit; a...well I'm not quite sure what it is...a scalable sculpture, a pointless folly, an expensive exercise in self-glorification undertaken by its designers?
The Olympic Park, with the Royal Barge, Gloriana, moored up in the bottom right-hand corner; Gloriana brought the Olympic flame to Stratford for the official opening ceremony of the Games.
Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond's ArcelorMittal Orbit
Whilst many tickets to watch events within the Olympic venues have reportedly been selling for up to thousands of pounds a seat, there is a cheaper option to soak up a little Olympic spirit.  For a mere ten pounds you can buy a ticket for access to the Olympic Park in Stratford, to potter round the place, sink a celebratory drink or two, and marvel at the extraordinary new architecture, even if you aren't allowed to take a peek inside.

When you arrive into Stratford station the pink and purple-clad Olympics volunteers that have popped up all over the city (sometimes in the most unlikely, least Olympic-related places) are waiting to welcome visitors to the site, indicating which way to go with big foam fingers, booming at the crowds through megaphones from atop tall, lifeguard-style chairs.  Waves of visitors bustle towards the Stratford Gate entrance to the site, wrapped in their countries' flags, with patriotically-painted faces.  Yet more Olympic volunteers line the path, shepherding the ticket-clutching crowds into an encampment of white tents in which each park visitor is X-rayed and security-screened, somewhat unnervingly by seried ranks of members of the British Armed Forces.  But once cleared and allowed entry to the park, the cheerful hectoring lessens.
Visitors at 'Park Live', sitting on all the pretty, painstakingly-planted flowers
Eventing on the big screens at Park Live
The Olympic Park is a surprisingly beautiful and green place.  The River Lea flows slowly through the middle of the site, wide, grey and patrolled by an emblazoned 'Rescue Team' in a life-boat should anyone attempt any impromptu water-sports.  In the middle of the river, towards the top of the park, is mounted a pair of vast screens, courtesy of some (one imagines) pretty sizable sponsorship from British Airways.  Here, at 'Park Live', those visitors without tickets to the venue events, or even those in possession of such tickets but with a break in their schedule, sit on two high grassy banks before these enormous television screens, watching the goings-on in park venues like the Copper Box or the Aquatics Centre, or even further afield out in Greenwich and across town in Earls Court.  Even three days in however the glorious banks of wildflowers planted around this area were looking a little squashed, as demand outweighed allocated lawn space.  Beer-sellers with cool-bags move between reclining groups, proffering the omni-present Heineken (spot the Olympic sponsor).  The whole thing has something of a relaxed, festival-ish atmosphere.  

Weirdly, located in a country where queuing is a pastime in which its people are unchallenged international champions, the Olympic Park had almost no queues at all when I visited.  Sure, there were thousands of people around but someone seemed to have done all the necessary sums so there were also adequate toilets, food outlets, programme-sellers and volunteers ready to point you in the right direction of anywhere you couldn't find.  The necessary number of benches, alas, was sadly severely under-estimated, maybe in a bid to keep the people flowing around the site.  Alongside a range of suitably international cuisine stands, sits the world's largest McDonald's (a proud achievement for London there), and a vast store rammed with London 2012 merchandise, featuring the ever-creepy Wenlock and Mandeville, the official mascots of the Games.  A stack of painted shipping containers props up a glass box in which BBC sports reporters discuss the medal table, the shock of a disqualified competitor, and the staggering achievements of US swimmer, Michael Phelps, against the backdrop of the impressive site.

And after an evening exploring the park with many thousands of other sports fans, you might expect a horrendous crush when leaving.  But amazingly, after being channelled out into the huge Westfield Stratford shopping centre, the crowds disperse.  As I headed back into the city sometime after 9pm on the night I visited the site I found off-duty athletes browsing the shops, their park identity passes slung around their necks.  Down at the grandly-named Stratford International station (claiming the 'International' from its direct line to St Pancras, and its Eurostar service to mainland Europe), I found an Javelin train waiting to whisk me back into Zone 1.  Within mere minutes there I was, spat out amid the chaos of nightlife in the middle of London, with the Olympic Park feeling like a whole other world.

8 comments:

  1. Ooh thanks for this, I was rather kicking myself for not volunteering or at least making some effort - having the olympics here has roused whatever enthusiasm for sport exists in me and I would love to see inside the park. I can't see a link for where to buy the tickets, I will re read your piece more carefully...

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    1. Sorry, Jenny. I foolishly didn't put a link in my piece. But park tickets are available from the standard ticket system online. The Olympic park passes all appear to be sold out at the moment, but they do release more from time to time apparently, and I'm sure there are probably some for the Paralympic Games period, as tickets for those events still seem to be around. Keep an eye on: http://www.tickets.london2012.com/homepage. Hope you get to have a look around!

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  2. The Olympic park is great and I hope that some of the Olympic spirit (and park) will remain once the games are finished. What I love is to have the opportunity to discover new parts of London. I feel like I am travelling and staying at home. And you are right, despite all the negative coverage of London public transport, it is very easy to come back to Zone 1 after a visit to the Olympic park!

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    1. I hope so too, Muriel. It would be a real shame if, by the time Rio 2016 rolls around, the Park and its venues are not still useful and alive.

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  3. What a fabulous post! I attended a test event at the park earlier this year but haven't been since it was finished and didn't have any Olympic tickets. I'm thinking I might regret giving away the tickets I did have but I promise they went to a more deserving, far more appreciative home! I love your last photo - very pretty!

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    1. Thanks, Mandy! You're kind to give up your tickets...I gather they're releasing a few more though, so maybe you'll get a chance during the Paralympics? The park looks rather lovely at dusk doesn't it?

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  4. I think it would be so neat to be in London during the Olympics, but I can imagine its sooo crowded right now (and everytime I visit I think its crowded anyway :)
    But I'm glad you get to soak in a little bit of the action. I hope you really enjoy yourself ;)

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    1. Fortunately the crowds have focussed around the Olympic venues mostly so much of the city has been surprisingly empty. It's been very exciting, Ash Louise, but we're all wondering what we're going to do with ourselves once it's over! What will London find to talk about?!

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