Photo: Lewis Shaw
My Sweet Chilli Chicken and Noodles ready meal swill around my plate in a congealed lump, and I get the worrying feeling that this isn’t going to mix well with the terrible digestion I get from even being in London Waterloo. ‘Chicken nuggets,’ I tell myself. ‘That’s all Usain Bolt ate when he became the fastest man on Earth.’
On our way to the station Mike tells me how much Wenlock and Mandeville – the Olympic mascots – sound like the names of two gay antique dealers, and whilst I’m not disagreeing with him on that note, this really is an embodiment of the cynical attitude most Britons have towards ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ coming to their capital. In the train station, we make petty bets on how unprepared Aljec – our third group member – is going to be for the night ahead.
‘Ding dong, its ping pong!’ says Aljec, reading out headlines from the newspaper on the train. The relentless coverage of every aspect surrounding the Olympics in the media and advertising has made most people sick of the games before they’ve even started – yet somehow, we three cynics are on our way up to Hyde Park to watch the opening ceremony on the screens there. We’re out for a slice of ‘Olympic Fever’, to catch a glimpse of history, and to maybe be within a few miles of a terrorist attack.
When we get to London Waterloo thankfully my dinner sits soundly, but as we make our way up to Leicester Square to get some dinner the world seems to swell around us. In my short absence, London has become ridiculously clean and new-looking, the Jubilee Park looking like it was planted yesterday and the whole atmosphere making the city feel like a different country all together. The roads and pathways are filled with every nationality, every mode of transport - roller skates, bikes, cars, Americans, all travelling at varying speeds but in huge anarchic packs you swerve to avoid on your way to a good honest KFC.
Media outlets from around the world move in gang like formations, filming landmarks, interviewing patriots and getting in our way with big cameras. In one night we count ourselves getting on at least 10 news channels. Anticipation had been building all day as to what would happen at 20:12. Three things happened – It began to rain, Red Arrows flew overhead, and some South African bastard turned up blowing a vuvuzela.
We get to Hyde Park at nine o’clock, just as the opening ceremony is to begin, only to find a concert blocked off from entry. According to a handy pink-shirted Olympic person, the newspapers had printed false information, and if we were to watch screens of any sort, we were to either break into someone’s house or drag ourselves over to Victoria Park in Hackney. Being the (mostly) law abiding citizens that we are, we drag our feet over to the tube, sweating it out for an hour before we get to Mile End.
Photo: Lewis Shaw
On our way through Hackney we see a group of people gathered outside a front garden watching a television that’s been hoisted through the window. Before we move along we take a moment to joke that it’s the screen we’re looking for, but also to admire the community spirit this obvious group of strangers has gained.
As we finally approach Victoria Park, anxious to be not turned back again, we are searched and stripped of all liquids – something that slightly irritates me – until we get in.
What follows in the dark, hectic, Hackney night is, for me, a revelation. People from all walks of life sit on rugs and blankets together, engorged watching huge screens, drinking, cheering and chanting together. The atmosphere could only be described as that of a living room – one that’s been magnified to fit thousands of people, gathered like a fine box of chocolates from countries around the world, sat in slightly tipsy harmony in a field that just over a year ago was surrounded by rioting and fire.
As we make our way through the main screen, we find ourselves in the armchair. An hour late, we miss the ‘spectacular’, but arrive for something that in the given circumstances is much better. The flag march begins, and one by one, small groups from around the sitting crowd stand up and go wild, letting everyone know that it is their country up there, their flag on that screen in this field far from home. It became a festival of identity, taking a stand to let everyone knew who you were, and as it turned out – when the Netherlands flag was raised – we were completely surrounded by Dutch people.
All stood for Team GB, and we make our way to the front of the crowd as the Arctic Monkeys take to the stage. We’re surprised at how quickly the whole event turns very ‘Woodstock’ – rock music in the air, plastic beer bottles on the ground and the unmistakable scent of marijuana up our nostrils. It’s not about identity anymore, because we’re all one now, maaaaaan.
The crowd becomes insanely jubilant as the speeches begin, and as Lord Coe declares ‘Welcome to London’ the crowd erupts. Everyone knows we’re in the place to be.
Things quickly get dramatic as we cheer on those who now represent us, and I can feel tears welling up in my head – I know it’s too early for that, and instead let out a good manly roar into the already packed air – one for Redgrave, the most successful Olympian of all time, one for Muhammad Ali, a living legend who stood shaking in his fragile yet strong way, and one for somebody who had somehow gained the moniker ‘Champion of Earth’. I have no idea who she is or what she did to get that name, but I know I’m proud of her for it.
The final run of the torch begins, and you can feel the unwinding tension of the past 70 days. The game is up, and as the group of ‘chosen ones’ light the much talked about cauldron, there is – to be completely honest – a moment of confusion. A monumental ‘Is that it?!’ followed by an ‘Aaah’ As the prongs rise to create the huge flame.
It’s now that the most amazing part happens. Fireworks fly from around the edge of the on-screen stadium, and simultaneously, everyone around us looks up to see those very same fireworks hanging in the sky before us. Amongst the roars of the crowd my mind’s eye flashes back to all those times I had stayed up to see fireworks as a kid, looking into my television into a different part of the world. Looking into a screen and not even two miles away from it all – this time, we are part of that world.
There’s a shot from space – the Olympic Logo looking down on us – and my eyes explode with tears and I gasp for air. In all my life of hearing stories and learning emotions, I’m suddenly left not knowing how to feel this feeling. All I know is that this immense feeling is that of being the centre of the world, if only for a second.
Despite the packed trains, despite the miles to go and the delays, despite the leg that needs medical attention from running to the tube station – I can’t wipe this stupid, tired smile from my face. A smile that now knows what people feel when they can say ‘I was there’.