The time had finally arrived, I was on my way to Stratford and pumped. A statement I could not imagine myself saying outside of the Olympic context. Attitudes to east London take some changing.
As I jumped off the tube and followed the crowds along the circuitous route to the Olympic park my heart was racing. As with all the venues I have been to, cheery volunteers were aplenty, urging people on with smiles and the odd high five. A quick security check, around a corner and there it was. Giant gates welcoming the world to London 2012 in the foreground and the Olympic stadium itself dominating the background. As I walked through those gates a tear came to my eye. I am not embarrassed about it. A real surge of emotion brought on by pride and excitement.
When rationalised it seems slightly odd that this emotion should be so strong when I have not been involved in preparing for the games (bar paying plenty of tax into government coffers), nor know anyone who is competing on a personal level. It comes down to feeling part of a wider collective. As a Londoner, as a Brit, but also as a human being. Dismiss such thoughts with cynicism if you will, but from the moment I stepped through those gates I was surrounded by people draped in flags from every corner of the earth who had come together in the Olympic cause and were ... hold it.... happy.
After I had taken in the magnificence of the stadium and started on the long trek across the complex to the Riverside Arena for the hockey, my first thought was how this Olympic park suited London. At initial look it is basically ugly. A bunch of odd, though in some instances very funky and cool, buildings rising from a mass of concrete. Then as you look closer you notice the hidden gems. On the opposite side of the main thoroughfare from the largest McDonald's I have ever seen (how fitting to "Inspire a Generation") the land drops down via grassy wildflower strewn slopes to a stream. This green area then opens up to form a natural amphitheatre which encircles and focuses upon massive live action screens perched above the water. This provides a huge area for spectators to sit and watch the games unfold and reverberates at each each golden moment.
Like half of the stadia for these Games, the Riverside Arena is only a temporary venue. A giant piece of scaffolding draped in the odd piece of logo filled cloth. A great idea. London does not need a 10,000 seater plus hockey venue and when you step through the metal pole innards and out into the stands it looks great.
I arrived just as the Dutch national anthem was playing to a vibrant scene. The bright blue and pink pitch was surrounded by supporters wearing every colour. As hockey is a major sport in the Netherlands and their ladies are number 1 in the world it should not have been a surprise that the dominant colour was orange. I would say 20% of the crowd were proudly wearing this most recognisable national colour and making loads of noise with boisterous chants. For the opposition, the Chinese, there were a few flags and the odd baffled chant of "China, China" (only slightly less monotonous and dull then "U S A, U S A").
With the sun out, the exorbitantly expensive beers going down the hatch (over 4 quid for a small bottle of Heineken!) and the sight of 11 beautiful Dutch girls constantly pressurising the Chinese with some top skills, it was fair to say that I was in a good place. To give the Chinese credit, they defended like their lives depended on it, putting their bodies on the line especially at short corners where they threw themselves in the way of some viscous shots. The thrashing that had been threatened when the Dutch went 1 - 0 up early in the first half never materialised, as China held them to that solitary score all the way to the final whistle.
Next up were the Germans vs the South Africans. Both had their supporters, but the place had somewhat emptied out with many of the Dutch leaving to other venues or I suspect the odd pub. This was a far better match-up with the Germans eventually edging it. The few beers were though taking their toll and I have to admit that by mid way through the second half my concentration was not what it was. More people watching than ball watching but fun none the less.
On my way out I had just enough time to wander over to see the impressive velodrome and the bobbly basketball arena which has apparently been sold to the Brazilians for 2016. The path then took me back over the hidden valley and along the main concourse with the masses strolling out from the various afternoon sessions. Such a great vibe. I was particularly impressed by all the funkily dressed foreign fans. French cockerels, Bolivian indians, a cross-dressing Spanish flamenco dancer and a number of oddly dressed Belgians who I thought it best not to photograph.
Next stop the volleyball... but first a thanks to Dan for giving me the hockey ticket.