When I book theatre tickets I always like to be near the front if possible, which normally means paying the top price. Generally I would prefer to go less often but with the best seats, rather than finding myself stuck somewhere on a balcony gasping for oxygen whilst peering down on to a tiny stage miles away. With the Olympics, however, the best seats are likely to be several hundred pounds so that was never going to be an option – and for the football and boxing we bought the cheapest seats available. But for some inspired reason, when I bought the seats for the canoeing, I went for the top price (£60). And I am so glad I did, as Mrs Chrisparkle and I found ourselves in Row 1 of Stand 1, virtually at eye level with the finishing line. I have never enjoyed such an excellent view at any sporting event ever!
As ever, the whole experience was made so much more enjoyable by the twin ingredients of enthusiastic volunteers and gamesmakers, and superb seamless planning and logistics. For Eton Dorney, we chose to Park-and-Ride at Stafferton Way in Maidenhead, which involved driving to a car park and then getting a shuttle bus. Originally I had thought we could go by train; but, according to the London 2012 travel site, in order to get to Maidenhead station early enough to negotiate the shuttle service, walk and airport security, we would have had to have departed Northampton at about 8.30pm the night before. Thus we opted for the 90 minute drive. The Park-and-Ride was an excellent choice; we were nicely parked up and had joined the briefest of queues for the shuttle bus within moments of our arrival. The Shuttle Bus takes you to Windsor Racetrack, where you walk on a carpet of temporary plastic bricks for about a kilometre to get to the security check-in.
The gamesmakers were really on top form, welcoming and helloing, guiding your journey to the entrance. Shortly before the security area the path breaks into two – should you go left or right? One megaphoned volunteer announced: “you may take either the left or right path. The queue on the left is a little shorter, but the staff on the right are a little better looking”. We went right. Once through, another megaphoned gamesmaker, the self-styled Mr Happy, was welcoming guests. “I like happy couples” he said, “you make me happy when you look happy”. He had a bon mot for everyone walking past. He really made me laugh. Inspire a generation – I want to be a gamesmaker when I grow up.
As we had to leave home at an ungodly hour, we then went on a breakfast hunt. Fortunately Mrs C had been very sensible and brought with her some pre-buttered gluten-free bread. Roast beef rolls from a hog-roast-type stall were a rather unorthodox breakfast but very filling and actually quite delicious. They kindly didn’t charge us for Mrs C’s unused roll, so two huge chunks of roast beef each and one roll cost £12.50. We perched on the edge of some concrete stand and slowly breakfasted. Then it was time for a pre-sport toilet break – Mrs C reported nothing remarkable from her visit to the Ladies, but I was astounded at the positioning of the urinal in the portacabin type construction that I used. With the door open, anyone queueing for breakfast baguettes would have received a complementary eyeful of activity at the urinal. I decided to opt for a cubicle.
Once inside the stand, we decided to make ourselves comfortable and await the sports. I would suggest you take some kitchen towels or tissues because the seats were pretty wet from dew. Fortunately I had kept my roast beef roll serviettes, which were fine for the purpose. On the big screen opposite, we had two genial hosts introducing the activities of the day; and throughout the morning (our session was 9.30 – 12.30) they either interviewed participating canoeists and kayakists, or entertained the crowd with Mexican Wave practice and Bongo-cam, which is where a camera alights on you unexpectedly and you have to play the bongos to a suitable backing track to the hoots of laughter of your immediate friends and the wider derision of Eton Dorney as a whole. It’s funnier than it sounds. I didn’t get the lady’s name but he was called Dave. They did a very good job of keeping everything moving and engaged inter cursus although with a race every seven minutes or so, there’s not a lot of down time. He modelled his “look to camera” on Brian from Big Brother, which might not be an entirely wise move. The other amuse bouche which remanifested itself continually throughout the morning was Mandeville and Wenlock’s song, “On A Rainbow”. They’re the London 2012 mascots, if you hadn’t worked it out. It’s a bustling bright little number that would be perfect in the Junior Eurovision Song Contest and revels in jolly lines like “who knows how far you may go when you travel on a rainbow”. You’d be very hard-hearted not to adore it, even after being forced to hear it six times in one morning.
The sporting programme for the morning itself was, we were told, historically unique in that it was the first time 200m canoe and kayak sprints had been introduced to the Olympic Games. They’re rather exciting to watch, and rarely take more than 40 seconds or so to complete, so these guys and girls are the Usain Bolts of their sport. Men’s single and double kayaks, Men’s single canoes and Women’s single kayaks, all doing 200m at a dash; firstly heats, then semi-finals. The heats were a little odd; depending on how many participants there were in the heats, to progress through to the next round you had to finish in the top five or six positions. However, in some of the heats, there were only six competitors anyway – so they all got through. It was more like a dress rehearsal really. In fact, in the Men’s single canoes, there were four heats in which 25 competitors took part – and only one of them didn’t get through to the semi-finals, poor Mr Demyanenkov from Azerbaijan – and even he had a quicker course time than seven other participants who did get through. The vagaries of sport, heh?
We did of course loudly cheer all the Team GB competitors, all of whom got through their heats and three of whom made it through the semis into the finals which would take place the next day. A couple of rows behind us there were about ten very vociferous French spectators who went ecstatic every time one of their countrymen or women took to the water. There were also some Australians, Canadian, Slovaks, and many other nationalities all supported. There were also some plucky competitors who finished way behind the others in their heats and semis, but who still got massive rounds of applause when they eventually crossed the finishing line. Probably the winner of the “kayaking outside his league” award was Nelson Henriques of Angola who not only crossed the line a long time after his rivals, but also delayed the beginning of each of his races by his inability to get into starting position in the first place. That’s the kind of sportsman I would be.
So 23 races constituting a good three hours worth of entertainment, in a very good-humoured crowd, with a fabulous view of the action and in glorious sunshine. What more could you want? The trip back to the Shuttle buses was quick and easy – with the gamesmakers lining the route for Hi-Fives all the way back, if you felt so inclined; even one of the bazooka wielding policemen was Hi-Fiving everyone; a trifle risky, I thought. Mr Happy was still on his perch, being happy and encouraging everyone to come back tomorrow because that would make him really happy. If you’re missing any prozac, he’s got to be a suspect. No queues for the shuttle bus, and the exit from the Park-and-Ride car park took about three minutes. I doubt if we’ll get any last minute tickets to any other events, so that wraps up our Olympic experiences. Great memories! And if you went to any Olympic events, I hope you cherish the memories too.