Our Olympic Experience No 3 – Canoe Sprint, Eton Dorney, 10th August 2012

Eton DorneyWhen 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!

TV Camera Rig-upAs 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.

Big lensThe 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.

The finishing lineAs 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.

More actionOnce 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.

Another nailbiting finishThe 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?

Yet more actionWe 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.

The crowd behind usSo 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.

Our Olympic Experience No 2 – Men’s Boxing, Flyweight and Welterweight Rounds, ExCel Arena, 3rd August 2012

Day 7After a day’s Armchair Olympics, Mrs Chrisparkle and I were up and out on a mid-morning train to London for some Flyweight and Welterweight Boxing Rounds at the ExCel. Lots of firsts for us here – neither of us had seen live boxing before, nor had we been to the ExCel, nor had we trekked out that far into the wilds of Docklands. When I amateurishly dabbled with Postgraduate life at Queen Mary College in East London in the early 1980s, this area was largely a wasteland. Mile End, Stratford and such places always had some liveliness, but one never ventured out as far as Canning Town. The DLR has opened up a whole new area which we had never seen. This was only our second ever trip on the DLR – the first being a good 15 years ago when we were in the company of the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle taking her on an excursion to Greenwich, where she spent the whole day scowling, as was her wont in those days. But I was amazed at how developed, lively, trendy and generally fabulous this part of East London has turned out to be. The ExCel is actually alongside the Royal Victoria Dock, where I believe my paternal grandfather worked; and not far from George V Docks, where both my dad and his brother laboured as teenagers. How times have changed.

BoxingA quick check of my Tube Map App recommended the Northern Line from Euston to Bank then DLR to Custom House. Quite easy – approximately 33 minutes. When we arrived at Euston, however, the recommended Olympic route, on all the information boards, was Victoria Line to Kings Cross, then Circle Line to Liverpool Street, walk to the mainline station, take the Overground to Stratford, walk 6 minutes to Stratford DLR, and from there head to Custom House – 1 hour 8 minutes. Or alternatively, with one fewer change, (but three minutes longer), tube it to Highbury and Islington, then take the overground to Stratford. Why all the fuss? We just went to Bank, changed nice and simply to the DLR and arrived at Custom House station long before we needed to, so much so that we stopped off for a decent cuppa tea at a bar adjacent to the station, which was awash with accredited people from all nations of the world.

Custom House stationVery jolly and friendly security checks got us into the ExCel. We walked its length and breadth and soaked up the atmosphere, which really was rather splendid. Not only does it house the Boxing, but also Judo, Weightlifting, Table Tennis, Fencing, Wrestling and Taekwondo. As our sports session was from 1.30 to 3.30pm, we thought we’d have a light lunch at one of the stalls. Again this involved the usual gluten-free hunt, but that was quite easily achieved by the appearance of a large and tasty looking Jacket Potato stall, so both Mrs C and I had a Jacket Spud with cheese and beans (£5.50 each) and some water. We sat on the floor, ate, drank and were merry.

ExCelOnce you get inside the Boxing area itself, there are more food and drink stalls, plenty of toilets and a little semi-museum of boxing artefacts and full size shrines to famous boxers. A guy who looked as though we would be handy with his fists was posing next to a lifesize cardboard cut out of some boxing champion or other. His lady was attempting to take a photo that would doubtless serve as The Perfect Facebook Profile Pic. Looking round the museum area, I tried to find some references to the amateur boxers my Mum knew when she was young and carefree, but drew a blank. We wandered around a little more, and saw a weigh-in machine, and a few other exhibits. We turned to go into the arena, pausing to watch the posing guy still with his dukes up and bearing a very pained and embarrassed expression as his lady was still fiddling uselessly with the camera. I think the fun moment was lost.

Our viewOnce inside the arena, I was impressed with the overall size of the room but felt the boxing ring itself looked a bit dwarfed by everything else. There were plenty of TV screens to help you see the action a bit clearer and closer up but if you’re going to rely on those you might as well stay at home. A jovial announcer chap introduced us to some video which explained the finer points of this noble art; and then he interviewed a few excited punters. Apart from the relatively small area obviously set aside for the “Olympic Family”, it was good to see that the hall was more or less full. The crowd was very expectant for the final bout as that would feature Great Britain’s Fred Evans’ fight against Lithuania’s Egidijus Kavaliauskas, so it was almost as though the seven matches before it were like a warm-up act.

Filling up nowWhat became very obvious as the afternoon wore on is that Olympic Boxing is highly tactical. You win by scoring points – and you get a point every time the knuckle edge of your glove strikes your opponent in the appropriate target place – head or torso. Points make prizes, and no score is no glory. There were a couple of bouts where the two boxers, admittedly nimble on their toes, spent what seemed like hours just tippety-tapping their gloves against their opponents glove, for which cheeky approach the opponent would just tippety-tap back. A typical end of round score for this type of shenanigans was 2-1. All tactics and no fisticuffs, which is actually a bit boring to watch, especially when you’re sat at a distance from the ring. They may have floated like a butterfly, but some of them stung like one too. There were, however, definitely some boxers who showed more fighting spirit than others. There was a 17 year old flyweight Puerto Rican, Jeyvier Cintron Ocasio, who was suitably polite and reverential to his elders and betters outside the three minute rounds but then went hammer and tongs at his opponent, the Brazilian Neto, during the match itself. Amongst the welterweights, Canadian Custio Clayton eventually seemed to get the idea that a little aggression is necessary and his final round against the rather overwhelmed Australian Cameron Hammond was worth staying awake for.

An early matchIn order to overcome the tedium of paying attention to each second of each round, the crowd as a whole developed coping strategies. The most popular was to get up at all times during the session, whether it be before, during, or after any particular round, and go to the bar. Unlike at the football, you were allowed to bring alcohol into the arena. Some people took this opportunity several times during the two hours. It was as though they regarded their (at least) £50 tickets as entry to a very expensive club, where you simply go and get drinks for everyone, and there’s a bit of boxing going on as minor background diversion.

A later matchThe next most popular activity was checking Facebook. Every other smartphone was lit up with that familiar blue and grey screen, as husbands commented on action pics and wives chatted to girlfriends. The other entertainment activity – the boxing equivalent of the Mexican Wave really – is to pick on an unlikely competitor and support them for no good reason whatsoever. It only takes one mischief maker to start up the cry “Mon-Go-Lia! Mon-Go-Lia!” for the whole crowd to join in and support the plucky pugilists from Ulaan Bator. I saw the person who started the Mongolia chant – he was about four seats in front of me – and I can tell you the nearest he’s been to a yurt was the camping sale at Millet’s. There’s no doubt the chant worked wonders – we had two Mongolian boxers in our session and they both upped their game in response to our admiration, although the Welterweight still lost – dashed close though. The mischievous chanter got bored – and with good reason – at the dull tactical bout between Ukraine’s Shelestyuk and Moldova’s Belous, and started up a “Mol-Dov-A! Mol-Dov-A!” chant; but we knew what game he was playing, and no one was having any of it. After a dozen or so lone shouts, he shut up, embarrassed.

Full arenaThe whole thing is a surprisingly theatrical event. The entrances of the boxers; the arrival of the next lot of judges and referees like a changing of the guard; the pantomime reactions of the crowd. There were no busty blondes walking the number of the next round inside the ring, but I guess we weren’t in Vegas. For that final match between Britain and Lithuania, not only did the crowd sing with one voice “Freddie! Freddie! Freddie! Freddie!” but they also loudly booed poor Mr Kavaliauskas, which was unsportsmanlike and I wasn’t very happy with it. Even less happy was I with the booing that met M. Vastine of France and Signor Picardi of Italy, whose sole transgressions were to have been pitted against a Mongolian. Still, I cheered on Freddie like he was an old mate, even if he was extremely tactical in his approach to his opponent; and as my reward Evans did give him a good going-over in the last round to seal his victory. I’m not sure what would have happened if he had lost – the judges would have been lynched.

Thames BarrierWhen it was all over we all got up quickly, and, ignoring Seb Coe’s recorded message of “thanks and bye”, we left the arena and headed down towards Pontoon Dock station to get the DLR, but first to enjoy a brief side visit to the Thames Barrier Park – for yes, it is indeed just here – and a rather enjoyable view of the Barrier. We had decided to go home for dinner (by home I mean eating out in Northampton, not actually “at home” of course) but thought we might first see what the West End was looking like in the height of London’s Olympic frenzy. I would say it was a little quieter than usual – particularly as far as traffic was concerned. Charing Cross Road barely had any. After a nice little Pinot Grigio in Covent Garden, we made our way back. A fascinating day out – not quite as entertaining as we had expected but well worth the experience; and a continued Hats Off to the organisers and volunteers who have made this Olympics a most extraordinary thing.