When I was asked to write something about my experiences of working at the Olympics, I was reticent, partly because I was lacking in anything interesting to say, and partly because of some irrational fear that I might get myself on some Boris blacklist if I said anything too scathing about the Olympics. But then they took my sandwich and everything changed. Plus I realised that by expressing this political concern I was probably overestimating my journalistic importance.
I’ve been working as part of the ‘great Olympic team’ (as my supervisor insists) for two whole shifts now. That’s 14 hours. 840 painful minutes. One confiscated sandwich. One too many. To set the scene, I’m working in the London 2012 Athletes’ Village and will be for the duration of these Olympics, assuming I last that long (given that I’m writing this as I hide in the stockroom, it isn’t unimaginable that I won’t).
I began this process as an Olympi-cynic, and although there’s been quite a lot which has reinforced this opinion, I’m not embarrassed to say that I’ve seen the light – the torch, if you will. I, like most Londoners, laughed at our incompetence when the visiting athletes got lost on their way to the stadium and sighed when we had to ‘practise’ our journeys to work as they will be during the Games – inevitably they’re the same, but two hours longer. I’ve begun to think that it’s a good thing that London’s public transport is so unreliable as delays will be nothing new to most commuters. The only real difference is the surplus of offensively pink beacons to signal our way.
I’ve heard the stories about security personnel being hired on their ability to smell the difference between vodka and water, and laughed at Mock the Week’s suggestion that rather than a torch (meant to ‘burn with the light of the sun’) we watch the dignified procession of a flannel across Great Britain. Generally, I’ve felt nonplussed about the actual Olympics being held in London, irritated by the disruption, and embarrassed by London’s performance. I have no tickets for any events, and am baffled by those people who spent £2012 on tickets to the 100m final. That’s over £200 per second of entertainment. I doubt even the best hookers can charge that. When a friend offered me a ticket I was mildly intrigued, until she mentioned the £50 price tag. And the fact that it was beach volleyball – the soft porn of the Games. I’d have a better time rereading 50 Shades of Grey.
But I digress; I list these instances only to highlight that I too was a non-believer, a sceptic, a miserable old bat. And my experiences of working at these Olympics didn’t turn me immediately: quite the opposite. First, the revelation that no food is allowed into the Village was a further nail in the coffin of my Olympic experience. As instructed, I’d treated it ‘as airport security’. I’d dutifully emptied my liquids, and even ensured that my sandwich was a dry one (ham, no mayo), only to be ordered to eat it quickly or surrender the goods. As I threw my sandwich in the non-recycling bin (an expression of my frustration with society), I thought my position as Olypi-cynic was confirmed.
My impressions on entering the Village weren’t much better. Whilst most countries bedecked their athlete’s buildings with regal and dignified flags, I cringed at GB’s ‘#OurGreatestTeam’ banner flapping in the rain. The welcoming ceremony for the athletes is a strange mix of NYT theatrics, a Queen medley, and spray painted umbrellas. The dancers encircle the visiting athletes and delegates and sing about their ‘champion’ status. The athletes seem at best bewildered, and at worst terrified. Although it is a bizarre sight to behold, it at least provides a distraction from the monotony of store life. Or it did for the first few performances. But after a day of welcoming dramatics at half hourly intervals, it feels like something more akin to tinnitus, and I doubt very much whether I’ll ever be able to listen to ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ again.
Although there is a lot about London 2012 which has made me cringe, there’s also been a lot which is incredibly impressive. The people who’ve volunteered to help during the Games – the ‘Games Makers’ – are working full-time shifts in return for nothing but a less than attractive outfit. Some of these volunteers have travelled from as far as Australia just to volunteer, and many are camping for the duration because they can’t afford to rent somewhere to live in London.
Speaking to some of these volunteers, their only reason for embarking on this thankless job seems to be because of a desire to ‘be a part of it all’. This might seem strange – and maybe a little tragic – to us, and certainly to me, but this doesn’t stop me being impressed by their enthusiasm and dedication. It might be a cliché, but without them the Games really wouldn’t be able to happen, and even my cynical self has softened because of their attitude.
Being around so many people for whom these might be the most important couple of weeks of their life, the organisers who’ve been planning these events for years, the volunteers who deserve a medal (or mental help), and the (few) Londoners who are proud to host these events, I’ve found myself jumping on the enthusiasm bandwagon. So what if London 2012 might not run as smoothly as other Games? So what if I get off the tube at Stratford only to see staff covering up the arrows pointing to the Olympic Park with arrows pointing the opposite direction? I, for one, think we should embrace the shabby-chic of London 2012 and am willing to admit that I am, if not proud exactly, very excited for the world’s best sportspeople to converge on my London, and for the eyes of the world to be on us. And it’s something I’m prepared to give up my sandwich for.