What I learnt from the Olympics

 

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The Olympic Stadium circa 2009 on its way to being built

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Anish Kapoor’s crazy broken trombone sculpture, the Orbit, on the night of its opening in May 2012 – who was stuck in a lift!

I once aspired to be an Olympian. Never going to happen but the nearest I came was when I spent the best part of four years (spread over six) helping in a small way with the London 2012 Games (both Olympic and Paralympic – when I say Olympics or the Games I mean both unless the context otherwise requires – see, you can take the boy out of the law but not the law out of the boy).

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Inside the Olympic Velodrome when it as handed over – sometime in 2010 I recall

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Watching the cycling during the test event in early 2012

It was a rich, varied and rewarding time; and whatever anyone thinks of the amount of money spent (£9 billion give or a take the odd copper) or the knee-bending required of a Bid City by the IOC (when the Norwegian people found out some of the requirements once their Bid Document for the next but one winter Olympics was made public, they forced the glad-handing politicians to withdraw), if you were in London or, dare I hazard a guess, Britain during the six weeks that the Games ran then it was a unique time. Utterly mesmerizing.

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The basketball arena, again 2009. This was collapsible and sold off somewhere after the games. We all knew it as the Sugar Cube but officially it was the White House.

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and inside… a preliminary round; great seats in row 1

If you have worked in an office you will know that amongst the seriousness and the grinding routine there are moments of high farce and surreal flights of fancy. Any office is the sum of its population, not the work done or the space within which that work takes place. You spend hours at a time with people you don’t choose, whose whole life philosophy may be the antithesis of your own so, of course, tensions arise, fires break out and each of the seven deadly sins will, somewhere, be represented. Including Lust. Especially Lust.

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Building the Orbit – made me think of my meccano set from boyhood

So what did I learn about Life, the Universe and Everything during that time? Well, some things about me, some about the Olympics, some about working for government and some about life generally. For instance

1. Working for The Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) – crispy described as a non-governmental statutory body – make of that what you will – and then the London Organising Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) – basically the events company – this was the most unhealthy time of my working life. Sure the hours were long and the meal times erratic but you can say that about a lot of modern high pressurised businesses. No, the problem was the sponsors. They gave us treats. Cadburys especially but also Nature Valley with their MDF muesli bars. I accept the Games would not function without sponsors but boy did we sugar high. And the habit caught on so much that the filing cabinets were strewn with biscuits and cakes and chocolates and goodies of all sorts, generously donated by the team and other groups. We surfed our way to the Games on snacks and incipient diabetes. I hear you say, ‘but you could have said no…’ Oh sure.

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A view from the newly completed Orbit in May 2012. The material wrap that covered the stadium has still to be added (don’t get me on that nightmare). The thing with the square chimney is the CCHP plant – fascinating in a nerdy sort of way.

2. This may be true of Government generally, I don’t know, I had always worked in the private sector before this, but we were controlled by the tyranny that is the TLA. The three letter acronym. LOCOG was a pleasant exception and PLUG probably the neatest (Power Lines Under Ground – the need to remove the electricity pylons which criss-crossed meant an enormous tunnel was the first thing built under the site) But otherwise, at every turn a code would be inserted into a memo or a mail or a message that seemed to be there deliberately to confuse and obfuscate – the Enigma machines had nothing on these jonnies. You would ask more experienced colleagues who might shrug or have a stab and leave you none the wiser. The idea of the acronym, lest we forget, it space and therefore time saving but if recipients can’t work out what the “£$%^&* is going on…. well.

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The Aquatics centre; ugly duckling with the clunky wings that housed 20,000 screaming fans but beautiful now they’ve gone. It was built on what had been the West Ham rubbish tip for over 100 years – it was the most polluted part of the site – all cleaned on site at the soil hospital and not dumped elsewhere – perhaps the proudest boast is how this crappy corner of east London was restored without ruining somewhere else.

3. The biggest department appeared to be the communications team. It was essential to scotch bad news stories at source or ridiculous amounts of management time would be spent answering daft questions. If there was always a spokesperson available, day or night, with a rebuttal this risk was minimized. And the comms. team could tell you, almost to the day when the press would turn from broadly neutral (in that they were happy to shoot us down as big us up) to universally positive. Early January 2012. And they were right. As the count down to the Games began, big smiley faces appeared everywhere, even in the Standard and the Metro.

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I saw a few of the torch relays – this one took place at my old school in Brockenhurst in Hampshire.

4. Do not, ever again, let me bid in an on line auction for an Olympic torch. Or anything. There was a surplus of torches made, just in case. When it became clear a number were not needed they were auctioned off, some being signed by celebrities. One warm afternoon, in about March 2012 I was sitting at my desk and I had this mad urge to bid. A neat souvenir, I thought.  I looked at the latest available torch – signed by Jonathan Edwards. They were timed auction and this had about 25 minutes left. The price was somewhere around £2,200. The last couple, not signed, had gone for about £2,000. So I thought, you know, I’ll spend a bit of cash here. I registered, I thought about my bid and decided to go in at £2,750. I’d knock out the competition. I  remember being very careful where I put the decimal place – after all I didn’t want to bid £27,500 by mistake, did I. I clicked ‘bid’ and a short message appeared on my screen.

‘Congratulations Geoffrey. You have bid £1,375,491.72. Keep an eye on the  bidding to see if you have been successful. There are 15 minutes left.’

I shat myself. It couldn’t have done that. I hadn’t typed that. There was a mistake. A MISTAKE. I banged the Esc button, I tried to go back. I ripped the cables out of the machine and rebooted. How on earth could I stop this happening. By now I was pouring sweat. I’d just sold the f*****g house to pay for a sodding torch. ‘Hello darling I’m home. Shall we pack now or after dinner?’ I hunted for a contact number. All I found was an email.

Dear sir. I have just bid – I could barely put in the number – but I didn’t. I couldn’t have. I withdraw. It’s clearly a mistake. Please. Call me.

I gave my mobile number. The message was full of typos but off it went and I sat back. Of course, nothing happened. I stood. I prowled the floor. I worked in an open plan office and no one was aware of the humongous catastrophe that was about to rip the nadgers from me in less than the time it takes to make a decent cuppa.

I had a moment of inspiration. We were the body in effect selling these torches. Someone had to have a contact number I could call. With as much sangfroid as I could muster I found that person, I calmly asked for the details, trying not to pool sweat into their key board as I leant over their shoulder to read what came up on screen and hurried to find a private space to call them. Less than 5 minutes to go.

‘Hello, is that [name withheld]? Can I just check about the current on line auction for the torch.?’

‘Jonathon Edwards? Yes it’s going really well.’

{Groan} What is the highest bid? I think I may…’

‘Two thousand four hundred.’

‘What? Have all the bids come through to you?’

‘Yes we have instant updates.’

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some of the stories of those carrying the torches were inspiring

It turned out they had me registered but no actual bid. Shaking somehow I explained what had happened. My new Bessie laughed. No one bid that sort of money. I tried to join in his gaiety and failed. He rummaged around his site but found nothing indicating I  had bid the national debt of Latvia. He laughed. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll clear your registration. But sorry, you’ve missed Jonathon. Still David Beckham is coming up. You can go for him.’

Oh sure I was going to do that again. I had already been self-defibrillating off a uplighter for twenty minutes. I slunk away. I went home early. I sat in a dark room with the lights out. Every time I watched another inspiring image from the torch relay my left eye twitched much like Herbert Lom in the Pink Panther films.

5. Do not watch any satirical programmes about organisations you work for. They know. They are uncannily prescient. Take 2012, the BBC’s take off – with Ian Fletcher the head of Olympic Deliverance the hapless leader of incompetence. In the very first episode the Olympic clock ran backwards. Ho ho ho. How we laughed. One week later the real clock was unveiled in Trafalgar Square. It bleeped, it pinged and it stopped. Or the video conference with some far away member of the IOC where the picture is off but not the sound. Done that.

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Post Games parade past my law firm’s offices in Fleet Street

6. If you are going to site anything anywhere that will be disruptive of the locals and there is a crucially tight time frame do not, under any circumstances, site it near where Barristers tend to live. Of all the people anywhere they are the least litigation-adverse. While the rest of use, solicitors included fight shy of doing battle in the courts they lap it up. The Equestrian Events at Greenwich Park were fabulous but in retrospect the area was far too full of men and women in off-white wigs and a penchant for m’ludding a lot for a peaceful run up to the Games.

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I was unexpectedly invited to the directors’box thingy when Mr Bolt qualified in the 200 metres. Cool!

7. Don’t ever believe that the private sector is better able to jump through hoops than government bodies. They are both just as capable of displaying blinding skills, swiftly applied as well as breath-taking incompetence. It’s just that usually the government bodies are more exposed to the public gaze. I saw both but mostly the former. The occasional glitch – like when the bailiffs appeared to take walking possession of all our furniture because some senior numpty had forgotten to sanction an appeal against an erroneous rates bill – causing sniggering in the back row more than any real problems.

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the start of the opening Ceremony dress rehearsal – what a great night – I want one of those clouds

8. The Jubilee Line between 7.30 and 9 am was designed by Faust, painted by Hieronymus Bosch after a night on the piss with Torquemada and de Sade. Ever morning, into its Stygian depths I would plunge, to spend no more than ten minutes on the train to Canary Wharf; yet every morning, pressed deeply into someone’s armpit the will to live gradually eroded. And then I discovered the river bus. Sure it was expensive by comparison – but this is the man prepared to splash the cash on a torch, remember. The first time I lined up to catch the boat it was January, the river steamed gently in a warming sun and a Guillemot dived to catch a fish. Every morning I got a seat and watched the day unfold in the City as we speed east under Tower bridge.  No hassles, no tang of last night’s biryani. Perfect.

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The most wondrous piece for me was when the five rings descended from the sky into the Industrial Revolution themed set piece.

9. Being allowed to watch a dress rehearsal of the Opening Ceremony was  the most fabulous treat. It was amazing; of course certain things happened on the night we didn’t see at the rehearsal but what we did see was extra special. Any most of the performers were volunteers. All of the 160,000 of us who witnessed one of the dress rehearsals kept the content secret. It can be done.

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Difficult to hold my phone still I was shaking so much but the golden girl gave us a wave!

10. We were given no favours so far as ticketing was concerned but I was lucky enough to buy six tickets for Super Saturday in the general auction. Witnessing Mo Farah, Greg Rutherford and Jess Ennis win gold medals all within 45 minutes will stay with me, of course. But the thing that elevated it to the truly extraordinary was the crowd noise. I’m a sports nut; I’ve been to big events, huge events. I’ve heard roars. But this was unique. As Farah and Ennis lapped the track the crowd noise, already deafening, accompanied them as they approached us. It was the aural equivalent of a Mexican wave, rippling down the stands as the athletes approached. You could almost see the sound waves building to a crescendo that would swallow each of us, squeeze out yet more volume and leave us gasping as it rumbled and roared off towards the start finish line. It was as mad, as ear splitting, as visceral as any rock concert or cup final multiplied several times. There are 28 laps in a 10,000 metres at approximately a minute a lap. Amazing we survived really.

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The Lawyer and his best friend making a early bid…

11. I volunteered myself. Part of the team that interviewed recruits to be volunteers on my day off and as a volunteer too. They said the volunteers made the games. Sure. But to be one, to be on the inside, helping, guiding and above all grinning stupidly at the pan galactic joy of it all. Well that was worth a mountain of happy pills.  I was so privildeged to be part of this event. If the Olympics comes your way, please don’t miss the opportunity to be involved. You won’t regret it.

Geoff at Olympics

The Boy Scout!

 

 

 

About TanGental

My name is Geoff Le Pard. Once I was a lawyer; now I am a writer. I've published three books - Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle, My Father and Other Liars and Salisbury Square. In addition I published an anthology of short stories, Life, in a Grain of Sand this summer. A fourth book will be out soon. This started life as a novel in a week on this blog and will follow later this year. I blog about all sorts at geofflepard.com and welcome all comments. These are my thoughts and no one else is to blame. If you want to nab anything I post, please acknowledge where it came from.
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29 Responses to What I learnt from the Olympics

  1. rogershipp says:

    I loved the insiders view of what you did. Remarkable. I’m so glad I had a chance to experience it through your eyes. I saw much of it on the telly during the games, but the insights were valued! Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. lucciagray says:

    I’m sitting at Atocha waiting for my train and everyone’s looking at me because I’ve burst out laughing at my phone! The torch bid is hilarious, but you should have tried Beckham ‘ s the mind boggles😂😂😂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Dylan Hearn says:

    I was lucky enough to take voluntary redundancy two weeks before the Olympics started, so I got to watch every minute with my 2 boys and got to see Beth Tweddle to ‘that’ uneven bars routine live (she was right in front of us). A brilliant, brilliant time.

    Liked by 2 people

    • TanGental says:

      Indeed so; when I found I had the opportunity there was o way I was missing out. I’d have loved to have been at the O2 for that; my one trip there was for the Basketball semis which were amazing.

      Like

      • Dylan Hearn says:

        I wish I’d had the chance to experience the stadium. Tried hard to get tickets but with no luck. I did get to watch super Saturday in a hotel in Leeds with the Sky cricket commentators plus umpires, after watching England v South Africa that day.

        Liked by 1 person

      • TanGental says:

        Now that’s cool. Mind you you’ll probably hate me if I tell you I bid at a charity thingy to join the TMS team for a day at an ashes test this summer and won. I’m hoping to go to Trent bridge because I’ve never been. Maybe the Saturday. I’m sure I’ll blog about it.

        Like

  4. I loved reading this post, Geoff. Do you still have that outfit?

    I laughed at your experience with eBay, but probably would not have been, had it been me.

    I was lucky enough to be at both the opening and closing ceremonies, plus the second Friday at the stadium, as well as a morning watching the swimming and yes…mens gymnastics! Like you have said, those six weeks in London were just incredible – some of the best, and I’ll never forget them for as long as I live.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Annecdotist says:

    The Olympics were so many different kinds of things, and you’ve captured the various angles here. I must confess I was laughing at your torch bid fiasco – I wonder if you’d have been able to sell it again if it had really gone through? Or used your lawyerly skills to argue your way out of it – surely it’s irresponsible to accept a bid of over £1 million?

    Liked by 2 people

    • TanGental says:

      The nice man did say they wouldn’t have accepted it without checking not that I believed him. I can laugh about it now but at the time I had all sorts of crazy ideas – maybe leave the country for a bit included…

      Like

  6. Norah says:

    I enjoyed reading about your Olympic experience, Geoff. Being sports-apathetic I should have little interest, but you always have a good way of telling stories and giving the experience your own perspective. i was nodding in agreement with the acronyms. We have way too many in education also, and I can never remember what they mean. I have to ask for the real words, which I prefer. Like most of your commenters, I enjoyed the torch story, but I would be just as worried as you were. I don’t even have that much money to bid, let alone worry if I had done so.
    I love the marriage proposal. Did Jess say ‘yes’?

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Cindi says:

    Fascinating post, Geoff. What an intriguing and exciting time you experienced! Being a part of such an event would be life-changing in many ways.

    I can only imagine the roar of the crowd you describe from your Super Saturday!

    And I’m still giggling at the visual of you sitting in the dark, left eye twitching, but NOT £1,375,491.72 poorer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      I still get the shakes, Cindi. I pretend I can laugh about it but really I was terrified! And as a place to acquire memories then it was perfect. Mind you when I read Jan’s post a while back about the Norway Bid Doc it made me wonder what we here signed up to

      Like

  8. Autism Mom says:

    What an amazing experience and I love the things you took away from it, both the sardonic and sublime!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Charli Mills says:

    It’s always amazing to be part of an event from the development and backstage perspective, but when it comes to events, well, this is the Olympics! I was so excited for that year because it was in London! What a ghastly moment you had with e-bay. That would cure anyone of bidding. 🙂 Thanks for sharing! So fascinating!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. lorilschafer says:

    I’m constantly amazed by the stories you come out with, Geoff – is there anything you haven’t done? 🙂

    Like

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