What I learnt from the Olympics: my top 11 lessons #olympics #11lessons

I was talking to a friend about my time working in the London Olympics. It was a joyous experience and one I posted about a couple of years ago. In case you are interested in some lessons learnt here’s that post, updated and improved!

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Anish Kapoor’s crazy broken trombone sculpture, the Orbit, on the night of its opening in May 2012 – guess 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 IOC’s requirements, once their Bid Document for the next 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 mesmerising.

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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) – crisply 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. Cadbury 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 in that office. And the habit caught on, so much so, 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 at this point (don’t get me on that nightmare, involving Dow Chemicals, the irascible Indian government and a fire office whose decision has much the same welcoming impact as a fart in a   lift). 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, is to save space and therefore time, 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 hospitals 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 minimised. 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 lent 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 again. ‘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 of the games – with Ian Fletcher the head of Olympic Deliverance the hapless leader of incompetence, and his wonderful catch phrase ‘well, that’s alright then’.. 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. What the f***? Episode two had a video conference with some far away member of the IOC where the picture is off but not the sound, leading to a disastrous misunderstanding: yep, 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 on this benighted Earth, 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 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 – caused 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 and imagined 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 across the City as we sped 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 actual night which we didn’t see at the rehearsal but what we did see was extra special. And the performers were volunteers, not some slick corps de danse. All of the 160,000 of us who witnessed one of these 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 other end of the stadium. 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, at the shooting in Woolwich. 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 privileged 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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23 Responses to What I learnt from the Olympics: my top 11 lessons #olympics #11lessons

  1. Really interesting post. Laughed over the bid scare.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So pleased you didn’t burn your fingers on the torch

    Liked by 1 person

  3. trifflepudling says:

    I agree, it was a really special time in the UK, even out here in the sticks! It was kind of like we were all on holiday somehow, even though we were at work. I was lucky enough to see the relay here and know the person who was the torch bearer so have held it and have the photo to prove it. The Paralympics, a day of which I was lucky enough to attend, were just as good as regards atmosphere – again the holiday mood prevailed which, combined with a beautiful September, was all very special. Unforgettable. So thanks for the reminder and also for your work contributing towards making it all happen 🙂 .

    Liked by 3 people

  4. What a wonderful story Geoff – topped to perfection by the photo of you grinning happily and ever-so-slightly proudly in the gear! I think you should have been given a torch after that major computer malfunction – clearly orchestrated by whoever won the auction! I did see some of that comedy about preparing for the Olympics, some only as it coincided with me giving up TV watching as a regular event. It was hilarious and I often wondered how close to the bone it might be.

    Also reporting back on the movie which had me laughing uncontrollably at the most inappropriate moments, as when Fezel blows himself and the sheep up and the rocket launcher incident etc etc. But not when Omar does himself in at the end. That was a tour de force in idiocy, such a picture of blokes with the mentality of six year olds ruled by testosterone and pseudo-religious mania. Thanks for leading me there 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Mary Smith says:

    Oh, the torch bid story is hilarious.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. noelleg44 says:

    What fun and what a special time and occasion to be involved in! Thank heavens you were notified of your bid. A similar thing happened to my son but he couldn’t withdraw his bid and was praying fervently for ten days that someone would bid higher. Someone did, thank heavens!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. jan says:

    I’ve had a few minor heart attacks over hitting the wrong button and signing myself up for something I could not in a millionaire years afford! Sounds like a mighty fine olympic memory!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The auction had me on the edge of my seat. Ha ha. Providence intervened. You’re a lucky man. Whew.
    You have a fabulous camera. The pictures are wonderful. Thanks for sharing. Interesting to hear about behind the scenes. 😛

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Al Lane says:

    A wonderful trip down memory lane… I only watched the Games on TV, but it was still a special feeling. Thank you for helping to make it happen!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Jools says:

    I confess I was one of the naysayers when it was announced that London had won the 2012 games. How wrong I was! I loved every minute of it. Your post brings it all back and made me wish I too had volunteered. Glad you didn’t have to pay up for the torch!

    Liked by 1 person

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