The 2012 Olympics have begun, and after weeks of worrying about everything from security to traffic to the weather, the British are finally starting to relax, cheer Team GB on and enjoy the games they've spent seven years preparing for. I've been vacationing in the UK for almost a month now, and I've seen the level of excitement increase each and every week.
Britain, it seems, can't get enough of the Games. The normally reserved British are festooning their homes with "Go Team GB" posters and the national flag. London has been decorated with Olympic posters on the Tube, along the streets, on buses and taxis, and in department store displays. The Olympic rings and Union Jack are on every product imaginable, from biscuits to beans.
For the next two weeks, Britons will literally be able to immerse themselves in the Games. The Olympics have been front-page news on every newspaper for weeks. BBC's public television coverage is unparalleled, with live coverage of every single event, plus recaps, panels and featurettes -- so sports fans who were unable to secure tickets to Games events can still join the crowd and cheer their favorites on at home. Those who thrive in a crowd atmosphere can head to one of 27 Live Sites scattered across London and the rest of the UK and watch the events on giant Live Screens.
Of course, nothing beats the atmosphere of attending an event, especially one set in Olympic Park, the heart of the Games, home to the Olympic Stadium, the opening and closing ceremonies, and many popular sporting events. Only people with tickets to a sporting event at Olympic Park or people with tickets to visit Olympic Park are allowed inside, so it was a real stroke of luck that one of the games' major sponsors, McDonald's, offered me and my family some tickets to visit Olympic Park. Tickets to the park had sold out just as quickly as tickets to the Games, so I was delighted to receive the opportunity to check out the inside of Olympic Park and soak up the atmosphere.
The Olympic Park is located in East London, approximately 30 minutes away from central London (Paddington Station) when traveling by Tube. Actually, we had been warned that it could take up to an hour, but fears of crowded trains and lost tourists seemed to be unfounded. Organizers have worked hard to make the Games a pleasant experience for locals and visitors, and their efforts clearly showed. There were prominent signs to all Olympic venues throughout the Tube system, and as we exited the Stratford Tube stop, there were hordes of Games volunteers herding people in the right direction. We had to go through airport-style security (scanners and X-rays) to enter the Park, but there were plenty of open lanes to keep the lines moving.
Even though we weren't attending any events, there was more than enough for me and my family to see and do to keep us busy throughout the day. Olympic Park covers a 500-acre area, and is home to seven sports venues -- the Olympic Stadium, London Aquatics Centre, Basketball Arena, Copper Box, London Velopark, Riverbank Arena, and Water Polo Arena -- the Athlete's Village, The Orbit, and several sponsor pavilions.
The Olympic Stadium is where the opening ceremonies were held, and where athletic events and the closing ceremonies will be held. It also holds the Olympic flame, which we really wanted to see but couldn't because we didn't have tickets to the stadium.
Right beside Olympic Stadium is The Orbit, an observation tower built to commemorate the 2012 Games and Britain's largest piece of public art. Visitors can take an elevator to the top, where I imagine they can enjoy amazing views of London -- but like everything else, tickets to the Orbit were sold out.
Some lucky people, however, don't need a ticket to visit the Orbit; in fact, they get their own fancy car and public escort to take them there.
I'm talking, of course, about Queen Elizabeth, who visited the Orbit on the day we were there. It's one of the few times that commoners will be able to see the Queen without having to line up for hours, so we were quite lucky to catch a photo and a wave from Her Majesty.
After the Orbit, the Queen went inside the Aquatics Pavilion, where she made a brief appearance. My in-laws were inside the Aquatics Pavilion at the time watching the swimming heats, and they said the atmosphere was amazing. We could hear the cheering and stamping from outside and could only imagine what it must be like inside!
All that noise reminded us of all the events we were missing, so we proceeded to Park Live, an area inside Olympic Park where up to 10,000 spectators could lay on the grass and watch events broadcast on a giant screen. We arrived just in time to see Chinese shooter Yi Siling win the first gold medal of the Games, in women's 10m air rifle. From time to time, BBC coverage would cut to live shots of the park, so my son took the opportunity to get behind the television cameras and appear on live TV.
By this time, the mid-day sun was burning our backs (even the sun decided to cooperate for London 2012), and once again, the extent of the organizers' planning was evident: Volunteers wandered around the park, offering spectators squirts of sun lotion, wet wipes and plastic sheets so they could sit on the grass.
Just beyond the big screens, at the edge of Olympic Park, was the Athlete's Village, home to over 14,000 athletes and officials. Even from a distance, we could see the national flags that athletes were draping from their balconies.
The world's biggest sporting event deserves the biggest and the best, and including the World's Biggest McDonald's restaurant, built especially for the games by Olympics sponsor McDonald's. It's over staffed by 500 of the best McDonald's employees from around the world and seats 1,500 customers. We had lunch there, and although we enjoyed trying local menu items (the Cadbury Gold Wispa McFlurry deserves a gold medal), we quickly discovered that they also had the world's longest lines.
Other major sponsors also had pavilions for visitors to explore and enjoy. Coca-Cola had a Pin Trading center, where pinheads and newbies alike could collect and trade pins. Their interactive BeatBox pavilion, where visitors could "play" the structure like an instrument and create their own Olympic soundtrack, was one of the most popular destinations in Olympic Park. Other sponsor pavilions included the Panasonic 3D Theatre, Acer Journey, Samsung Mobile Live PIN, and EDF Electricity Pavilion.
It would take the stamina of an Olympic marathoner to see everything in Olympic Park in a single day, but we simply had to take home souvenirs of our once-in-a-lifetime experience, so we made it a point to stop by the Olympics Megastore on our way out of Olympic Park. Apparently everyone visiting Olympic Park had the same opinion, because the lines to enter the store were as long as the lines to get into the park. While there are Olympics stores and kiosks scattered throughout London, the Megastore stocks the biggest range of London 2012 memorabilia in the UK, including merchandise that's only available at official Olympics venues.
We emerged from the Megastore and Olympic Park with a generous assortment of Olympic pins, shirts and other tchotchkes. I know I'll be cursing my bank balance when I get back to the US, but what's a few quid compared to photos of the Queen and memories of a once-in-a-lifetime day at Olympic Park?
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