Unlike my more privileged colleagues, I do not have a press pass. I have been taking part in the spectator marathon – which had been advertised as a grim and gruelling event.
On Saturday I set myself a tough challenge – get to the Excel centre for the boxing. Unlike the main Olympic Park, which is served by several Underground lines, the Excel can only be reached by the Docklands Light Railway. I have always thought of the DLR as a toy-town system of the sort beloved by urban planners, but useless for actually getting around. In the event, however, we whizzed through Docklands and even got seats on the train.
Spectators are advised to get to events two hours early, to get through heavy security checks. But we actually breezed through in minutes. Even the emergency deployment of the military as security guards appears to have added a dimension to the experience. People were actually posing for photos with the soldiers – which I cannot imagine them doing with the average G4S security guard, whose uniforms are rather less fetching.
I have been to big international sporting events before – and even a few World Cups. But part of the special excitement of the Olympics is that events are happening everywhere. In a World Cup city, everybody is heading in the same direction – towards the match. But on the DLR, there were people going to the swimming in Stratford, and the gymnastics in Greenwich – as well as to the shed-like Excel. Even at the Excel itself, there was fencing, judo and weight-lifting, as well as the boxing itself. Walking to the boxing arena, we heard mysterious and exciting roars coming from the judo.
I am not quite sure what to make of the boxing: I usually associate watching sport with sitting outside. Even if I am not actually running around myself, the fresh air makes me feel vaguely healthy. But four hours in the dark, watching tiny Tajiks and Mexicans thumping each other in a floodlit boxing ring – while the crowd around me got steadily drunk, as they necked their lager and their 2012 Chenin blanc – was a slightly odd experience.
As at other venues, quite a few of the expensive seats were empty, while the cheaper seats at the back were packed. But one of the nice things about the smaller events seems to be that quite a lot of people connected to the athletes are actually in the crowd. The boxing was hugely enlivened by the presence of “Team Ogogo” – a claque of sisters, plus a girlfriend, supporting the British middle-weight boxer, Anthony Ogogo. Clad in specially-made t-shirts, they celebrated wildly when their boy made it through to the next round. Less happy was the giant Venezuelan, with an even larger flag, sitting just in front of me. He roared encouragement for his man, who lost a narrow decision. London is a long-way to come for nine minutes of action.
Olympic boxing was the starting point for some of the greats of the sport, from Muhammad Ali to Sugar Ray Leonard. But it is actually quite unlike the professional game; its more technical and less violent, and the boxers and corners are scrupulously sporting and polite. Doubtless, this is preferable from a moral point of view. But, at the risk of sounding like a barbarian, I was disappointed that in four hours of boxing, I did not see anyone knocked out.
My only other gripe is, I admit, rather shallow. I was surprised by how hard it was to buy London 2012 merchandise. Big sporting events usually pass up no opportunity to flog you tat. But it was actually quite hard to shop. There were not many outlets in the gigantic Excel and the two I found were sold out of 2012 rucksacks and did not have t-shirts in my size (I’m not saying what that is).
Still, I am going to the tennis on Tuesday, the beach volleyball on Friday and the athletics on Saturday morning, so there should be plenty more opportunity to buy T-shirts. I have particularly high hopes for the Westfield shopping centre, near the Olympic stadium.