London 2012 Paralympics: Swimming

The first ballot for Paralympic tickets closed at the end of September 2011. As we didn’t get tickets for athletics or swimming for the Olympics, we applied for tickets to get into the stadium and the Aquatic Centre. We selected the cheapest tickets for sessions that didn’t require us to take any time off work and a few weeks later it was confirmed that we had been successful.

Aquatic CentreOur swimming tickets were for the morning heats on day 3 of the Paralympics. When I looked at the schedule I was delighted to find that we would get to see Ellie Simmonds, one of the faces of the Paralympics, in her 400m freestyle heat. In total there were heats in 15 disciplines over two and a half hours. The finals took part in a separate session later the same day.

Sitting in a high chairWe arrived at the Olympic Park bright and early in good time for our 9.30am start and got through the usual security checks quickly. During our previous park visit we hadn’t noticed that the entrance to the Aquatic Centre was actually from the back of the building, rather than from the bridge at the Stratford entrance to the park. In an attempt to get a higher vantage point for a picture of the Aquatic Centre, I couldn’t resist to climb up an empty high chair. It didn’t improve the view of the building, but it made for a good picture in itself.

The IOC guidelines for swimming required seating for 17,500 spectators. To achieve this, two temporary stands were built along either side of the wave-like roof. The real beauty of the building, designed by Zaha Hadid, will only become clear following its post-Games transformation into a facility for the local community, clubs and schools. We had to climb up four flights of stairs to get to our seats. The humidity and chlorine smell of the pool hit us as soon as we got to the top of the stairs. Our seats were so high up that we were unable to see the stand on the other side of the pool! Luckily we had our binoculars and zoom lense with us.

View from our seatsWomen’s 100m Butterfly – S10
Sophie Pascoe in the 100m butterflyIn the second race of the morning we saw New Zealand’s Sophie Pascoe, who had won three golds and a silver as a 15-year-old in Beijing. Sophie absolutely dominated her heat, winning by over four seconds ahead of her nearest rival in a new world record time. Pascoe went on to break her world record again to win the final.

Men’s 400m freestyle S6
Darragh McDonald in the 400m freestyleNext up were the two heats for the S6 400m freestyle. It became clear early on in the first race that Darragh McDonald from Ireland was swimming in a class of his own. By the end of the eight length he was almost a length ahead of everybody else, finishing over 26 seconds ahead of Australia’s Reagan Wickens in second place.

Matthew Whorwood (GBR) competed in the second heat which was won by by Anders Olsson from Sweden. Matthew was carried by the enthusiastic home crowd to finish his heat in second place. He would later win bronze behind McDonald and Olsson.

Women’s 400m freestyle S6
I have watched quite a lot of swimming before and was really surprised that for the heats the athletes do not come out individually before a race. Instead the swimmers for the next race get ready while the previous race is still under way. The Union Jacks were flying around the Aquatic Centre when Ellie Simmonds and Natalie Jones came out for their heat.

Ellie Simmonds getting readyThe classification system allows competitors with varying disabilities to compete against each other. This means that Ellie, who has dwarfism, competes against athletes who are much taller than her. It was also interesting to see that athletes are allowed to start races in different positions.

Start for the 400m freestyleDue to her size, Ellie isn’t a strong starter and tends to be behind for the first length. However, as the race developed, she stormed ahead, eventually lapping one of the other swimmers on the home straight. She missed the world record by .18 of a second but qualified fastest for the  final. Natalie Jones finished the race in third and both looked very happy with the result as they left the pool. The swimmer who was lapped, Lorena Homar Lopez of Spain, received great support from the crowd on her final straight to finish an astonishing 52 seconds after Simmonds.

The second heat was dominated in a similar fashion by Ellie’s main rival Victoria Arlen (USA). There had been issues over Arlen’s classification in the lead up to the London Games, suggesting that she wasn’t ‘disabled enough’ for the S6 category. In the end she was allowed to swim in the S6 category in London, but her classification will be assessed again in the future to determine whether her condition is actually getting better.

Ellie Simmonds at the finishThroughout the morning we saw several other British swimmers qualify for the finals. James Crisp and Sam Hynd finished third in their heats in the SB8 100m breaststroke, Claire Cashmore won her heat and qualified fastest in the women’s SB8 100m breaststroke, Anthony Stevens finished second in his S5 200m freestyle heat and Sascha Kindred and Thomas Young finished second and third in the SB7100m breaststroke. We also saw Daniel Dias from Brazil, the Paralympic version of Michael Phelps, win his S5 200m freestyle heat with ease.

Swimmers leaving the poolThere were some very surprising moments which made me realise how little I knew about paralympic sport. It was fascinating to see how at ease the athletes are in the water when many of them required assistance in getting to and from the pool. There was a small white bench next to the exit from the pool where athletes would put their prosthetic limbs on again. Others were helped straight out of the pool into their wheelchair whilst the visually impaired were guided by a coach. Blind swimmers being tappedBefore the Paralympics it had not occured to me that blind swimmers would be competing. I can’t see very well without glasses and although I am a confident swimmer, I used to find being in a blurry swimming pool very unnerving before I got contact lenses. I could not image swimming a full length of the pool at full speed and waiting for my coach to tap me on the shoulder to indicate when I am about to reach the Swimmer finishing with his headfinish. Similarly I was astonished to see that 3 of 5 swimmers in a SB7 100m breaststroke heat did not have any arms. The crowd really got behind Tomotamo Nakamura (JAP) who caught up with Matthew Levy (AUS) on the final 20m and managed to finish with his head before Levy’s arm could touch the wall!

I really enjoyed the electric atmosphere in the Aquatic Centre. Although the crowd was patriotic, there was also great support and appreciation for athletes who were not challenging to win their races. There were lots of families in the crowd and it was brilliant to see the excitement in children’s faces. The Aquatic Centre will feel very different when it reopens to the public and I hope it with be flooded with daylight when large glass windows replace the temporary stands. Let’s hope we will be able to take a dip in the Olympic pool one day!

Being a Games Maker: Part 3

The first day of competition was my last shift for four days. During the afternoon I kept an eye on the men’s cycling road race and was incredibly excited that the riders were going through ‘my part’ of London in an Olympic race! The following day I swapped roles from Games Maker to spectator and went to see the archery women’s team event.

By the time I was back at the Hilton a few days later, the competitions were in full swing and our role had evolved. In addition to selecting images for the gallery, we compiled as much information as possible about the pictured athletes and competitions. This saved valuable time for the caption writers and meant that pictures could be published more quickly. It was quite easy to identify cyclists, swimmers or runners because their names or starting numbers are visible. Other sports like diving, fencing and taekwondo proved much trickier and took a lot of time. Crawling through start lists and statistics is not everyone’s cup of tea, but finding and organising information comes natural to me and I enjoyed it.

The images we worked with were taken by professional photographers working for the IOC and were of very high quality. We often had to discard beautiful pictures in favour of a more balanced coverage of all the Olympic sports. The closeup shots caught the human emotions of high-performance sports perfectly and it was fascinating to learn more about sports that I wasn’t so familiar with. My favourite session was selecting images from the women’s football final at Wembley. I had been at the game the night before and was very pleased that I managed to identify most players without checking the teamsheets.

Women's football final between USA and Japan

Danger in the Japanese penalty box during the women’s football final

Although we worked in an office environment away from the venues, I felt very much part of the whole event. With two large TVs in our office we didn’t miss any of the action. Whilst the BBC coverage was obviously very focused on Team GB, we saw the live streams provided by the Olympic Broadcasting Service. There was always someone in the office watching their national medal hopes which made me realise how differently the Olympics are covered in other countries. In my breaks I chatted to other Games Makers in the canteen or around the hotel. It was great to be part of such a diverse group from all walks of life with very different motivations to be there. I met life long volunteers who are involved with their local sports clubs, students, pensioners, full-time mothers, NHS staff and even a Chartered Accountant. One day accreditations at the entrance to our office were checked by a recently retired head teacher who loved the fact that someone else told him what to do!

I didn’t see as much of the IOC members as expected. They were in and around the hotel regularly during the IOC Session but once the competitions started, they were out at the venues most of the time. Early on Prince Albert of Monaco, IOC member and former Olympian, walked around the staff offices to see how things were going. He was very down to earth and it was clear that he appreciated the contribution made by us volunteers and their own staff.

On another day Russian pole vaulter and double Olympic champion Yelena Isinbayeva, an Ambassador of the Youth Olympic Games, came into the office for an online chat on the website. When she finished, we managed to get a team picture with her.

IOC Communications team with Yelena Isinbayeva

IOC Communications team with pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva and canoe slalomist Jessica Fox (AUS)

I worked a total of 10 shifts over 19 days and time went by really quickly. Although I would have been happy with any other Games Maker role, I was particularly keen to look behind the scenes of such a large event and work within an international environment. I absolutely loved what I was doing and felt like a kid in a sweetshop, but I was also aware that not all Games Maker found their roles as exciting and fulfilling. I can’t remember how many times I was asked if we needed any help in our team as the role sounded so interesting!

I felt very sad to leave the Hilton at the end of my last shift on Saturday 11 August and couldn’t believe my luck the next day when I received a phone call from an IOC staff member to invite me to the closing ceremony! It was a mad dash to collect my ticket and get to the Olympic Park in time, but it was the perfect way to round off my Olympic adventure. The show was brilliant and I had tears in my eyes during the athletes’ thank you to Games Makers and when Seb Coe mentioned the volunteers in his speech. I thoroughly enjoyed being an Olympic volunteer and had a fantastic time ‘making the Games’!

London 2012 Olympics: The world is in town

During the Olympics many countries have national houses to promote their culture and provide a ‘home away from home’ for fans, athletes, officials and sponsors. Most of these are open to the public, some ticketed and some for free. I had seen a list of locations before the Games started, but wasn’t sure whether I would find time to visit any of these houses during the Olympic fortnight.

Club France at Old BillingsgateOn one of our walks along the Thames we saw Club France at Old Billingsgate across the river. Later that evening we stumbled across the Danish house at St Katherine Docks almost by accident. Whilst there were long queues for tickets at Club France, entrance to the official Danish Olympic house near Tower Bridge was free.Danish house at St Katharine DocksIn fact it wasn’t a house, but an outdoor area in front of the Dickens Inn pub. To get in, we walked across a little rope bridge past a replica Viking ship. Next we admired a LEGO version of the Olympic Park, built from more than 250,000 pieces, and a wind turbine, also built entirely with LEGO pieces.

Olympic Park in LEGOA partisan crowd was watching their men’s handball team on a large screen and several stalls were promoting Danish fashion and design. Others sold hot dogs, Danish bacon, smoked salmon and drinks. At half time TV presenters reported live from just a few metres away, using the picturesque maritime setting as backdrop to their temporary Olympic studio. They must be pretty famous in their native country as lots of people were taking pictures with their phones. The atmosphere was incredibly friendly and we were glad that we had taken this little side track on our way home.

A few days later I went to Canary Wharf where the entire Museum of London Docklands had been taken over by the German House. Entry was free before 5pm so I walked straight in and found myself in what can be best described as a Bavarian beer garden. Almost instantly my attention was drawn to a Strandkorb, a wicker beach basket typical for my home county Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. A tall guy asked if I wanted my picture taken and he didn’t have to ask twice. He was really friendly and told me that all the people working on the Mecklenburg stall were in fact police officers who had been seconded to London to promote Mecklenburg during the Olympics!

StrandkorbI spotted a Games Maker uniform in the crowd and introduced myself to Steffi who was working as a driver during the Games. We ended up chatting for a while over a German beer and it was really interesting to talk to another German volunteer. In the workforce canteen at Park lane I had heard a few stories from other drivers allocated to specific IOC delegations, but Steffi was not allocated to a particular person but on call for different types of clients. I was pretty impressed as I don’t think I would have been comfortable driving around London in a shiny Olympic BMW without knowing the city! The crowd was following the men’s single finals in the gymnastics on big TV screens, followed by track cycling from the velodrome. Somehow I found myself cheering for Chris Hoy rather than the German guy…

I didn’t stay too long as I was keen to see the MS Deutschland nearby. I have seen many cruise ships before at home in Warnemünde, but never had they been moored between skyscrapers! The ship, known in Germany as ‘Das Traumschiff’, was the official hospitality ship for the German team and not open to the public. The German team travelled home in style after the Games.

MS Deutschland moored at South QuayI went around South Quay and admired some of the world’s largest privately owned yachts. There was a large public screen on the other side of the quay. It was a bit sad that there was not a soul about to see Chris Hoy collect his sixth Olympic gold medal.

It was an afternoon full of contrasts. I enjoyed the friendly encounters and the unexpected sighting of the Strandkorb at the Deutsches Haus. However, seeing all these luxury yachts and the empty public viewing area at the foot of the Canary Wharf skyscrapers left a bit of a sour aftertaste to this Olympic experience.

London 2012 Olympics: Women’s triathlon

Anja Dittmer during the runTwelve years ago I watched the women’s triathlon at the Sydney Olympics on TV. I was cheering for Anja Dittmer, born not far from my hometown in Neubrandenburg, who finished in 18th place. It was the sport’s Olympic debut, the first triathlon I’ve ever seen and really good fun to watch.

Three years ago I went along to see the first triathlon World Cup race held at London’s Hyde Park in preparation for the Olympics. That year the women’s and men’s races were held in quick succession on the same day and we were fortunate to see the world’s best triathletes in action. We managed to stand right by the transition zone and saw the changeovers at close hand. This was a great insight into the sport and made me appreciate the level of precision required to ensure that no time is wasted in transition.

Like other Olympic road events, the main part of the triathlon route was open to the public whilst ticket holders watched from a large stand overlooking the transition zone and the finish line. We hadn’t tried to get tickets, but when a friend told me that she thought about going to watch the women’s race, I decided to join her. We looked at the route and thought we would try to get a place on the Serpentine bridge to get a glimpse of the swim and be close to the cycling and running route. It was the morning of Super Saturday with the race starting at 9am. When we got to the park just before 8 o’clock, the route was already quite busy. It turned out that the bridge was actually closed to the public. We decided to sacrifice the chance to see anything of the swim for a place in the front row just outside the Serpentine Gallery.

The crowds have arrived earlyDespite the early morning the atmosphere was really good. A group of Games Makers were busy setting up one of the refreshment areas for the race. Two police officers cycling along the route were greeted with huge cheers. The fences along the route were soon sporting a wide range of flags from all over the world and people were chatting to strangers about their Olympic experience. I put my German flag over the fence in support of Anja Dittmer in her fourth Olympics, the only competitor in the race who participated in all Olympics since Sydney.

Police officers being cheered along the route

The Olympic triathlon distance is 1500m swimming, 43km cycling and 10km running. The athletes cycled past us seven times and as we were standing near a U-turn of the running route, we saw the athletes eight times during the run. There was no commentary in the park but First view of the riderspeople around us were keeping up with the action via radios and mobiles. A big cheer went up when the athletes approached for the first time. A large group including all the favourites was followed by a second group a couple of minutes behind.  My camera’s sport programme proved very handy as it allowed me to take a series of shots when the riders came into view.

Every time the leading group came past, we checked that British medal hope Helen Jenkins, Anja and the other favourites were still hanging in there. It had been raining overnight but we didn’t realise that the riders had some difficulties with the road conditions at the start of the bike race, although we noticed one or two riders at the back of the field who looked like they must have crashed. I only heard later that there had been a series of bad crashes on the slippery roads in front of Buckingham Palace.

A big group on their bikesNobody managed to break away at the front during the bike ride. Soon after the riders had gone past on their last cycling lap, we heard from the American couple next to us that Anja was leading at the transition from bike to running, although only by a few seconds! However, by the time the first runners came into view, she had already been caught. Throughout the four laps a leading group of six emerged, including Helen Jenkins, Switzerland’s Nicola Spirig and Lisa Norden from Sweden. The noise was deafening every time they came past, no more than a couple of metres away from us.

As soon as the leaders went past us for the last time, everyone made their way to a large screen nearby to watch the finish. In the short time that it took us to get over there, Helen Jenkins had lost contact to three of the others. This made for quite a Rushing to the big screen for the finishstrange atmosphere as we all realised that an almost certain British medal was suddenly out of reach. Everybody was screaming at the screen when we saw Spirig get slightly ahead before Norden almost caught her in an amazing sprint finish. I have no idea where they found the energy for that sprint at the end of almost two hours of racing!

Anja finished twelfth in the end. Her run was hampered by cramps and a blister on one of her feet. Although she wasn’t able to finish her Olympic career with a medal, she has been a great ambassador for the sport.

Spectator stands across the SerpentineOnce the race was finished and the crowd slowly dispersed, I made my way towards the Serpentine where I managed to get a glimpse of the big stand across the water and even spotted the victory ceremony through my zoom lense. By the time I got back to Hyde Park Corner, Games Makers were already taking the barriers down to re-open the main sections of the park. Another example of Olympic efficiency!

Olympic archery at Lord’s Cricket Ground: Women’s team event

On Sunday 29 July we got up very early to see our first Olympic event, archery at Lord’s Cricket Ground. Luckily we didn’t have very far to go, which was one of the reasons we applied for the tickets in the first place. When we got to Lord’s just after 8am, there were no queues at all and the very helpful army guys made sure we got quickly through the security checks. I had finished my first four days as a Games Maker the previous day but couldn’t help wearing my Games Maker watch and shoes on my day off.

The setting was absolutely beautiful with the morning sun shining down on the two temporary stands which had been erected on the outfield of the famous cricket ground. The Olympic capacity was only 4,000 compared to the usual 29,500 spectators for cricket games. It didn’t feel crowded at all although there was a bit of a queue for coffee this early in the morning. Many children had a go with bow and arrow at the shooting range outside the Lord’s museum before taking their seats in the stands.

Our tickets were for the women’s team event. According to our spectator guide, “the aim of archery is simple: to shoot arrows as close to the centre of a target as possible. The targets are 122 centimetres in diameter, with the gold ring at the centre measuring just 12.2cm and worth a maximum 10 points. Archers shoot at the target from a distance of 70m.”  Each team consists of three competitors who compete in a best-of-24-arrows format. The team with the highest score wins and goes through to the next round. The guide also advised us to put our phones on silent, not to use flash photography and to be as quiet as possible when the archer pulls back the bow string.

We saw four matches in the first elimination round: India – Denmark, Japan – Ukraine, Russia – Great Britain and China – Italy. The winners of these four matches then went into the quarterfinals against four higher ranked teams. I didn’t really know how ‘watchable’ archery would be. It was almost impossible to see the arrows on their flight but with the help of the large screens we could see where the arrows hit the target. The matches were very tight with the targets routinely being filled with scores of nines and 10s and both Denmark and China winning their matches with the last shot.

The Union Jacks came out when the British team walked into the arena for the third game. The team, led by Alison Williamson competing in her sixth Olympic Games, did really well and led Russia at the halfway stage. Unfortunately the Russians came back strongly and eventually won the match 215-208. Seeing the British team in action really got the crowd going. Until then people were appreciative rather than enthusiastic, possibly because it was very early on a Sunday morning or because of the advice to be quiet.

Our session finished just after 11am. The teams contested the quarterfinals and medal rounds in another session later that day. In the end the favourites from Korea, who had a bye in the first round, won the gold medal match against China by one point with Japan taking the bronze.

It was an interesting atmosphere with many families in the crowd, often with small children who struggled with the idea of being very quiet. Given that most people were there just to see any Olympic action, it felt a bit like a large picnic crowd. Most people, including us, didn’t know much about the sport on show, although there were some supporters from the other competing nations including a large contingent from Denmark scattered across our stand. A the start of the day some cricket fans were clearly most excited about the prospect of walking onto the Lord’s pitch. We left Lord’s and walked home along the Grand Union Canal positively surprised of how much we had enjoyed our first taste of Olympic action.

Pretty in Pink

It took several years to transform London into an Olympic city. This meant building the Olympic Park and other new venues, but also included the installation of visible signs across the city that the Games were getting closer. The first set of giant Olympic rings was unveiled at St Pancras station in March 2011. This was followed shortly after by the arrival of a large countdown clock on Trafalgar Square to mark 500 days to go to the London 2012 Olympic Games. However, the countdown really struck me in July 2011, when the Games were suddenly less than a year away.

In the months leading up to the Games, the number of building sites and road restrictions London 2012 15 July to 11 Sep Plan aheadseemed to be even higher than normal, although this was partly due to Crossrail works which will be going on across London for several years. As transport was one of the major issues for these Olympics, all building works and general road maintenance had to be suspended during the Games to reduce road closures to a minimum. By the beginning of July most building sites disappeared and for the first time in years there were no weekend closures on the tube for upgrade and maintenance work. Instead the city gradually turned pink.

First there were small road signs to alert drivers to the Olympic dates with a link to the Get ahead of the Games website. Then maps and signs on the Underground were enhanced with small pink stickers indicating the closest stations to each Olympic venue.

Olympic tube signsOver one weekend in early July the Olympic rings were painted on roads across the city to indicate Games Lanes, which would be reserved to Olympic traffic during the Games. At the same time, large pink signs appeared all over the tube network and suddenly all lines seemed to lead to the Olympic Park. We saw this first at Baker Street station, a major station for visitors on the way to Wembley and Lord’s Cricket Ground.

Olympic signage at Baker StreetA week later I got off at Hyde Park Corner for my last Games Maker training session. During the Games Hyde Park was home to a large public viewing area sponsored by BT with thousands of visitors every day. The area was also affected by a number of road events such as road cycling, triathlon and the long distance walking. This signage was obviously meant to put the confused tourist at ease.

Signage on a platform at Hyde Park Corner stationI must admit that I am not a driver and therefore didn’t feel too badly affected by the Olympic Route Network. The area around the Olympic Family hotels on Park Lane went into ‘lock down’ about ten days before the opening ceremony. Members of the International Olympic Committee arrived in London earlier than many athletes and officials to attend their annual meeting, the IOC Session, over three days before the start of the Games. The area was very busy with Olympic vehicles and parking in this part of Mayfair was suspended or heavily restricted for security and logistical reasons.

At my first visit to the Olympic Park it became obvious that the pink theme continued inside the Olympic venues. At each entrance visitors were greeted with large pink signs and the colour scheme was used for all signage in the park.

Stratford entrance to the Olympic ParkI am not a big fan of pink and when the first signs appeared I was puzzled by the choice of colour and the boldness of the signs. However, in hindsight it was another very clever move from the London 2012 organisers to create a visual brand for all signage and provide a consistent message to visitors across the city. Now that the Olympics have finished, I keep expecting the signs to disappear even quicker than they arrived. But they will actually stay with us until the end of the Paralympics.

London 2012 Olympics: Opening ceremony rehearsal

Inside the Olympic Stadium

On Monday 23 July 2012 I attended the first of two rehearsals for the opening ceremony. It was the first time the Olympic Park was open for an Olympic audience, although there had been several test events in the different venues throughout the year. Now that the Games have started and we are no longer required to #SAVE THE SURPRISE, here are some pictures from my first visit to the park and from the show.