‘A Summer Like No Other’ promises the slogan. ‘The biggest festival the UK has ever seen’ echoes another. “We want this to be the greatest show on earth,” says the chairman of the London Olympics, Lord Seb Coe. London is fired up to throw its largest, most ambitious, most disruptive and expensive party in its history. It’s the final countdown to the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics.
The challenge facing the party planners after the UK pipped Paris in winning the Games in 2005 was how to make the London Olympics distinctive, something unique to London. Beijing 2008 was hallmarked by its spectacular opening ceremony, Sydney 2000 for its street party atmosphere, Barcelona 1992 for regenerating the city. The answer is to serve up alongside the sport the biggest arts and cultural festival in the history of the Olympics, powered by the creative energy and diversity of the world’s most international city. In the process, East London, where the Olympic Park is sited, has gained a sparkling new identity and grabbed attention away from the West End.
London’s new Olympic quarter
Historically, the eastern reaches of London were the city’s poor relation and the settlement area for waves of impoverished immigrants over the centuries. In the grand scheme of things, the eastern fringes were out of mainstream radar range except to artists seeking cheap studio space.
But at a stroke East London’s fortunes dramatically changed when the proposal to build the centrepiece Olympic Park in Stratford became a reality, propelling East London into the national spotlight. Not so long ago Stratford was known for its shabby station and shopping centre, a theatre and a high street stranded in a hostile one-way system, with the whole district surrounded by semi-derelict industrial hinterlands.
That former landscape is now the stylish and already iconic Olympic Park set within 250 acres of landscaped grassland, trees and gardens, and with three natural rivers flowing through it. It is one of the largest urban parks constructed in Europe in the last 150 years. The park is furnished with outstanding and award-winning architecture, such as Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre, the elegantly sweeping Velodrome and Anish Kapoor’s 115m-high ArcelorMittal Orbit observation tower, a bright red swirling roller coaster of a sculpture. At one point between the buildings there is a stunning vista of distant city skyscrapers.
Nestling up to the Olympic Park is a gigantic new Westfield shopping mall boasting nearly 400 shops, the biggest in Europe, they say. Together, these mammoth developments have completely reinvented the area. Olympics-Westfield-Stratford have blurred into a single identity, modestly called Westfield Stratford City. Ask a Londoner about the Olympics and they are as likely to associate it with the words ‘Stratford’ or ‘Westfield’ as ‘athletics’.
Newly opened Westfield doubles up as the gateway to the Olympic Park. The vast majority of sports fans will arrive via Stratford station (technically there are two, Stratford and Stratford International — the latter an optimistic misnomer as no international trains stop there) and will have to filter through the mall to get to the Olympic Park. Stratford is now a major travel hub and only seven minutes away from central London on a fleet of non-stop Javelin trains. In the old days, the journey took 45 minutes.
Westfield is already a major hit with shoppers and I’m told it gets jam-packed in the afternoon and at weekends. So when I went for a recce, I arrived early in the morning, and it was quiet and calm. Surprisingly light and airy for a shopping mall, much of it is outdoors with loads of cafés and restaurants lining the walkways. It’s clearly intended as a destination to hang out as well as shop. So when you visit the Games, don’t forget your wallet. I do wonder though how Westfield will cope with the Olympic throng when overcrowding is already said to be a problem. Be prepared for a crush.
If you are coming to London to see an Olympic event, the first question is: have you got a ticket? No ticket, no entry. Tickets to sporting events must be purchased in advance online. Tickets will not be available on the day at the gate. In the UK, demand for tickets for popular events has far exceeded supply, and they can be expensive, up to £2012 (gettit? There’s no getting away from 2012) for the coveted Opening Ceremony.
Non-Europeans are barred from buying tickets from the UK Olympic website, even the combined hotel-ticket packages. Overseas sports fans have to buy tickets from their national Olympic Committees. It’s not clear how Indian sports fans can do this when the Indian Olympic Association website only has a name and contact details for ticket purchase. For those wanting a ticket-hotel package though, the site links to Thomas Cook India.
Possibly the best plan in the quest to obtain a ticket is to ask UK-based family and friends to try and buy a ticket for you. It seems that once the ticket has been purchased, the actual physical tickets can be used by anyone. The name of the ticket holder does not have to match the booker’s name to gain entrance.
For those who can’t get a ticket — and that includes us Londoners too — don’t worry, the door to the Olympic party is still open. There are a number of outdoor free-to-view sports to see, not to mention the nationwide fizz of art and performance events.
The ticketless can watch sleek lycra-clad road racing cyclists battling it out on the streets of London and out into Surrey countryside over a 250km (men) or 140km (women) route. It starts and finishes in The Mall, the grand approach to Buckingham Palace. There’s the time trial cycle race in which individual riders set off every 90 seconds and race against the clock around a 29km (women) and 44km (men) route set entirely in Surrey, starting and finishing at historic Hampton Court Palace. Find yourself a café or country pub, settle back and enjoy a grandstand view, or cheer with the crowds as the riders dramatically cross the finishing line.
Make your way to Hyde Park to see the Triathlon. The three action-packed elements in this high-profile event — swimming, road cycling and running — all happen in and around Hyde Park, so you can easily stroll between courses and catch them all. There is Race Walking to see on a 2km circuit in the shadow of the Palace. It’s a tough sport in which one foot must always remain in contact with the ground. Then there’s the very popular Marathon. Stand in the same spot and you will see the runners belt past three or four times (depending where you are) as they lap round the 13km circuit taking in the tourist sights of central London and the City.
No tickets are needed to enjoy watching live sports events on huge outdoor screens. They can be found throughout the city in places like Hyde Park, Lewisham, Blackheath, Victoria Park and Potters Fields. There are also screens in the Olympic Park but admission is to be restricted to event or ground-only ticket holders.
Access to the Olympic Park will only be available to event ticket-holders and those lucky enough to obtain ground-only tickets (£10 adults, £5 young people and seniors). To see the Olympic Park without a ticket, the best vantage point is a pathway bordering the site known as The Greenway. It offers panoramic views and is easily accessed from Pudding Mill Station, but it will be closed while the Games are on.
The Olympic Park houses the Athletes’ Village and the venues for swimming, athletics, cycling, basketball, handball and hockey. It will host the spectacular £80 million opening (and closing) ceremonies created by Danny Boyle, director of Slumdog Millionaire. Other sports are spread over the city: the Excel Centre in Docklands has boxing, fencing, judo, table tennis among others, show jumping is to be found in Greenwich Park, archery at Lords Cricket Ground and, most delightfully, beach volleyball in Horse Guards Parade, a short ball throw from the Prime Minister’s house.
With the Olympics known as London 2012 it’s easy to forget that events are also held around the rest of the country and that it is supposed to be a UK-wide celebration. Football is dispersed as far afield as Scotland and Wales, rowing resides at the Eton College rowing centre near Windsor Castle, mountain biking at Hadleigh Farm in Essex and sailing in Weymouth, Dorset.
Another layer of the Games to explore are the National Hospitality Houses set up by countries as temporary cultural embassies and bases for their teams, hosting parties, concerts and exhibitions. Among their number is Africa House in Kensington Gardens, Imagine Denmark at St Katharine Docks, the Irish Big Chill House in King’s Cross and Casa Brazil where the Brazilians are making a big pre-Rio splash in the splendour of Somerset House.
Getting tickets for the arts and culture extravaganza is a breeze compared to getting tickets for the sports, and much is free anyway. London and the rest of the UK will be living its busiest cultural summer ever with artists from all over the world descending on the capital. An incredible 12,000 events are promised. The official London 2012 Festival programme is a mighty document of 140 pages.
The events range from major exhibitions like David Hockney’s Yorkshire landscapes at the Royal Academy to the world’s biggest ever international Shakespeare festival. London’s Globe Theatre is mounting all Shakespeare’s 37 plays in 37 different languages, including several from India. Dance aficionados will be keenly awaiting the comprehensive retrospective of works by German choreographer Pina Bausch at the Barbican and Sadler’s Wells. Britain’s film heritage will be projected nationwide in a series of screenings and events, not least the showing of Hitchcock’s silent films with live orchestral accompaniment.
Free events include everything from street theatre to pop-up performances in unexpected places, from opera on canal boats to strange carnivalesque beasts roaming the streets. For music lovers there’s 160,000 free tickets to the BT River of Music, a massive international music feast on six stages along the river, featuring leading artists from all the 205 Olympic nations, such as Portugal’s fado singer Mariza. On my list of must-sees is the towering spectacle of a 33-foot-high mechanical puppet of Lady Godiva being pulled by 100 cyclists and flanked by 2,000 jugglers, musicians and dancers as it arrives in London from Coventry after a six-day journey.
Is London ready?
The question on every Londoner’s lips is how well London will cope with the extra pressures during the Games. A typical reaction came from my dentist. When I asked him for his opinion on what awaits London’s Olympic tourists, he exclaimed, “Transport chaos!” He is a regular five-day-a-week train commuter, so he should know. But contrary to popular sentiment, the Olympic organisers exude quiet confidence that the city will run smoothly, having spent £6.5 billion on transport infrastructure improvements.
There is no climate of panic, no sensational newspaper stories of unfinished construction sites and last-minute struggles to get things hooked up. The Olympic Park venues were completed well over a year ago and have undergone extensive testing ever since. Numerous new hotels have sprouted up and by all accounts London can easily accommodate everyone wishing to come. An elegant cable car spanning the Thames has been erected, buildings on the Olympic road routes have been spring-cleaned and 70,000 volunteer Games Makers have been recruited to welcome visitors. “London is ready,” declared IOC member Denis Oswald on his final inspection before the Games begin.
Will the Games be a Summer Like No Other and the greatest show on earth? Only time will tell, but for my money it will. London will be abuzz with its particular flavour of Olympic-mad energy, excitement and atmosphere fuelled by its global roots. The convention of naming the Games after the host city rather than the host country is especially apt: these really are London Olympics rather than British Olympics. Or should that be the East London Olympics, as the East has stolen the show? When all is said and done about London 2012, the volunteer I overheard enthusing that ‘London is the star of the Olympics’ will probably be right. I hope so.
Olympic Games July 27–August 12
Paralympics August 29–September 9
London 2012 Festival June 21–September 9
Free-To-See Olympic Events
Road Cycling Race
July 28: Men’s Road Race, 10am–3pm
July 29: Women’s Road Race, 12–3pm
Starts and finishes in The Mall. Most of the route is outside London.
Road Cycling Time Trial Race
August 1: Men’s and Women’s Individual Time Trial, 2.15pm–3.15pm (men’s), 12.30pm–1.45pm (women’s)
Starts and finishes at Hampton Court Palace. Entire route in Surrey countryside.
All three elements happen in and around Hyde Park.
August 4: Women’s Triathlon, 9am–11.30am
August 7: Men’s Triathlon, 11.30am–1.45pm
August 5: Women’s Marathon, 11am–1.45pm
August 12: Men’s Marathon, 11am–1.30pm
Starts and finishes in The Mall. Route takes in central London’s tourist spots.
August 4: Men’s 20km Race Walk, 5pm–6.30pm
August 11: Men’s 50km Race Walk, 9am–1.20pm
August 11: Women’s 20km Race Walk, 5pm–6.45pm
2km circuit starting and finishing in The Mall.
Basically free, but some screens may have a booking fee to guarantee space. Check conditions before going.
Free arts and cultural events
London 2012 Festival official website (festival.london2012.com) has a dedicated list of free events. The festival programme with free events listing is also available as a downloadable PDF on the website.
July 28–29: Starts in Coventry with performance and parade
July 30–August 4: Travels to London via Rugby, Northampton, Milton Keynes, Luton, Hatfield
August 5: Arrives in the London Olympic borough of Waltham Forest
National Hospitality Houses
List available on VisitLondon website (visitlondon.com).
See london2012.com for more information.
There are direct flights to London from several Indian cities. Your choices from Delhi, for instance, are Air India, Virgin Atlantic, British Airways and Jet Airways, with round-trip tickets starting at Rs 61,000. Hopping connections on Emirates, Turkish Airlines, Finnair, etc offer more competitive fares (from Rs 56,000 on the Delhi-London sector).
Where to stay
Several London hotels are located conveniently close to the Olympic stadium and village. These include the Holiday Inn Express Stratford (from £124; hiexpressstratford.co.uk), the Travelodge London Stratford (from £100; travelodge.co.uk) and the charming and extremely affordable Cart and Horses Stratford, whose pub is the hallowed spot where Iron Maiden was born (from £49; cartandhorses.co.uk). Of course, expect tariffs to be much higher during the Games.
You could also consider booking an apartment near the Olympic Park on airbnb.co.uk. For instance, a cosy room in a spacious loft in Shoreditch (which is just a few stops from Stratford on the Overground Line) could be yours for as little as £70 (see airbnb.co.uk/rooms/199378).
Or you could leave all the trouble to the travel agent and book a package with Thomas Cook, the ‘official provider of short breaks to the London 2012 games’. They have Games Break packages starting from Rs 10,999 (for one night’s stay, breakfast and one event) and Games Break Plus packages starting at Rs 1,31,999. The latter include luxury accommodation in Central London with breakfast, tickets, coach transfers, lunch or dinner, dedicated games time host and an opportunity to witness Olympics finals and ceremonies. Prices are per person on twin-sharing basis.