So, I’m up early, which is quite easy for me to do actually because sometime between 4 and 5am every morning, my cat attacks my face – wanting to be fed. She gets confused then when I actually get up at this early hour.
It’s a beautiful morning though. My bag is already packed with all of those things I’m not quite sure if I’m allowed in to the Olympics with or not, such as camera, deodorant, hand gel etc. I leave the house at 5:30 and walk to the station.
Walking down past the DMC you can see the sun just starting to bother the horizon and it really is beautiful. I must also state that in no way am I endorsing Lego. I just kinda like this little fella that I bought the other day, so I thought I’d take him with me.
I arrive at the train station car park and sit on a curb to one side and watch different folk arrive. You know me; keep myself to myself and suss people out from afar.
7 pairs of people turn up, all consisting of a child and a guardian and then there’s me on mi tod and because of that, people automatically assume I work for the council – not that BMBC employers head out on official day trips in scabby denim shorts and Doc Martens or anything, but I most definately don’t work for them.
We wait for everyone to board the mini-bus as a couple of gents squeeze in their lat ciggies for a couple of hours and yes, their last McDonalds for a few hours too.
Dave and Andi (is Andi a feminised version of Andy? I’m not sure) are our drivers for the day. They managed to keep up a Chuckle Brothers routine for the entire journey. They go through the itinerary for the day. What we can and cannot do in the coach; smoking, seat belts, eating and that we’ll have a break at Cambridge services in around two hours time. He also talks about where we will be dropped off when we get to Stratford and says that we are to find our own way from Hackney Wick to the ExCeL via Stratford Station. I can already see the stress in some of their faces. I know that this will be a thirty minute journey max. When Dave mentions the DLR, folk wonder what the District Light Railway is. We find out we’ll get to Hackney Wick at around half ten. Our event starts at 1pm and we need to be there around an hour earlier, so that gives us all ample time to do a little exploring. The Wrestling finishes before 4pm and pick up is at six. I’m not sure what everyone else will be doing, but I’ll be heading off to Stratford Town to see my mate Sev for a beer.
As we pass Doncaster and its surrounding fields, a mist still lingers over the grass but that sun is already pushing its way to a bothersome height; even at this early hour. You just know it’s going to be a hot one. Good job then that I finally decided on the shorts and t-shirt combo rather than the jeans. Many a man on this bus is wearing jeans and it will be them that gets the heat rashes between their legs later; not I. Although, the tracksuit clad daddy at the back should fair fine in the heat as well; a track suit that certainly never been involved in any sport or track pursuit other than the record fag breaks he’s having.
The roads are only now starting to see signs of early morning commuters, but mostly for now, it’s still long distance lorry drivers. I start reading Hunger Games. ‘Nottingham 35m.’
Not sure where we are. There is now a thick fog outside, but not so thick that this summer can’t crack through it. The roads are still empty.
We are at Cambridge Services now and I leave Hunger Games at Chapter 6. The families sit down to teas, coffee and McDonalds. I had one of my pre-prepared ham salad wraps, with so much mayo, it probably wasn’t that healthy option I had in mind.
I sat down and chatted to Adam and his mom. He’s eleven and goes to Darton School. I asked him how he came across his Olympics tickets. He told me that he got them from Summer Camp. His mum explained that ‘he won his ticket by completing a whole run of Summer Camp which was set up by Darton School. Those children who completed it, got put into a lucky draw. Adam was lucky one who got picked.’ Adam says that he would have loved to have won tickets to see the football in Cardiff or Manchester but that he was equally excited to get the opportunity for him and his mum to go to London and watch the wrestling.
Adam’s mum is a single parent and works as a supply teacher. She is curious as to why Barnsley children have been given tickets. I tell her about the Newham Barnsley Partnership and the different things it has done with various schools, sports clubs and of course the bursary granted to me to blog the Olympics in my own way. I tell her that Barnsley and Newham aren’t that dissimilar in terms of education and unemployment figures. It too is an old industrial town that was heavily affected in the late seventies and early eighties.
‘As I’ve been teaching for a number of years, I’m more than aware of figures for the area. It’s appalling. I do think that unfortunately, it will take a lot more than money and sports projects to heal a town. I think the legacy left by sports projects is fantastic and that has been proven by the amount of medals Yorkshire has won this last week and the increase in the amount of sports clubs for kids, but the mindset of Barnsley needs to change too.’
She explains further, ‘Adam takes part in many after school sports groups. Too many sometimes, but it is good to have those options there for him. The school has something called the Golden Mile. Every morning, for the children that turn up early take part in a fun mile long walk around the school fields.’
It is known that pre-school exercise helps maintain a healthy and stabilized weight. It also helps coordination, team skills in achieving shared goals and helps them relieve any stress resulting in better concentration during lessons.
She continues, ‘however, unfortunately it isn’t well attended. Even though some children want to take part, unless their parents bring them to school on time, then they can’t take part. It’s a shame. We often get parents turning up last-minute, still in their pyjamas. It sets no example for the children. What really needs to change is the mindset of some parents. The projects are now there for children but there needs to be encouragement there too.’
Can it change? I think so …at least over time anyway and little by little. Kids need more positive role-models. That’s the real investment needed; time and encouragement. It’s the mind-set of nearly two generations that need adjusting. Maybe role models like Jess Ennis, Laura Trott and Mo Farah will help in some way. It shows kids what possibilities are out there.
She finishes by saying, ‘I have no doubt that this is the first time that many of the children given tickets have been outside of South Yorkshire.’
It probably is. I didn’t leave Yorkshire until I was in my teens and that was only Great Yarmouth or Blackpool. The furthest I’d been until I was eighteen was London on a school trip to see Cats. Maybe I’m wrong, but I expect it is common. It’s tough out there. Many can’t afford to leave Barnsley on a break; Even worse… there are those that just don’t see the point.
I turn around to see everyone on the coach. There’s a young lad, about nine, running up and down the aisle with a toy gun. Hmmm… I wonder to myself if he’ll be allowed into the ExCeL with that.
As we enter London, on the horizon you can see the silhouette of the Gherkin, the City and The Shard. I try to point them out to the kids but a number of them are more interested in their Nintendo DS’s. Although, as we get nearer to Stratford, all attention is on the Olympic Stadium, the Obrit and the stunning Velodrome.
So Dave and Andi dropped us off at Hackney Wick. The smokers got left behind pretty soon, while me and three families made our way to the Overground train. Just one stop until Stratford.
I explained that at Stratford, we’d have around half an hour to explore and get a real good view of the Stadium from the grounds of the Westfield Shopping Centre. I explained which way they should go when they’d finished and how to get to the DLR for the ExCeL …and off they went. I had a little wonder round Westfield, came across the Lego store. I was hoping to find another Olympics figure but they’d totally sold out.
My original route to the DLR had been closed; apparently due to over-crowding. They must have been preempting it because it was actually pretty quiet. Anyway, I found my way to the right platform via two different escalators, one tunnel and two flights of stairs. The journey took fifteen minutes and as we passed Canning Town, I saw Caravanserai out of the widow; which is an organisation that has turned land waiting for redevelopment into an arts and enterprise hub. The site was looking great and I could see the cafe being built. I can’t wait to go back in September to volunteer for them.
I got off at Custom House Station and made my way over the foot bridge, passed the various bars and cafes along Royal Victoria Dock, until I got to the entrance and the first of three gates for the ExCel. The first was a ticket scan. The second was an air-port style baggage and security check. The third was another ticket scan. The security checks were nowhere near as draconian as you hear about in the press, as I managed to get in with a long lens camera, hand gel, deodorant and my inhaler. All good then. Everyone working there was friendly (unusual for London) and wishing everyone a good day. I’ll give the Olympics this… despite any alleged problems with security, everyone that is working there (apart from those overzealous guards at Stratford Station) have been a delight to talk to and have been beyond helpful.
The ExCel centre is pretty damn big. It contains four arenas; each with its own holding areas containing bars, cafes, souvenir stalls and displays detailing the history of the sport showing in that arena. The places is swamped with tourists from every corner of the world. I used to deal with tourists often when I worked in Harrods and Mayfair and it was always the favourite part of my jobs. They are today, as they were then, an absolute delight.
A lot of people have issues with the food for sale. Not it’s quality; just that it is way over priced. £2.50 for a small bottle of coke. £4.50 for a small bottle of cider. £8 small pizza. £6 jacket potato. It’s very similar to the kind of food served up in theatres or London’s O2 Arena. The thing is, you don’t have to buy any. You are actually allowed to take your own food into the arena and okay, you aren’t allowed to take liquids in but you can take empty containers and fill them up to your heart’s content with drinking water once you’re inside.
Regardless, I settled on my bag of Chedders that I brought with me and a bottle of Heineken at £4.20. I also picked up a program for that day’s events. Honestly, I was a little bit disappointed that out of the 66 pages inside, only 1 page was dedicated to the Wrestling and the bulk of that was a diagram of which countries had one most of the gold medals previosuly (USA, Soviet Union and Japan if you’re wondering). I was also disappointed to read that Team GB only had one competing wrestler and that she was not taking part in that day’s events. Ah well, I’d have to chose another country to support.
Well, I took my seats to find half of the group already seated. I can’t say that I’m a fan of wrestling; or sports in general to be honest. When I was a nipper, I was really into American Ice Hockey and Wrestling, but don’t expect any of that early 90s WWF or that great Saturday afternoon tea-time wrestling featuring Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy here. No sir.
This Women’s Freestyle Wrestling is a much different bag. Set out in front of the audience, positioned in the middle of the arena are three adjacent mats. Each one is hexagonal in shape; yellow in the middle and then outer rings coloured red and blue. The opening qualifying rounds consisted of three matched played at the same time. Each country’s fighter came out from backstage with their coaches and someone carrying their nation’s banner. Each was introduced to the audience by the commentator and each fighter was wearing a variation of a blue or red unitard. Each game consists of three periods and each of those lasted up to two minutes in length. The winner is the one with the most points which are gained by exerting certain moved on the other player; throws, holds and pins. Fair enough.
However, there are a few things I find a little strange.
- It’s very tame. Or at least it looks it. There is no doubt these women are powerful, but not much actually happens.
- They fight along to music. Moves Like Jagger (a song a cannot stand) plays numerous times. Surely this is a distraction?
- Having three matches playing consecutively means that you aren’t quite sure which one to watch. As soon as you hear someone cheering, you’re wondering what the hell they’re cheering at. Are you missing something on another mat?
- Despite the arena being full, there aren’t many people there in support of a specific country; other than the Canadians and Japanese. This I guess was due to this game have some of the lowest price tickets available in the entire games. This lead to a slight lack of atmosphere somewhat. The commentator kept trying to drum up noise and cheers from folk.
Once the qualifiers were over with, the action moved to the central mat and that made following the action and supporting a fighter much easier and this is when the action and atmosphere picked up. Even though our ticket was for just the qualifiers and semi-finals, you could see obvious winners. Canada, USA, Azerbaijan were all obvious contenders for a medal and specifically Japan’s Hitomi Obara, who I am pleased to say went on to win the gold in the final.You knew she meant business when she came out wearing not just a blue unitard, but a blue unitard with a large tiger face on the front. It reminded me a little of Murdoch’s leather jacket from the A-Team. As the games went on, the tension rose and as you came down to the last few semis, more aggressive moves were performed, creating gasps, cheers, Mexican waves and a shit loads of foot stomping from the audience; all of which were fully taken part in by the Newham Barnsley Partnership ticket holders. Well, other than those that left less than half way through.
Yes, you heard me. Two of the families left, which was a real shame. Bored? The need of more cig breaks? I’m not sure. But come on, don’t waste this opportunity.
One of the families sat on my right; okay, his son was a little bored but his Dad spent time talking him through exactly what was happening, points scored and how, countries playing, pointing out supporters in the audiences …and that was great. That kid ended up really enjoying it and appreciating what he was watching.
The boy who left; his granddad just saying ‘why aren’t you watching it? Bloody watch it. You’ve come all the way darn here just to bloody leave. Why?’
‘Its reight boring,’ he answered.
The games had ended for the afternoon and everyone left the ExCeL in high spritis. I got to Stratford High Street by half four and met my friend Sev outside one of her local pubs. Two pints of ale, a plate of chips and a tuna baguette later and I was ready to set back off to Hackney Wick for the pick up at six.
Four families were there already. It was still very hot, with little shade anywhere. In all, I had a fantastic day and I’m thankful for the opportunity to see what it it was like to not only watch an Olympic game but to also be swept up by the amazing atmosphere that had drenched London and Newham. It made me realise just actually what a great job everyone is doing down there; or at least what we saw of it from the outside.
Everyone was tired but in a good mood. I asked one of boys if he enjoyed it and he said he’d loved it.
I asked another how he got the tickets. It turns out he’d won them by being the best behaved child in his school. I asked his if he liked sport and he said that he loved football and that he’d been enjoying watching the Olympics at home with his dad; especially the swimming and the athletics. The irony is, that it was this dad that pulled his child out of the arena after just an hour to go elsewhere. And this goes to prove my earlier point. As much as organisations do to support sports and community (and so far the Newham Barnsley Partnership has done a sterling job), I think we now need to tackle the parents and children together.
We’ve been very lucky in Barnsley. 1800 children from Barnsley have visited the Olympic Park, 30 volunteers from the Barnsley Best volunteering scheme have been supporting events in Newham and nearly 200 tickets have been distributed to children and community groups in Barnsley as a result of the Newham Barnsley Partnership; including 10 lucky bloggers; of which I am one.
I think it should have been a requirement that anybody given tickets should have given something back in return; whether it be photos, something written, recorded or even something as simple as turning up to a presentation about the games. Maybe that would have encouraged them to think a little differently about their participation. And I suppose at the end of the day, ‘participation’ is the key word.