Working at the Olympics is a great deal of fun. But also a great deal of work. Happily, my day off during the London Games was Super Sunday, part of a weekend when 48 gold medals were doled out. It was my goal to see as much of the city as possible while not missing any key athletic events.
In past travels, I've found those open-topped, hop-on, hop-off buses a great way to get a good overview of things. However, I wake up to pouring rain, so the open-air bit isn't going to happen. Neither is the bus. The women's marathon has taken over the city and closed down most of the key roads. So walking, brolly in hand, is my only real option.
First up, Hyde Park, just a short jaunt from my hotel. It's a massive green space in the heart of the city where 80,00 people a day watch events on big screen TVs and enjoy beer gardens during the Games.
With my umbrella doing a fine impression of a dead spider, I know I won't be one of the 80,000 today. Luckily, I find another great option: a large white-tented area advertising itself as "A Celebration of Africa." I walk through the security gates (which can be found everywhere in this city right now) and, in the midst of the grey London drizzle, it is a feast for the eyes, colour everywhere and different African rhythmns emanating from a wide assortment of display booths. There's one for each African country, it seems.
The display areas vary as much as the countries do. Cameroon looks like a small convention centre with huge murals boasting "All of Africa in One Country." Morroco is an ancient medina with carpets everywhere. A man sits on cushions while working a contraption comprised of a bow, a razor-sharp blade and a pulley made of shoelaces. With it, he fashions rings from a large hardwood stick. With them, he will make the Olympic symbol. Nigeria draws visitors in with some sort of electronic whack-a-mole. The attendant challenges people to hit a moving electronic sensor as many times as possible in a minute. Doesn't seem particularly cultural to me. But in the Olympic spirit, a long line of competitors has assembled. Togo's exhibit, like the country itself, is just a little bigger than a London phone booth. It's adorned with a picture of its star football player, Emmanuel Adebayor, and that's about it. The busiest display is Ethiopia. People are chattering loudly over what appears to be a coffee ceremony. This is where I find out that Tiki Gelana, one of the country's star runners, has won gold in today's marathon.
The rain breaks and so I break from my African refuge.
I am a footy-phile and I need to spend at least some time at one of the city's many impressive soccer stadiums. I've been a Manchester City supporter since I was a boy, so this won't be a pilgrimmage, more of a muted observation.
Stamford Bridge, it is.
On to the Tube, where, counter-intuitively, I head for Fulham-Broadway station. Fulham is another big soccer club here. But its stadium is nowhere nearby. It's Chelsea's stomping ground I'm here to see. There's no match today -- the season hasn't started yet -- so Stamford Bridge has no buzz about it. Still, it's an impressive facility from the outside, a blend of history and modernity. Lots of brick on its high walls. Massive futuristic girders jut out from its roof high above. The team's colours are everywhere, blue and white banners proclaiming "Champions of Europe" every place you look. I remember back to that day in June when Chelsea beat Bayern Munich on penalty kicks to win its first European title. I think of the negative, defensive tactics Chelsea used to win the title by beating, among others, Barcelona. No mention of that here. Only, "Champions of Europe" everywhere you look.
I'm not bitter in the least.
At the Chelsea Museum and souvenir shop, I'm a little too late to join the last stadium tour of the day. The museum costs 18 pounds. Thirty dollars to hear more Chelsea propaganda?! I think not. While thumbing through a variety of paraphernalia, someone turns the volume up on one of the many flat screen TVs in the shop. Andy Murray has won the men's tennis gold over Roger Federer and Murray is about to be presented with his medal. The shop comes to a standstill as the medal is slung over his neck and "God Save the Queen" is played. Murray looks awkward. He must appease the English watching yet not offend his native Scots. "Let her reign over us...." Murray's lips are barely moving. Not the lips of those in the Chelsea shop, though. Everyone's belting out the anthem with pride. When a middle-aged American man tries to gain admission to the Chelsea Museum in the middle of all of this, he is completely ignored.
The middle part of my afternoon is filled with cultural exploration.
At the Whitehorse Pub in Parson's Green, a well-healed crowd of 20- and 30-somethings is drinking the local version of a "Snake Bite." It's cider with a splash of black currant syrup. With the sun pouring down over a two century-old deck swimming in bougainvillea, I wonder why I didn't do something, anything, to spend some of my university days here. I walk into the pub itself and a scruffy brown mutt makes his way in behind me before the door swings shut. As I wonder what to do, I notice the place is filled with dogs. One of them, a large dalmatian, waits patiently as his owner feeds him "Bacon Frazzles." I'm intrigued. The bartender picks up on this and hands me a packet. They taste like pork-flavoured Cap'n Crunch squashed into the form of strips of bacon. Genius. I spend the next couple of hours, mutt nestled by my feet, feeling a deepening appreciation for English pub culture. I watch as Murray heads back on the court and has to settle for silver in mixed doubles with Laura Robson. There are cheers when sailor Ben Ainsley, one of Great Britain's most decorated athletes, positions himself for gold. Though I could settle in, quite happily, for hours, there is another gold medal I'm bent on seeing.
The men's 100 metres goes tonight.
This is a country with a high track and field IQ. It's the home of Bannister and Coe and Christie. It's a country where heptathelete Jessica Ennis is front-page news. And when she's not, Usain Bolt is. The Jamaican sprinter goes for another world record tonight in a "Where were you when?" moment. So I want to find just the right place. Off to Piccadilly Circus.
This is London's Times Square. People from every country in the world gawk up at huge neon signs perched high above. A big crowd is sitting around the Shaftesbury Monument. The monument is topped by a statue of a winged, nude Anteros. I'm told he's the Greek god of requited love, the reciprocal love one feels when one is loved. An appropriate perch then as I see Mo Farah being interviewed on the big screen above. Farah has recently won the 10,000-metre gold and is thanking the British people for all of their support. I listen as a young boy, maybe eight years old and clearly from a privileged background, says to his mom beside me: "Mo's my favorite, mummy. Can I try long-distance events when I'm back at school?" I recall that this city was burning only a year ago from riots, in part incited by economic issues and racial tensions. Seeing this boy openly idolize Farah, a British-Somali, is one of those things I'll remember from these Games.
For all of the love being felt around Anteros, I want a comfortable spot to watch the 100 metres from. There's less than an hour until it starts and I begin a frantic walk looking for a suitable venue. As I walk towards Oxford Circus, the pubs have long since filled up. The restaurants have seats, but no TVs. I'm getting worried I could miss the marquee event of the Games. A hostess outside an Italian bistro asks me if I'm looking for a place to watch the Olympics. "Yes!" I say with relief. I'm whisked to the back of the restaurant where the world's smallest flat-screen TV is mounted on the wall just above where staff is coming in and out of the kitchen. There are two concerns here. The nearby bartender is about 6-foot-8 and, every time he walks past the TV, you can't see a thing. And our waitress has one of those vertical ponytails that are equally tricky to see around. The next hour is spent in the company of a few Dutch families decked out in orange, a big group of folks from Trinidad and Tobago who have long since tried to settle down their sleep-deprived kids and a French couple bellowing out "Psst!" every time the staff stands in front of the TV. We all seem to be in our own little worlds until Bolt wins gold. We all cheer in unison.
It's the end of a Super Sunday, indeed.
Now if I can just figure out why BBC has John McEnroe assisting with their track commentary.
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