I spent the past year self righteously bemoaning the folly of a huge sporting event and a hefty bill at a time of great financial uncertainty and a gung-ho approach to drastic cuts in public services.
I laughed heartily at the (still hideous) pink branding and the bizarre mascots, Wenlock and Mandeville, with their eerily staring Cyclops eyes and permanent expressions of rage that seem to bore into my very soul.
My friends and I would visit the new Westfield and observe from the big ugly bridge, that the rest of Stratford was cleverly and obviously hidden by giant steel ‘tree’ with gleaming leaves that obscure the tired old shopping centre lest it offend the eyes of affluent Olympic visitors. We scoffed and rolled our eyes at Mayor Boris’ recorded ramblings advising us to change our routes to work and spent many an hour complaining about the crowds and ridiculously draconian sponsorship rules.
Now though, I feel like a bit of a dick for all my supposedly knowing laughter and bile. I confess: I’m bloody well loving the Olympics. That’s right. Please, go easy on me… don’t aim for the face… it’s honestly pretty good.
Have you been to Stratford recently? While a lot of it hasn’t had the super special Olympic regeneration promised – Maryland is still a manky hole of suspicious fried chicken and sticky pavement – the atmosphere is thoroughly different. People are actually speaking to each other and there is palpable excitement in the air. No, seriously. Friends who saw the torch travel through report a real sense of community spirit and anticipation, and around the park hearing such a variety of languages is pretty impressive.
The park itself is equally incredible, dwarfing the Westfield over the road, with beautiful landscaped gardens and oddly picturesque views of the stadiums. Rather than the bun fight of angry tourists and chaotic cues that I expected, large swathes of it are clear and open, with picnic benches for folk to eat their lunch and friendly guys wandering around with backpacks of beer, giving directions. There is a celebratory atmosphere regardless of the hefty army guys pottering around and the swollen clouds constantly threatening rain.
I’ll never forget the Opening Ceremony or where I was where I saw it (drunk as a lord shovelling salt and pepper squid in my mouth if you must know) and the genuine excitement at just how surreal and visceral it was. I wanted to hate it, honestly, but I couldn’t. ‘Think of the money!’ I thought, ‘the straining transport system!’ To no avail. My friends and I glanced around, choked out some quiet praise of Danny Boyle and admitted defeat.
While the mascots still fill my insides with a certain amount of dread, it has faded somewhat. Their presence around Spitalfields is pretty funny, their colourful design complimenting the street art of Brick Lane rather than directly contradicting it. Hell, a cuddly one hewn in glittery gold is staring at me now from my bookcase making me feel slightly uneasy.
Yes, the 2012 Olympics is a giant vulgar corporate clusterfuck of unpleasantness, there is no denying. But never have I seen so many really happy people in one place. The world’s largest McDonald’s looms large, a wooden monolith with odours that sting the nostrils from quite a distance while other food options and souvenirs are grossly overpriced – I should be seething with rage, but no, not entirely. The people here are having a great time. If a 30 minute queue for a lukewarm Filet o’ Fish and a few hours watching your country lose at a sport you’ve never heard of makes you happy then great. It made me pretty happy too.