Friday, August 10, 2012

Scenes from London 2012

The Olympic Stadium

North of Lower Clapton, the River Lee towpath offers dirt surfaces and opportunities to peel off onto grassy footpaths that duck and disappear into the reedy, blossomed overgrowth of Walthamstow Marsh. Brick-arched rail trestles separate the marsh from developed areas further east. The flatness of the open park space, yielding to a broad sky, the wildness of the thick marsh-brush – peppered as it is by the lavender dots of tufted vetch, and the timelessness of the long canal-boat-homes that have lined the British waterways for two-hundred years — all contribute to a feeling of freedom, of being somewhere and maybe even sometime else.

Going south from the Lea Bridge overpass, the dirt path is hidden beneath pebbled pavement, part of the reclamation and redevelopment of east London. Three miles on is Olympic Park, and we jog down to see how close we might get on foot, eventually being turned back at least a mile away. Heading back north, we pass a boat skimming the canal to remove debris from decades ago, as well as fresh but unsightly blankets of algae. We bail off the path, Jerry Schumacher, Tom Ratcliffe, Kiel Uhl and I, to circle the grassy expanse of Hackney Marsh, mowed tight and low – the exact inverse of its sister marsh to the north. Winds buffet the flat field which is easily six-hundred meters in diameter, thickly ringed with trees and without so much as a topographical hiccup from edge to edge. Working across the northern edge, the Olympic Stadium demands your attention to the right, looming over the entire place and looking very much like a movie-scene spaceship settled down out of nowhere onto this Earth. This is beautiful in an entirely different way from Walthamstow.

Every now and again I think I hear a burst of crowd-roar from the Olympic Park aproned out around the giant, lily-white flying saucer. But surrounded by the steady flush of the wind swirling around and at us, it’s hard to be sure.

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The entrance to Olympic Park

Every volunteer is desperate to give out high-fives as the park empties out into Westfield Mall and Stratford Station. Slapping hands is a core competency for the job of greeter-slash-ambassador-slash-mood-maker — along with being irrepressibly cheerful, and successfully identifying the nationality of as many visitors as possible and giving a subsequent cheer for that country. Bonus points for being able to use a cheer in the national language (where applicable). Allez, France is a nice personal touch, but the high-five is universal as well as faster, higher, and stronger than any language barrier.

More amusing are the constables of London who, for the duration of the Olympics, seem stationed as photo-ops rather than as keepers of the peace. Every passer-by wants a photo with a bobby, and all are offered an official Metropolitan Police of London-issued helmet for the occasion. One wonders if actors were hired, given uniforms, and stationed throughout the city as a sort of ambassador-cum-interactive exhibit. Or perhaps extra patrolmen were dispatched in exchange for overtime pay? Heaven help the muggee who runs up to such a living, breathing statue in search of aid and someone to chase their assailant. Sorry, friend, can’t leave my post. But if you managed to hold on to your camera…

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The stadium, stuffed with a world’s worth of people, is feel-it-in-your-chest loud and then suddenly goes to 11. And, improbably, to something past that. Not the see-saw NFL division rivalry game, nor the last-second, home-team win in a claustrophobic college basketball gym, nor the world-record 200-metre world championship run have approached this level of pure, visceral noise in all my corporeal experience. Long have I wondered what Joe Fan screams when he is one of 80,000. For all his humanity, from the track (and certainly from the opposite stand), he may as well be an ILM CGI populating this fantastical scene.

Regardless: when all are yelling whatever they are yelling, we thunder in a way that is truly Olympic. I wonder if we stopped to consider that each cry is completely doomed to be no more than one flake indiscernible from the blizzard, if we might not holler after all. Or do we knowingly offer up these individual petitions selflessly, happy to simply be part of the swell? Knowing someplace deep-down that giving voice to our heart of hearts will make us cheer the louder so the athletes might run that much faster? Through the goose-pimples and buzzing in my bones, I wonder if it matters.

Inside the Olympic Stadium, pre 200m Final

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When thinking of Britain’s Capital, those of us following athletics invariably gravitate to the West of London. The green and straw meadows of Bushy and Richmond Parks were prime training grounds for Lord Coe himself; later, Kim McDonald would bring to Teddington the Kenyan stars of K.I.M. (from which KIMbia traces its own lineage), making the area Ground Zero for serious runners coming to train in London. Spending two weeks in the east requires a recalibration, discovering new cafes, learning new tube and rail lines, and ferreting out new places to jog about. Any major track event affords daily invitations for group running, as we all, in varying levels of ability and stages of decline, are drawn to practice what we watch. Beyond exploring the marshes and towpath, a jog to Finsbury Park takes our one-morning group down the fashionable Church Street of Stoke Newington, with its vintage stores, book shops, cafes, and London’s #1-rated restaurant for vegetarian Indian meals. Abney Park Cemetery offers a detour through a thickly-wooded forest that reminds me of home and of nothing else in London. A path of dirt and half-decayed leaves, a full canopy making a chilly shade, and the feeling that I will imagine this place when next I might read Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretl.

Shops in Stoke Newington

At Finsbury we are to scout the athletics oval, where Jerry might take on Tom’s challenge from earlier in the summer: to run a sub-4:40 mile at age 40. Or is it sub-4:35? Unsurprisingly, there is debate between the two. And unfortunately, Finsbury will not afford us chance to see an attempt at any mark. The track is closed, locked, the fence high and pointed, and yielding only to members — or visitors who will pay a fee.

We are not in the United States anymore. There are jokes to be made about Coach Schumacher winning a reprieve, and we turn and run off.

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Jeremy Mosher is the producer of KIMbia’s multimedia, having directed The British Miler and produced Wisconsin to Worlds, Rookies Vs. the World, and Delilah.

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