Armchair Pundit

The Olympics with a two-year-old

Alex Chick

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Today I was joined at the Olympics by two assistants - my eight-months-pregnant wife and two-year-old son.

I had spent the last few days at London 2012 careening around the place on my own, or in a small group of savagely-fit (or at least moderately mobile) journalists.

This unencumbered approach had given me precisely no insight into what it is actually like to take your family to the Olympics - so it was time to bring out the big guns.

In last June's second round of ticket sales I, like many others, got up at the crack of dawn to negotiate the failing London 2012 website and snap up tickets to whatever scraps of action were left for my nearest and dearest.

We ended up, more by luck than judgement, with women's hockey pool games followed by a women's weightlifting final on the same day. Today.

And so we descended on the Olympic Park at the crack of dawn for an 8.30 kick-off in the hockey, and I took on the challenge of taking a toddler to the Olympics.

Much as you think you're assessing things objectively as a lone hack, throw in a two-year-old and it's a whole new ball game.

When hauling a buggy around, a previously unnoticed flight of steps becomes a barely-surmountable obstacle.

You are suddenly obsessed with the availability of lifts and pushchair drop-offs.

With family, the time it takes to buy a coffee and a muffin becomes critical.

On a rainy day, you start to worry about the Olympic Park's lack of undercover seating, or the huge queue snaking outside the aircraft-hangar-sized McDonald's (clearly not big enough).

You regret buying tickets for the Riverbank Arena, the only uncovered stadium in the Olympic Park.

The hockey provided good value for money - we paid £20 each for two adults and a £2 'pay your age' for the sprog.

In return we got two full matches — Netherlands v Japan and New Zealand v South Africa in a session that touched close to four hours.

If anything, it was a bit too much action for a child who persistently foiled my attempts to explain the finer points of the short corner by diverting his interest to the boom-mounted camera behind the goal and the horn-blowing Dutchman seated nearby.

After the first match, a 45-minute break provided the perfect opportunity for the 10,000-plus spectators to join the largest coffee queues in the western hemisphere.

I obediently got in line, and on finally reaching the front was met with a weary sigh when I had the temerity to ask for a tea and a coffee.

"The coffee will be about 10 minutes."

In the event, it arrived almost instantly, but the chip and pin machine proved less obliging.

This piece of machinery was proud not only to reject all MasterCards, it also turned its nose up at my Visa.

I lobbed a handful of pound coins at the harassed assistant and returned to my seat some 10 minutes into the second half.

And so to the weightlifting at ExCel, where our ushering into a 'priority' queue proved a mixed blessing as it took — to my best recollection — three-and-a-half hours for four people to pass through airport-style security.

Unsurprisingly, G4S staff were present, accompanied by one bewildered soldier who politely but insistently suggested they might want to stop going for lunch and open a second conveyor belt.

Almost without exception at London 2012, any security area staffed by the army has been fine; anywhere with G4S in charge largely shambolic.

The individuals themselves are pleasant enough, but clearly lacking organisation, training and common sense compared with the men in uniform.

I can only thank G4S boss Nick Buckles for supplying so few staff - had he drawn a total blank we might have been treated to the slick precision of an all-military security process.

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Once in the arena, we were treated to a fine spectacle. Weightlifting has a compelling, almost primal simplicity, yet the tactical intricacies of lifters deciding when to take their three attempts adds fascination.

Trailing by 2kg after the snatch, Kazakhstan's Maiya Maneza delayed her first attempt at clean and jerk until everyone else had fallen by the wayside.

Meanwhile, her rival Svetlana Tsarukayeva made a mess of her second and third lifts.

Maneza needed to lift just 128kg to win but her delaying tactics meant she was forced to attempt 135kg - weights are gradually added to the bar as the competition progresses, and cannot be removed.

Perhaps it was just confidence — Maneza easily hoisted 135kg, which she then described as "a weak result" after two failed World Record attempts.

Having read multiple stories of the wrong Kazakh anthem being played at medal ceremonies (the Borat theme and Livin' La Vida Loca in recent memory), it was almost surprising when the correct version boomed out.

My son was too young to understand most of it — his favourite bit was the large building site outside St Pancras Station. We could have just got the Javelin train to Stratford and back and he would have been perfectly happy.

But when he asks me in 10 years time what he saw when the Olympics came to London, I won't have to say: "Nothing - you would have been too stupid to know what was going on."

Instead, I can tell him he saw a couple of hockey games, followed by a Kazakh lady lifting a very heavy weight. And that is what the Olympic Games are all about.


ACCESSIBILITY/FACILITIES: 6/10 — Easy to get to within the Olympic Park, and the buggy park was convenient and well-staffed. But the 45-minute mid-session interval caused mammoth queues for refreshments.

VIEW: 7/10 — Cheap tickets got us decent seats behind a goal — but the protective fence to stop hockey balls flying into spectators' faces seemed unnecessarily thick and distracting.

SPECTACLE: 8/10 — Hockey is a great live sport. Quick, skilful and a lot more aggressive in person than it looks on TV. Plus getting two matches was a bonus.

FANS: 7/10 — Given the action started at 8.30am on a dank morning and went on for four hours, I'd say the energy in the stadium was pretty good. There were plenty of foreign fans, including several clusters of orange-clad Dutch. However, some turned up for only one match.

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The Riverbank Arena - scaffoldingy

X-FACTOR: 4/10 — The Riverside Arena is the only Olympic Park venue that feels temporary. An unlovely structure of exposed scaffolding, no cover and open sides, it feels a bit thrown-together and cheap — and probably was.



ACCESSIBILITY/FACILITIES: 4/10 — A slightly irritating DLR ride from the Olympic Park, ExCel is a perfectly serviceable venue with a good buggy parking system. But, if you want to go to Stratford on exit, you are frogmarched on a gargantuan detour over a large body of water and across some wasteland to Pontoon Dock station. Not for the heavily-pregnant.

VIEW: 7/10 — Hard to go wrong with weightlifting. As long as you can see the stage, you're fine. We were, however, a long way back given we paid £45 for each of our three tickets (even for the sprog). And an old-mannish gripe — the writing on the scoreboard was too small to read comfortably.

SPECTACLE: 7/10 — Again, it's weightlifting, you know what you are going to get. But it is one of those sports that you only watch every four years — and whenever you do, you are hooked.

FANS: 8/10 — An enthusiastic and knowledgeable crowd created a superb atmosphere — particularly with a good dusting of Kazakhs on hand to see their girl win gold. But those empty seats were there again, especially in the plum seats right at the front.

X-FACTOR: 5/10 —Depending on how you look at it, ExCel is either a melting pot of great Olympic action under your roof, or an annex for all the sports not considered worthy of the Olympic Park — how they must hate water polo. It is definitely not a 'wow' venue, but as the home of seven sports at London 2012 it has plenty going on.


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Alex Chick will be writing from London 2012 throughout the Olympic Games.

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