I was in London for 16 years till 2011, working on the trauma team at Homerton Hospital in Olympic village, the main hospital for the 2012 Games. Between 2009 and 2011, I saw the Olympics Park Stadium come up at Stratford and kept imagining the grand opening ceremony that it would host. When I left for Calcutta last year, I never imagined I’d be back to witness the sporting extravaganza.
But on July 26, a day before the Games were to begin, my good friend Om Prakash Mundra in Nagpur called to tell me that he was going for the Olympics and had managed tickets for me too. It was a bolt from the blue! I hastily applied for leave and booked a flight to London.
The first event on my itinerary was badminton. What a grand sight it was, the panoramic arch of Wembley stadium with the Olympic symbol set against a deep purple backdrop! Olympic officials in purple-pink outfits directed people with a giant foam hand. The weather was just right, with temperatures around 14 degrees Celsius and the sun shining through the clouds, albeit the occasional drizzle.
People of all ages sporting their country colours were arriving at the stadium for football matches too. Kids rode on parents’ shoulders, barbecues had been set up along the road and a huge sense of common pride among the crowd was evident.
That evening, London was in full festive mode. The fish ’’ chips at the Games venues and the description of the opening ceremony in the papers confirmed that the Olympics was a distinctly “British” affair.
One of the most attractive events was women’s beach volleyball. It’s the most over-subscribed event, second only to the 100m dash. Beach volleyball is a fun sport but I’m sure the crowds didn’t mind the bikini-clad cheerleaders dancing the conga or the skimpily dressed teams running on the sand either!
Outside Wembley stadium, I saw some people with signs that said “Wanted tickets please” hanging from their neck or held up on placards. A tight security system was in place, just like at airports.
I joined the small group of Indians present to cheer Saina Nehwal. This was a preliminary and she won the two games easily. My friend Prakash draped himself in the Indian flag in joy!
The most visible Olympic fans across the city were British and American, though there were many Europeans and Asians as well.
Some of the finest artistes in the world had been commissioned to play or sing at the various Games venues, the events ranging from pop to films, visual arts and fashion to theatre, from circus to carnivals and from opera to digital innovation. NVA’s “Speed of Light” brilliantly fused sport and performance art for a display of lights. Damon Albarn (of dance-rock act Gorillaz fame) introduced his less chaotic style of music as part of the ongoing London Festival. People were out on the streets with music and singing. The restaurants were all full, especially in the evenings.
I experienced some colourful moments during the gymnastics events. The whole arena was a deep purple-pink and the gymnastic floor was immaculate. In the team event, Japan was ranking second, after China, but Japanese gymnast Kohei Uchimura lost his balance, landing awkwardly during the pommel horse routine and was not awarded any point. Britain was placed second, Ukraine third and Japan slipped to fourth.
The fairness of the Games became evident yet again when an appeal was made by the Japanese coach. After careful consideration, the judges awarded Uchimura 0.7 points, which restored Japan to silver position, pushing back Team GB to bronze. But this was a great achievement by the British gymnasts anyway, who were greeted by Prince William in the stands. This was the first Olympic medal in gymnastics for GB in a 100 years!
Today the greatest Olympian of all time, American swimmer Michael Phelps, won gold for his team in the 4x200m freestyle relay and silver in the individual 200m butterfly. His victory brought the 17,000-strong crowd to its feet to salute the 27-year-old for holding the highest number of Olympic golds — 18. He was interviewed immediately after and came across as a humble guy with lots to offer to swimmers of the future.
We had the most coveted tickets that morning — track and field events. It was the best time I spent at the stadium.
To reach the stadium, one had to go through the shopping complex called Westfield. This complex has many bars and restaurants where seats were at a premium. I managed to squeeze myself into a pizzaluxe restaurant and had Ossobuco pasta and Margherita pizza.
Inside the stadium, I was excited to learn that my seat was just 10 rows from the track. Little did I know that Olympic history was going to be made in a matter of hours.
Discus throw was underway and India’s Krishna Poonia was competing. She had a throw distance of approximately 63m, six metres short of the top thrower. I was fascinated by the miniature remote-operated BMW cars (called MINI Coopers), measuring 24 inches, that were being used at the centre of the field to send the result of each thrower to the judges. The mascot, Wenlock, was going around shaking hands with the crowd and hugging children.
The stadium was packed. Two large screens beamed all the events in slow motion. The sky was lit by the sun and later equally brightly by floodlights. A large airship was floating across the sky. The Olympic flame was alive on a high black tower.
The women’s heptathlon was won by the UK’s Jessica Ennis. Her win was an emotional moment for all the British spectators. Then came the long jump. Team GB’s Greg Rutherford won the event, soaring to 8.31m. The 10,000m final was won by Mo Farah. During the women’s 100m final, the crowd went mad yelling with joy as Jamaican Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce aced the race in 10.75 seconds.
Amid all the celebrations, I also spotted some poignant moments — sobbing parents and disappointed Olympians. I realised that for every medal winner, there were countless heartbroken participants, who had tried as hard but didn’t make it to the winners’ podium.
Sunday was a thrilling experience at Hyde Park, with more than 100,000 people in the large BBC Live Olympics stage glued to the giant screens showing different events. In the evening at Wimbledon, Andy Murray extracted sweet revenge, beating Roger Federer in straight sets. And on the seaside in Weymouth, Ben Ainslie became the greatest British Olympian in sailing by getting his fourth gold in four consecutive Games.
The Olympic stadium was packed with athletics fans from the beginning of the day, unusual for modern Olympics. There was a vast pro-British sonic boom at every event, which propelled the athletes of Team GB to go “faster higher stronger”, I’m sure!
That night Usain Bolt (aka the Lightning Bolt) proved once again that he’s the fastest man on earth, covering 100m in 9.63 seconds!
The Games had so far been quite a triumph for UK women (Jessica Ennis, Lizzie Armitstead, Katherine Grainger, to name a few). Dressed in their pink, purple and violet uniforms, even the volunteers reflected a feminine spirit of the Games. But the British women were not alone in giving this Olympics a “she” flavour. US swimmer Missy Franklin won four golds, 16-year-old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen brought the aquatic centre alive by breaking the world record in the 400m individual medley, Ethiopian runner Tirunesh Dibaba bagged her third Olympic gold medal.... And for us, there was boxer Mary Kom, who showed grit and won bronze.
The Games didn’t ignore older enthusiasts either. Hiroshi Hoketsu, a 71-year-old Japanese showjumper was the oldest participant. He had first competed in the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, the year I was born! Nick Skelton at 54 years (with a hip replacement and two knee surgeries) was the leader of the showjumping team that won gold for Great Britain for the first time in 60 years. His teammates were Peter Charles (52 years), Ben Maher (29 years) and Scott Brash (26 years). From showjumpers to showstoppers!
The evening was lit up yet again by the “Lightning Bolt” at the end of the 200m dash, which made him the owner of the “double-double” after similar feats in Beijing.
In the Westfield shopping arena athletes who had finished their competitions were hitting the bars. London clubs were full with Olympic medalists downing pints; some athletes were entertaining children with their antics.
Wembley stadium was a mass of yellow (Brazil) and green (Mexico) for the football final. Being a Brazil fan, I wrapped a yellow tee around my neck. The huge crowd of 86,000 with no seats to spare reiterated the magic of this Olympics. There were many Britishers clad in the Union Jack but supporting Brazil.
The game was full of Brazilian skills but they were unable to score except in the closing moments. The 2-1 score in favour of Mexico lit the stadium with green. Bands drummed up Mexican tunes and fans rejoiced in their fancy attires and large hats.
I travelled to Hyde Park to catch more action on the giant screens, sipping wine under the setting sun. The crowd cheered Mo Farah to the finish in the 5000m race. I also watched the Germans win the men’s hockey final with a narrow margin of 2-1 against the Dutch. British boxers excelled in the ring and in wrestling, our Yogeshwar Dutt won bronze in the 60kg freestyle category.
I read with a heavy heart a Guardian article headlined “India feels frustration of a great nation with such small returns”. A country of 1.2 billion managed just two silvers and four bronze medals. Even Grenada (with a population of 110,000) bagged a gold. A poster showing Michael Phelps and the Chinese Olympic squad draped in medals was juxtaposed with Indians weighed down with gold and silver jewellery. “We have more gold” said the caption.
I watched Sushil Kumar win silver in 66kg wrestling. He seemed very tired after his fourth fight of the day and lost to Japan.
As I write this, I am watching the basketball finals, US vs Spain. Much is being planned for the closing ceremony and the handover for the next Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Having missed the much-talked-about opening ceremony, I am eager to witness the grand closing.
This Olympics proved London to be the most diverse city in the world. The Games have been the most dramatic possible lesson for me in the virtues of ambition, hard work and competition. I shall relive these delightful moments in this diverse city for many years to come.