My name is Zachary Biondi. I have done one guest post already, which was about WWOOF, Spain, and language learning. You can read part one here and part two here. I think the contest between Paige and I about who is a bigger fan a travel is too close to call. Regardless, I love what she does through this blog, and I jump at the opportunity to write and share about some of my journeys.
Every four years, everyone I know gets caught up in Olympic spirit. It seems involuntary. I never thought I could care about pole vaulting or water polo. There is something captivating about all countries of the world putting aside political and religious differences for a few weeks in the name of sport. Perhaps my naïve optimism is shining through when I say that, if we can come together for ping-pong, there is still hope for humanity.
In August 2012 I found myself in London, surrounded by countless ethnicities, walking through a vibrant and flourishing city. I had been to London once before, but it was nothing like this. Large pink signs were everywhere with arrows directing to an Olympic event or a tube station; volunteers were everywhere, gladly helping anyone with questions; tourists were everywhere, their cameras dangling on top of a shirt bearing the name of their home country. I met my friend and travel companion, who was on different flight, in Green Park, and together we walked the short distance to Buckingham Palace. There we encountered a large crowd pressed up against the purple barricades. In a moment, cyclists were flashing by, led and followed by mopeds with cameras—all in front of the royal palace. It hit me: I was at the 2012 Olympic games.
I had always wanted to go to the Olympics, especially in a foreign country. However, I must admit, perhaps there is a difference between going to a city where the Olympics are being held and, on the other hand, attending an Olympic event. Throughout the course of my five days in London I saw the men and women’s triathlon and the women’s marathon in the London streets, all free to the public. Does this enable me to check off ‘Go to the Olympics’ from my bucket list? Maybe. But my friend and I wanted to attend an event, to get tickets, actually to sit in an arena. So we bought tickets from eBay, taking the chance of being scammed, also taking the chance of being turned away at the gate with our “strictly non-transferable” tickets. We also didn’t have the $500+ dollars to see a track event, or the $1000+ to see USA basketball. The idea was a bit last minute and the matter is complicated for non-EU citizens. We had to settle for $90 Women’s Quarterfinal Table-Tennis tickets. So on August 24, 2012 I got two and a half hours of high-flying, crowd-pleasing ping-pong action.
The event was on the day of our arrival, meaning about 40 hours without sleep. Included with our ticket was a public transit pass for the day. We rode the crowded tube train out of the city, it becoming clearer with each stop who was headed to the games. It was nearly impossible to get lost. Signs were everywhere; volunteers, all in matching outfits, were at every tube stop and in every train; even the intercom on the trains would offer the passengers directions. Finally we arrived at the Excel Arena. It housed multiple events: weightlifting, wrestling, fencing, and others. There was a procession from the tube station to the gates of the arena. To our relief, the tickets worked and we made our way to the table tennis quarterfinals. “We Will Rock You” pounded as we found our seats—a bit anticlimactic for ping-pong, if you ask me. The players (the pongers? I don’t know) entered, introductions were made, and the games began. We saw many matches, singles and doubles. Hong Kong made a run for a chance to advance in doubles, but North Korea edged them out. All thanks unto the Great Leader.
The city was very much alive. The tourist sites—which had no real connection to the games—were constantly busy. The Tate Modern museum, across from St. Paul’s on the Millennium Bridge, was full of people who had stopped during their walk along the Thames. I even witnessed performance art in the lobby in the form a giant game of ‘follow the leader’. The British Museum and the Parliament building, with its famous clock tower, were infused with the countless languages of tourists. In Trafalgar Square, just in front of the National Gallery, there was a constant crowd. Next to the fountain was a countdown clock for the Paralympics, and nearby that, a media center tent. From Leicester Square to Greenwich, from Piccadilly Circus to the Tower Bridge, it was clear that the Olympic games had brought more than just games, but also an appreciation for the host city. And what better city to enjoy.
One didn’t have to go far to find a ‘viewing area’. At the Naval College Gardens in Greenwich—the area of London where one can find the Prime Meridian, and the Equestrian during the games—there was a giant screen, constantly running the latest accomplishments of Team GB. (It was quite strange seeing the media mention America only occasionally.) At the Southbank Centre—home to an amazing book maze—I saw Usain Bolt win the 100 meter gold. Hyde Park had been transformed into the central viewing area, with many screens, food vendors, and long lines (or queues, I should say). After maneuvering around the triathlon, we spent an afternoon there rotating between handball, taekwondo, basketball, and volleyball.
London is a must-see city, and the Olympics is a must-see event, surely we can agree. Together they formed an unforgettable experience. London is already extremely diverse, but during the weeks of the Olympics, this diversity was explicitly celebrated. Perhaps it can serve as a template for times when we are without games and medals.