x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

London Olympics spectators' splash of delight for free

Marathon swimming has been a surprise hit because it allows fans to beat the ticket queues.

Some spectators arrived three hours to grab vantage points at the start-finish at The Serpentine.
Some spectators arrived three hours to grab vantage points at the start-finish at The Serpentine.

Even the sniffer dog seemed to feel like the whole security operation at the entrance by the corner of Hyde Park was a little unnecessary.

The brown springer spaniel named Jo, who would have failed to scare a pet hamster, initially wandered off in the wrong direction and had to be coaxed back towards the delivery vans to smell for explosives.

At the same time, policemen pottered among the people, wearing their knife-proof jackets, their Heckler & Koch MP5 machine pistols and their friendly smiles.

It was that sort of day. The sun had come out and that is usually enough to get London smiling. Union Jack umbrellas had turned into Union Jack parasols.

It felt like the Great Exhibition - the mega carnival which took place at this site in 1851 - for the security-obsessed 21st Century. A summer fete meets James Bond.

A 10km marathon swim around The Serpentine in Hyde Park does not have obvious spectator appeal. Basically, those watching get to see a few identical-looking swimmers splashing around briefly in front of where they are stood, and then they are gone as soon as they have arrived.

If the spectators are lucky enough to have a spot to stand at a central part of the course, the swimmers might come back near them around 20 minutes later. At either end of the course, it is double that.

And yet, for the second day running, the banks of the course were teeming with people for the men's race yesterday.

No doubt cost played a part.

For all but the plum seats in the grandstand - the view from which, bizarrely, was impaired by a large tree - it was free to watch.

The free events at London 2012 have been extremely well attended. It was estimated that as many as a million people lined the course for Mark Cavendish's ultimately flawed attempt to win the Road Race at the start of the Games. Such is the standing of cycling in the UK now.

When the Brownlee brothers, Alistair and Jonny, competed in the triathlon around this same area in Hyde Park, they said they were shouting instructions to each other from a yard apart, yet could not hear each other on account of the racket made by the vast crowds.

But the 10km swim?

It is hardly an edge-of-your-seat spectator experience. There are no celebrity marathoners in the water. And even the home hopeful, Daniel Fogg, had relatively modest aspirations. He exceeded them by finishing fifth.

Yet this represented the last chance for most people who had not been successful in navigating the labyrinthine ticket process for these Games to get a look at what all the fuss has been about. It was a chance to be a part of it, before it was all over forever.

To be on the safe side, some people even arrived at 9am, three hours before the beginning of the race, to ensure they got a good view of the start-finish line.

When they got there, the early risers unpacked their sandwiches and their kindles and their iPads. Even passing the time waiting for the action to start is not like it was in the good old days.

What is wrong with a bit of I spy?

One supermarket has been running a Great British meal deal during the Games, with the purchase of three British items getting a free Union Jack sandwich bag thrown in.

A coronation chicken salad, a ploughman's roll and a Victoria sponge would give you the chance to show your colours. Not that anyone has needed prompting to do that over the past two weeks.

pradley@thenational.ae

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