The Sadness of Empty Seats

It is very sad to see all the empty seats at the Olympics in Rio — especially remembering how hard it was to get tickets four years ago.

I expect that not many people in Brazil are well enough off to afford tickets — though you’d think it would be incumbent upon the organisers to set the prices at a level where people could afford them. It’s not as if it’s the ticket-buyers who pay for the bulk of the games’ costs, after all. That would come from the corporate sponsors. Or so I would expect: I don’t have the actual figures.

You’d think that there would be a lot of tourists. I’m sure there are, but it looks like it’s not enough to fill the seats. Maybe getting to Brazil and buying the tickets is just too expensive for many.

And of course there were empty seats visible at London 2012 too, which annoyed everyone — especially when we discovered that many, many seats went to corporate sponsors, who then just didn’t bother to use them. But then, everything was shown as sold out on the ticketing site. Aparently in Rio that is not the case.

Oh well, you get a better view on the telly, anyway.


Proposed New Cycling Race for the Olympics: the "Commuter Race"

This is something that I wrote some notes on around the London 2012 Olympics, and just sitting here watching the Men’s Road Race on day 1 of Rio 2016, I thought I’d dig it out and finally post it.

Competitors have to ride stock bikes — no fancy superlight frames or custom wheels; just ordinary commuter-type bikes. They can be set up for the individual, but they must have mudguards and lights and EITHER a rack and one pannier OR the competitor must carry a backpack or messenger bag; the bag to hold a weight equivalent to (say) a laptop and a change of clothes.

The race to be a typical commute distances (say 5 miles?) carried out over normal commuting streets, during rush hour, with normal traffic.

Competitors get disqualified for jumping red lights or going the wrong way down a one-way street; and receive time penalties for going on the pavement (maybe disqualification there too, actually). They may receive a time bonus (or at least clock-stoppage) for unreasonable delays, as for example when an articulated lorry is reversing across the road and holding everybody up.

To be run as time trials with say a one-minute separation, so competitors should not be directly racing against each other.

An alternative version would have them use bikes from the city’s bike-hire scheme. They’d have to turn up at a designated pickup point, wait if a bike wasn’t available, and so on. This has the added advantage that it forces host cities to have or introduce such a scheme, and to keep the bikes well maintained.

It’s challenge that normal people — ones who commute by bike, at least — could really identify with.


Generation: Inspired

So, it's all finally over, and we go back to normal. Or perhaps not. The slogan of London 2012 was "Inspire a Generation", and I think that has happened.

But the question is, what generation?

The tacit assumption was always that the slogan applied to the next generation: to teenagers and younger kids. Get them up off their arses, it implied, and away from their consoles, and down to their local sports hall, playing field, or pool.

Whether and to what extent that has worked will take a long time to see. But there’s another generation that is already visibly inspired, to my admittedly limited view.

Mine.

Where by “mine” I sort of mean “everyone who’s not still a child.” Because what I’m seeing as I cycle to and from work these days is that the streets are packed with cyclists. And people out running, too; there are definitely more than usual. But it’s us London cyclists who are really showing up.

I personally have taken public transport to work only once since before the Olympics started,1 and I’ve been pushing myself to get that bit faster on my bike rides.

I’ve been thinking of it as something like, “Hoy! It’s the Pendleton-Trott-Kenny-Wiggins effect.” But that’s a bit unwieldy, and misses some names out.

It is clear to me, though, that the “generation” that is in their twenties, thirties and yes, forties – and probably older – are out there in bigger numbers than ever before.

We’ll see how it holds up as autumn and winter come in, of course. But vastly increased cycling in London? That would really be a worthwhile legacy.

Anyway, here’s my Flickr set from our second event at the Olympics, namely hockey. Click through to see the pictures bigger and with captions.

OverheadBritain vs AustraliaJust what blimp is it?Hockey up closeHockey teamsGoooooaaaaaallll!!!!
Riverbank by nightRiverbank by night 2Night matchA very dull first half


  1. Admittedly I was on holiday for around three weeks of that time. ↩︎


Olympian Achievements

Initial scepticism

Back in 2004, 2005 or so, when London was bidding to host the Olympics, I was against it. My concerns were the cost, the crowding, and the general disruption of it all. I was, I admit, cynical. I recall being annoyed by the fact that the people running the bid published a number to which you could text “yes”, to say you supported the bid; but there was no option to text “no” to say you opposed it.

Looking back to what I wrote at the time, I see that my biggest concern was the effect on the Lower Lee Valley. It turned out that the removal of wilderness didn’t stretch as far as my fears suggested; and of course much of the land that has been used was polluted, abandoned, brownfield industrial sites. Bob Stanley of St Etienne (the band) has an interesting piece in The Guardian about that.

Coming round

But then London won the bid, and I though, “OK, fine, it’ll be interesting at least.” I had enjoyed watching the previous ones, and there was the regeneration for East London that looked promising. And the fact that it would just be down the road for me added to the interest. After all, that would make it easier to get tickets, right? Obviously there would specific tickets made available to to locals.

Hindsight even makes me wonder whether the events of the very next day didn’t make me more supportive: blitz spirit, don’t let the bastards grind you down, “soft power”, and all that.

The intervening years

Worries

In the years since then I’ve gone through various thoughts about the whole thing. Obviously there were the concerns about how long we would be paying for it all. And more recently there were the worries about the security preparations and the expected madness of the precautions. Of course more recently we’ve had the G4S fiasco, and the drafting in of extra soldiers.

More bizarrely we’ve seen the growth of the Olympic “brand police”, the forbidding of certain words and combinations of words (including, ridiculously, things like “summer”, “bronze”, and “2012”).

Cycle-friendly or not?

But closer to home one of the things that has annoyed me is the way they’ve treated our towpath.

The main stadium sits between two branches of the River Lee (or Lea): the river itself, and the Lee Navigation or Cut, which is essentially a canal constructed as a tributary1 of the main river. The towpath of the Navigation is a popular cycling and walking route for us local types. As we watched the construction site form and the massive buildings grow (and in my case moaned about the ugly fencing round it), we were able to keep a close eye on it all by going along the towpath. And indeed, a minor, but pleasing, instance of regeneration has been the resurfacing of the towpath, making it much more pleasant to cycle on.2

Above all, it seemed obvious that we would use the towpath to actually get to the Olympic Park. How else?

Until a few months ago when it became clear that the towpath was going to be closed for the duration of the games. The reason given – of course – was “security”. But what exactly is the security risk of providing access via the towpath?

In all honesty, I had my doubts about its use during the games; but I wasn’t concerned about terrorism. Rather I feared for people’s safety. It’s a towpath, after all: relatively narrow, unfenced, and unlit. And, critically, next to a polluted canal. If thousands – or even only hundreds – of people were trying to leave the park that way all at once – after the opening ceremony, say – then I could see that it would be problematic.

So I begin to wonder whether the “security” excuse was brought out to hide the more mundane, but always-criticised-by-the-tabloids truth: health and safety.

Then we heard that bikes would be among the banned items in the park; but also that there would be cycle parking: it sounded like mixed messages, but we would have to wait and see.

Those pesky tickets and the getting thereof

Ah, the joys of Olympic ticketing. Even as I write, on the third full day of the Games, they don’t seem to have really sorted it all out.

It’s a massively complex task, to allocate and sell tickets for hundreds of events over dozens of venues, all taking place in such a concentrated time period. But it’s not like they’ve never done it before; it’s not even like they haven’t done it in the Internet Age. It should largely be a solved problem, it seems to me.

We had decided to treat the Olympics as our family holiday: we would take a couple of weeks off, buy a load of tickets, and that would be our main summer break. After all, it would be just down the road, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, etc. So we signed up for the ballot, spent time listing events we might like to see, and so on. When the time came we hit the website and listed a summer holiday’s worth of tickets (hampered slightly by me having a MasterCard, which of course is the black sheep of Olympic ticket-buying).

In the end my beloved was allocated tickets to three events, and I got none (had they detected that invalid-card possession?)

However, that was just the initial ballot; and because I had been unsuccessful there, I was entitled to try to buy tickets in the conventional way in the second round.

On the day I woke up early and grabbed my laptop. The site, inevitably, crumpled. I went back to sleep for a bit. Tried again later.

I don’t recall how long it took, but in the end I managed to get a further three events.

And that was that. Remember when I said up there, “it would just be down the road … that would make it easier to get tickets”? Yeah. Somehow that didn’t happen. The Olympics is clearly not meant for the people who live near it. Or not particularly. I’m not suggesting it should be only for locals; but how hard would it have been to allocate a percentage of tickets to residents of host boroughs – or the whole of London – in a first pass? If they didn’t get bought they would be offered on, of course. The answer is “not very”; the Hackney Weekend festival did exactly that, after all. Glastonbury gives free tickets to residents of the nearby village, I seem to recall.

Anyway, that’s where we are. We later added a Paralympic athletics day, which will finally get us into the main stadium; and a set of Olympic Park passes, so we can go and have a wander round and soak up the atmosphere on Wednesday. But as I write there are still tickets available, even for swimming, even for the main stadium.

If you’re made of money, at least. Hell, you can still go to the closing ceremony if you’ve got £995 or £1500 to spare.

But still…

But I don’t mean to turn all negative. I’m actually really excited about it all, and thoroughly enjoying everything I’ve seen on telly; especially, of course, Danny Boyle’s masterpiece of an opening ceremony. Much has been said about that elsewhere, so I won’t say a lot. Just that it was far better, and a far truer representation of Britain than we could have imagined, or even hoped for. Part of the fun was following along on Twitter, of course (when it wasn’t too distracting to do so). And my favourite comment of all was one that Mitch Benn retweeted from Simon Evans:

It's not that I'm proud to be British. It's that I'm grateful.

So true.

And I’ve been enjoying seeing the first few days worth of events on telly. Some thoughts:

  • The tennis is just like Wimbledon, except with colour, and Omega timing instead of IBM. And "London 2012" logos, of course.
  • I normally go from one Wimbledon to the next without watching any sport; now, suddenly, I'm almost fanatical about everything (except boxing and anything with horses; and archery is much more boring than you might expect).
  • Seeing those cyclists in the road races made me want to get on my bike; not for those kind of distances, though.
  • Similarly, badminton & table tennis; maybe there will be a knock-on effect on people doing sport after all.

I should write about legacy (and sustainability3), but I’ve gone on long enough, and anyway, it’s another whole discussion. But I cycled down that way on Saturday; along the part of the towpath that’s still open, across Hackney Marshes (by a new, temporary path) and to the bridge across the river where there is access via Eton Manor Gate. There is a vast cycle park there, and from the gate it’s only supposed to be a few minutes walk to, for example, the Basketball Arena. So it’s all good.4

We visit the park on Wednesday, and start seeing actual events from Friday. I may report back.5


  1. Or really an inverted tributary, as it forks off the main river in a downstream direction. ↩︎

  2. There are still a few spots of cobblestones, but we can cope with those. ↩︎

  3. Yes, that’s a Twenty Twelve reference; if you haven’t watched it, you should. ↩︎

  4. Yes, so was that. ↩︎

  5. But under no circumstances will I post photos, OK? ↩︎


Supporters

I am somewhat mystified by the talk recently about what team Scottish people, and various MPs, particularly Scottish ones, “should” support in the football World Cup. There are no “should”s, of course: anyone can support any football team they want to, or none. It’s just daft, at best, that anyone made an issue of it regarding the behaviour of our public servants.

But the stranger thing, really, is that anyone might expect a Scotland fan to support England under any circumstances.

I don’t mean here, a Scot who takes little interest in football between World Cups, but might enjoy watching some of what should be the best examples of the game. I’m talking about your actual, dedicated football fan. Some people suggest that such a Scotland fan ought to support England because we are neighbouring countries, and part of the same meta-country.

But consider this: Spurs and Arsenal are neighbouring teams, and part of the same city; the same can be said of Liverpool and Everton, Manchesters United and City, and perhaps most significantly, of Celtic and Rangers. Now, tell me this: if Spurs were in the European Cup (as I still think of it) , would an Arsenal fan support them? Would anyone say that an Arsenal fan “should” support Spurs?

Well, I can’t speak for any of the English teams I mentioned above, but I come from a family of Celtic fans, and was quite a dedicated fan myself in my younger years (before I grew out of the whole thing, and put my interest into music instead), and I can tell you that there is no way on this Earth or beyond that a Celtic fan would ever support Rangers in anything. My Dad’s saying about it not mattering who wins, only had a tangential application to the national teams. Its Platonic form was, “It doesn’t matter who wins, as long as it’s not Rangers.”

I’m quite sure that Rangers fans feel just as strongly about Celtic’s successes.

The logical extension of this interclub rivalry is to the national teams of Scotland and England; and no doubt, to those of various other pairs of nations. I imagine that French fans are unlikely to support, say, Germany against Brazil, just because they share a land border with one, and only a planet with the other.

So really, expecting a Scot to support England is crazy. Supporting the opponent of your greatest rival is perfectly natural behaviour


It doesn't matter who wins...

I found myself feeling curiously left out as my colleagues left work to watch the England match yesterday. This despite the fact that I didn’t want to watch it, I purposely avoided watching it, and I intended/hoped to take advantage of the reduced commuter traffic (not much reduced, as it happened: such is London’s diversity) to get home easily, and collect my kids from school.

Where they were watching the football, of course, courtesy of the after-school club.

Above all, if I had intended to watch it, my sympathies would have been with the other side anyway: I am Scottish, after all, and as my Dad used to say, “It doesn’t matter who wins, as long as it’s not England.” Plus I’m a sucker for an underdog (I mistyped that as “undergod”; there’s a story in there, I’m sure).

But despite all that, as my colleagues left the office for the pub or wherever, I still felt a slight echo of the thing I felt as a kid when I was left out of something that “everyone else” was doing.

We all want to be part of a tribe, I suppose.

In the end I watched he last half hour or so at the school; from just before the scary personality-cult chants of “Rooney, Rooney!” to the end. The cheers, as you might expect in a primary school, were very high and shrill. I was pleased, though, that Trinidad and Tobago’s goal (before it was disallowed) got almost as loud a cheer. This was Hackney, and of course, there are a lot of kids with Caribbean ancestry.

And maybe a lot of good sports, too. Maybe I should learn from them, and support England. But I can’t see it ever happening: there are some early-learned prejudices that die impossibly hard.

So I guess I’m still part of a tribe.


The Official Belief System of the World Cup?

I’ve just bought a Mars Bar which is labelled “Believe” instead of “Mars” (though still in the standard typography). Apparently this means that I am to “believe” that England will win the World Cup. This, presumably, will make it so.

Of course, I neither believe nor hope such a thing; by the logic of Mars, then, it won’t happen. Sorry.