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Saturday 24 March 2018

Having a whale of a time thanks to British efficiency

SOMETIMES we forget that the Saxons came from Germany all those years ago. For when travelling to London on Saturday for a first ever Olympic experience, efficiency and friendliness were not really what we were expecting. The empty seats were the only blot on a truly Germanic experience at these British Games.

Back in December, I applied for a shed-load of tickets and ended up with the first night of swimming finals, an event I knew little about. It appeared I was blessed, and judging by the ire my luck induced among London-dwelling friends there weren't many locals getting access to the Games.

Imagine the surprise when the venue never filled up. The three seats beside us were empty, while there was room to stretch out around the Aquatic Arena as a night of drama unfolded below.

Otherwise, getting to the Games was a surprisingly hassle-free experience.

Earlier, the whistle-stop trip had started with hopes of taking in the finale of the men's cycling road race at the Mall, but lunch ran over and we ended up taking in Alexandre Vinokourov's victory at the South African 'Olympic House', having been turned away by the Belgians and Brazilians en route.

These institutions have sprung up in recent weeks, offering fans a place to watch the events and celebrate or commiserate after their athletes' efforts.

The Belgians are based in Temple, the home of London's barristers, while the Brazilians were in a museum and the South Africans the Film Institute. Ireland -- somewhat inevitably -- are holding their house in a pub in King's Cross.

After the race it was time to head to the main event and, having been warned to treat arriving at the Olympic Park as if we were catching a transatlantic flight, we left for the Tube with two and a half hours to spare.

The journey from central London takes about 25 minutes, while the walk from Stratford Station to the Park is about 10.

It was then the waiting was supposed to begin, but the predicted security nightmare never materialised.

Despite setting off the metal detector and having to be patted down by a cheerful British soldier, we were through in five minutes -- far quicker than the equivalent experience at Dublin Airport earlier in the day.

With the army done, we were in and being welcomed by the hordes of purple-clad volunteers who were genuinely warm and friendly. Taking a photograph of my girlfriend proved impossible as every time I tried, a volunteer would race up and offer to get us both in the shot with the main stadium in the background.

The Park is a huge, commercial playground and the cheerful staff made it feel like being in Disneyland. It was all clean-cut fun, with the queues far longer at the world's largest McDonald's than at the bars as fans waited to get into the stadium.

Once it was time to enter, the Aquatic Centre proved a bit of a disappointment. A €120 ticket secured a seat 12 rows from the back of the 15,700-capacity stadium where a dipping roof is based on the shape of a whale's belly but means you can't see beyond the fifth row of the stands on the far side and takes away from a lot of the colour.

The sound system is terrible, so it's a strain to hear which swimmers are in which lanes -- while the only big screen is the one behind the pool so your eyes get a workout as well. The atmosphere was muted right up until the moment Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps commenced their long-awaited battle, but once the two dots in the distance hit the water any gripes about the venue seemed insignificant.

It was an epic event and the changing of the men's swimming guard was followed by Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen's stunning world record win in the 400m freestyle.

Apart from that stunning swim, we witnessed three Olympic records -- the last of those came as Australia claimed gold at the end of an exciting women's 4x100m freestyle relay.

While the locals left disappointed that Hannah Miley and the relay team weren't able to deliver, when they got into it the atmosphere at the venue was lifted to another level. You almost wanted the British to win a medal. Almost.

The crowds streamed out as the medals were awarded to the last two sets of winners and we went into the night, expecting the exit to take an age.

But, once again, there were no logistical issues as we strolled to the 'Javelin' train that delivered us, handily enough, almost to the door of the Irish Olympic House.

Sure, it would have been rude not to wander in.

Irish Independent

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