In the summer of 2012, London will be awash with visitors from all over the world as the capital hosts the XXX Olympic Games from July 27th to August 12th and the Paralympics from August 29th to September 9th. While events will be scattered over venues throughout the southeast of England, the centrepiece of the Games will be the Olympic Park situated in Stratford in East London some six miles from the city centre.
Nine of the key sporting venues will be located here including the Olympic Stadium (opening/closing ceremony and athletics), the Aquatics Centre (diving and swimming), the Velodrome (cycling), the BMX Track, the Water Polo Arena, the Basketball Arena, the Riverbank Arena (hockey), Eton Manor (wheelchair tennis) and the Copper Box (handball, goalball and modern pentathlon).
It will also play host to the Olympic and Paralympic Village catering for some 10,500 athletes in 2818 apartments on 11 residential plots and the International Broadcast Centre/Main Press Centre providing state of the art facilities for some 20,000 journalists, photographers and broadcasters bringing the Games to an estimated 4 billion people worldwide.
While VIPs will have preferential access to the Park on 48 kms of special Olympic Lanes and 4000 cars and 1500 coaches at their disposal, it is estimated that some 270,000 visitors will travel to the site each day placing enormous demands on the existing transport system and catering facilities. This will be compounded by the heightened security arrangements and the prospects of extensive delays.
Here then are some essential tips to make your visit a once in a lifetime experience.
Getting to the Olympic Park
Despite the fact that the government has invested over £6.5 billion in modernising the transport network, the sheer volume of daily visitors to the site will inevitably create congestion and delays. Given that the Park opens 2.5 hours before the events start, it is a good idea to get there early and to go to the gate nearest to your designated venue. The site is spread over 2.5 square kms, so leave plenty of time. With two turnarounds of spectators each day, there is likely to be congestion when these take place.
If you are coming from central London, the quickest way to reach the Olympic Park is on the Javelin, a specially designed bullet train that takes just 7 minutes from Kings Cross St. Pancras to Stratford International next to the stadium. There will be 8 to 10 trains per hour each with a capacity of 340.
Alternatively, there are direct links to Stratford on the Jubilee and Central Lines on the Underground. If you want to avoid the crush at Stratford, however, you might consider taking the District or City Line to West Ham station and making the 15-minute walk to the Park. National Rail also provides direct train services from East Anglia to Stratford, from Essex to West Ham and from London and Ebbsfleet to Stratford also using the Javelin.
If you are feeling energetic, however, there are six greenway walking routes to the site as well as cycling routes where you can use the Barclays Cycle Hire facility (Boris Bikes) which allows you to rent bikes from sites all around London. Remember that the purchase of a ticket includes free travel on the specific date, but for travel outside of this, it is well to purchase an Oyster card, which gives a discount of 40%. The Docklands Light Railway (DLR) also provides access, as does the North London line from Richmond and the East London Line. A much enhanced bus service will also be available.
Expect airport-type security with scan and search for all people entering the Park. Only one soft-sided bag is allowed per person (medium-sized handbag or small backpack (25 litres) and spectators are not allowed to take drinks or liquids in more than 100 ml containers, including sunscreen. All food except baby food and essential dietary food is forbidden as are alcohol, soft drinks, bottles, flasks and thermoses and large umbrellas, horns, whistles, drum, fireworks and weapons. To avoid any protracted delays it is, therefore, essential to travel light. Fresh water will be provided throughout the park free of charge. There will also be heightened security at all stations and on the trains themselves.
Dining and shopping
McDonalds, being the major sponsor, has a monopoly of all catering outlets and is building four new restaurants at the Park. Its flagship will seat over 1500 persons and one sited somewhat contentiously in the Olympic Village. It is estimated that they will sell some 1.75 million meals and that 1 in 4 visitors will buy one of their products. Other caterers will, however, be operating in the fan zones outside the major venues and these have all signed up to the 2012 Food Charter, committing themselves to local, seasonal and healthier foods. Remember that payment will only be accepted in cash or by Visa, again one of the major sponsors. For American visitors, it is worthwhile remembering that Britain has a different banking system and the chip and pin mode is used not the swipe cards.
If you don’t want to pay what will be inevitably inflated prices within the Park, then the Westfield Stratford City centre located right next to Stratford station is the largest urban shopping precinct in Europe with 1.5 million square feet of space and home to 70 restaurants, 300 stores (John Lewis, Waitrose, Marks and Spencer), a 17 screen all-digital Vue cinema as well as two hotels (Premier Inn and Holiday Inn). There are some very good low budget cafes within the complex including Franco Manca, which has wood- burning brick ovens and excellent pizzas from £4.50; Wahaca, offering burritos from £6.40; Busaba Eathai with main courses from £5.50, and PastaRemoli with handmade pastas and sauces from £7. Good beer can also be had in the Tap East on the lower ground floor.
There will also be street vendors on the routes to the Park and local cafes, pubs and restaurants. Again, there are likely to be queues at lunch and dinnertime.
If you haven’t already arranged accommodation, a range of hotels is available, and LOCOG (London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games) have recently released an additional 120,000 hotel nights previously reserved for dignitaries and athletes. At the upper end, prices will tend to be high around $500 per night, although guesthouses offering bed and breakfast offer lower rates. Alternatives to hotels include the 5 campsites located around London and charging $25 per night; houses and flats which are being rented out (HomeAway.com, Airbnb.com) or moving out of London altogether and travelling in for the Games.
Other attractions and things to do at Olympic Stadium
Apart from the various venues on the site and their unique architecture, there are other attractions. The most iconic is the ArcelorMittal Orbit, a 115-metre high observation tower, designed by Anish Kapoor in collaboration with engineer Cecil Balmond. This is situated between the Olympic Stadium and the Aquatics Centre and allows visitors to view the whole Olympic Park from two observation platforms. Costing over £19 million, this steel structure is Britain’s largest piece of public art.
The southern part of the Park will focus on retaining the festival atmosphere of the Games, with riverside gardens, markets, events, cafes and bars. The northern area will use the latest green techniques to manage flood and rain water, while providing quieter public space and habitats for hundreds of existing and rare species, from kingfishers to otters.
Freebies and non-ticketed events
If you don’t have a ticket and still want to enjoy the Games, there will be giant screens erected in Hyde Park, Trafalgar Square and Victoria Park where spectators can watch for free. There are also some events that are free to watch, including the marathon, which starts and ends in The Mall and winds its way through the City of London, passing St. Paul’s, the Guildhall and Leadenhall Market; the cycling time trials that start and finish at Hampton Court Palace and pass through Richmond, Kingston and Bushy Park; and the Triathlon, which starts and finishes by the Serpentine in Hyde Park and weaves its way through Kensington and Knightsbridge and passes Buckingham Palace.
London has spent some £9.3 billion on the Olympic Games including £1 billion on security. In addition over £6 billion has been injected into improving transport infrastructure in the region. All this is designed to produce a Games that will thrill competitors and spectators alike and leave a lasting legacy, not only for those who attend the Games but also for the local community once the Games are over!
© Graham Walker 2012
Originally Published in Viator.com