For a few weeks this summer, a city and a country came together in a way that few dared to predict. I was very proud to have been able to play a tiny part in this unforgettable fortnight as one of the 70,000 games makers, and was incredibly lucky to find myself in a role that gave me some amazing stories to tell in the subsequent months. It’s time to write these stories down, before they become so exaggerated that I start claiming I won the 100m gold myself. Unfortunately, brevity is not one of my strengths, so a gold medal to anybody who reads all 3000 words…
My first games maker shift was a full week into the Olympics on Friday 3rd August, but I didn’t waste those first days. My dad and I watched with disappointment as the anticipated dream start of a Cavendish gold on day 1 failed to materialise, then I saw handball in the Olympic Park on day 2. By the following Thursday I’d watched the rowing at Eton Dorney and cheered Bradley Wiggins towards claiming GB’s second gold medal on the streets of south-west London. I was trying to pack as much in before the volunteering started and I’d be too busy to see more sport.
My games maker role was as an ‘Olympic Family Assistant’; essentially, a driver and personal assistant to a member of the IOC, head of a sports federation or president of a national committee. I was appointed to be a support OFA, meaning I had no fixed client and would instead be providing cover for absent colleagues. This meant that my first shift began with a two hour wait for an assignment in the ballroom of a Mayfair hotel (transformed for the Olympics into a transport depot). During this wait I heard stories from other games makers about what the little ‘ALL’ on our accreditations actually meant.
Eventually an assignment came through for me to take over as OFA to the head of the International Basketball Federation from 8pm. With several hours to kill I jumped on a tube to the Olympic Park and waved my accreditation to get past the security queues. After briefly saying hello to the Lesniak family (in the park to watch basketball), I made a beeline for the velodrome and held my breath as I walked up to the ticket barriers. The games maker on duty took a quick look at the ‘ALL’ on my pass and waved me in. Stepping through the airlock into the warm, sticky confines of the Olympic velodrome, I felt as though I would be kicked out at any moment.
Over the following hour and a half I wandered around the perimeter in a bit of a daze, occasionally being told off by velodrome-based games makers for taking photographs (“not professional” – umm, I’m a volunteer). Within minutes of me entering, the GB women’s team pursuit had broken the world record during a preliminary round (the following day they would break the world record again as they claimed gold). I then saw the men’s pursuit team smash the world record to win the gold medal in their event. The velodrome has a very low, curved ceiling and a capacity of just 6,000, so the atmosphere is simultaneously intimate and roof-raising. As the team pursuiters pushed through 16 laps the terrific roar of the partisan crowd followed them around and around.
Next up was the undisputed queen of British cycling, Victoria Pendleton. This was her final competition before retirement and her disqualification in the team sprint the previous evening meant there was plenty of pressure on her to claim gold in the kierin. She did not disappoint, passing her rivals on the final bend to trigger a deafening roar from the delighted crowd. I abandoned any pretence of being a professional and leaped in the air, whooping.
Within minutes of the medal ceremonies concluding I stepped back out into the Olympic park, my velodrome experience immediately feeling like a hallucination. With half an hour to kill before meeting my client, I tested out the accreditation again by walking straight into the stands of the basketball arena. In the end I spent the next couple of hours sitting on the other side of a thin wall from the arena, waiting for the client to finish watching the match before I drove him back to his hotel.
Day two began much like day one: waiting in the Marriott ballroom for an assignment. A job did come much more quickly this time, but it came with a five hour wait for the car to be returned before I could drive it back over to the Park to collect my next client: the president of the modern pentathlon union. I cruised along the games lanes and parked up in the fleet depot (the car park of Westfield Stratford). The client did not need collecting for a couple of hours, so I tried my luck again by walking straight to the Olympic Stadium.
Again, my accreditation did not let me down as I paced around the middle tier of the vast amphitheatre until I could feel the heat from the Olympic flame. I found a spot to stand just in time to see Jessica Ennis win the 800m, and therefore claim heptathlon gold. The atmosphere in the velodrome the previous evening was special, but I have never heard anything that compares to the roar of the 80,000-strong stadium crowd. It’s difficult to describe; I’ve been in football crowds at Old Trafford and Wembley, and to gigs at the latter, but none of them can compete with the unforgettable roar of the London Olympic stadium celebrating a GB gold.
Erring on the side of caution, I headed back to the car before Mo Farah’s 10,000m gold, also missing Greg Rutherford’s long jump victory. That night is said to have been the greatest in British athletic history, so to have been there when Ennis claimed gold and took her victory lap was incredible.
I was brought back to Earth with a bump an hour or so later when I managed to scrape one very expensive BMW 5 series against another very expensive BMW 5 series in the depot underneath Hyde Park.
A recap: in my first two games maker shifts I had witnessed three Team GB gold medals. I was understandably getting quite cocky about just how far I could stretch my accreditation. Conveniently, the men’s 100m final happened to be on my third shift: could I persuade lightning to strike a third time?
On arriving for the shift in the early afternoon I knew I would have to be selective about which jobs to volunteer for: anything away from the Olympic Park was out for a start. Fortunately, I was assigned to the president of the archery federation, who was ultimately heading to the park to watch the 100m from the hospitality centre. In between, he had business to attend to, including a trip to Lord’s cricket ground (where the archery had been hosted until a few days earlier) and then on to the Olympic Village.
The Olympic Village was one area I did not have direct accreditation access to, but while the client was at his meeting in the village, I went to security to see if I could get in. By giving them my car keys as collateral, I received an upgrade pass and was free to wander in. It was more of a town than a village, with several large tower blocks housing thousands of athletes from almost every nation; the teams had hung huge national flags over their balconies to mark out their territory. Close to the village entrance was a florist, a post office, a gift shop, a salon and a supermarket, provided exclusively for the convenience of the athletes and officials.
Next stop, after inevitably getting lost on the approach roads, was the Olympic Park. I dropped the client at the hospitality centre, parked the car in the fleet depot (aka the John Lewis car park) and made a beeline for the Olympic Stadium. As I approached the ticket barriers I saw another games maker being turned away: he didn’t have ‘ALL’ on his badge, but clearly on other evenings he would’ve been nodded through by fellow volunteers; not tonight. I was allowed in and left him bartering for entrance with pin badges (the unofficial currency of the Olympic movement).
A few moments after entering I saw Bolt and Blake run separately in their respective semi-finals. It was looking doubtful as to whether I would still be in the stadium for the final, as it was scheduled to begin at 9.50pm and my client had asked for a pick-up at 10pm: it was going to take much more than 10 minutes to get back to him. Standing around me were other games makers in similar situations: some dutifully rushed off, while others took their chances. I decided to stay.
At 9.50pm, 80,000 people fell completely silent. At the far side of the stadium from me, the fastest eight men on Earth – indeed, the fastest humans to have ever lived – took their marks and got set. On the ‘B’ of the ‘BANG’, they exploded out of the blocks and the silence was replaced by an unforgettable wall of noise. A billion people around the planet watched as the sprinters ran from left to right across their TV screens: from my vantage point, the race was run from right to left – a minor difference, but one that I will never forget.
9.63 seconds later, Usain Bolt crossed the finish line to set a new Olympic record and retain his title. About half a second later, after double-checking with those around me that it was definitely Bolt who had won, I turned and sprinted out of the back of the stadium. As I did so, I was accompanied by a few dozen other games makers and stall holders who had duties to return to. I ran out of the stadium, across the bridges, past the aquatic centre and out of the Olympic Park, turning left down a high-fenced security path to get into the John Lewis car park. I dashed up the three flights of stairs and jumped into the car, pausing for a few seconds to catch a breath and take in what I’d just witnessed.
At 10.02pm, I picked up the client from outside the hospitality centre. He climbed into my car and informed me that Usain Bolt had won gold in the 100m sprint. I innocently thanked him for the information and drove us back to the west end.
Three shifts, three ridiculous evenings of “I was there” moments. Sadly, this trend didn’t continue, but I do have a few more silly stories from my week as a games maker.
My next shift came after a couple of days off, during which I had watched women’s 10m diving in the aquatic centre, and dressed up as a Roman soldier to watch Greco-Roman wrestling. This was my first early shift, so I arrived at 8.30am and was immediately assigned to the president and secretary-general of the Lebanese Olympic Committee. The president had wanted a lift to the Olympic Park, but had panicked that I wouldn’t be there on time and left without me in another vehicle, so I followed him to the Park, just in time to be informed that the secretary-general was in the west end and wanted a lift. He made alternative arrangements, so I parked up and wandered into the Olympic Park to meet up with my mum and dad, who had handball tickets.
I then drove round to the Village, in the hope of being able to buy some tickets from the athletes’ ticket office. Sadly, they were just as sold out as the public offices, but I then received a call from the secretary-general asking for collection from, coincidentally, the Olympic Village. He didn’t give a timescale, so I ended up sitting in the BMW listening on the car radio as, just on the other side of the fence, Sir Chris Hoy won his record-breaking sixth gold medal in the velodrome. Actually, at the precise moment this happened I was distracted by a Tunisian coach who, not realising my car was occupied, exposed himself and began urinating in my direction.
I sat in the car park for five hours, spotting retired triple jumper (and Van Mildert alumnus) Jonathan Edwards and GB track cycling gold medallist Philip Hindes as they walked past. Eventually, the client emerged and I drove him to the beach volleyball at Horseguard’s Parade.
Day four saw me working with a former PE teacher who had risen through the ranks to become head of his Olympic Committee. Other than him wearing a Venezuelan flag shell suit, nothing very exciting happened on this day.
For my final four days I was allocated to the president of the Ugandan Olympic Committee, accompanied by his wife and baby son. Over the course of these few days it did look like I would return to my jammy form of the previous weekend, but delays meant I actually spent many hours parked on a Woolwich housing estate, rather than witnessing history.
On the penultimate day of the Games, I drove the client and his son to Wembley Stadium for the men’s football gold medal match between Mexico and Brazil. I dropped them at the Olympic Family entrance, parked up and headed for the staff entrance. Unlike the venues in the Olympic Park, Wembley is mostly staffed by professional stewards. Couple this with the sprawling, maze-like interior of the stadium and it becomes very difficult to surreptitiously get into the stands while trying to look like one has good reason to be there.
This is my excuse for why, 8 minutes before kick-off, I found myself walking around the perimeter of the pitch, surrounded by a capacity crowd of 90,000 people. Rather than turning back, I decided to march purposefully in the hope of finding a route into the stands. As I reached the section containing the team dug-outs, I was stopped by a couple of games makers as I didn’t have ‘field of play’ accreditation. They helpfully directed me down the tunnel and into a corridor. Eventually, after a detour through some loading bays and past the rooms where the gold medals were being kept, I emerged into a stand.
I stood at the top of the stand, next to a steward, in the hope of looking official. As the match kicked off, my hopes were dashed when a man in a suit approached. Instead of kicking me out, though, he instead directed me to a vacant seat from where I saw the only goal of the game.
15 minutes into the match, my client called to say that he and his son had been unable to get into the Olympic Family stand, as it was full, so they wanted to leave. Feeling a little guilty that I had got a seat and they hadn’t, I ran 180° around the outside of Wembley to get back to the car.
The next day was the final day of the Games and began for me at 10am as I waited to collect the clients from their hotel. I dropped them on Oxford St for a bit of shopping and when they returned they were excited by news that a Ugandan athlete was leading the men’s marathon. I suggested that we may be able to get to the finish line in time, so drove into Hyde Park.
Hyde Park was mysteriously quiet, which made sense as the actual finish of the marathon was a couple of miles away on The Mall. My cock-up meant that we didn’t get to the finish line in time, instead hearing the result on the car radio. This was Uganda’s only medal of London 2012 and their first gold medal since 1972, so the joy felt by client and his family was incredible. At the time, I said that sharing this moment with them was my most enduring memory of the Games. In hindsight, I don’t think that’s true, but it certainly had a more human dimension than my “I was there” moments from the previous weekend.
I joined the family as they celebrated victory in the enclosures around the finish line, taking photographs for them as they posed with the medal winner – now transformed into a national hero.
From a logistical point of view, however, this unexpected victory was a nightmare. The client hadn’t planned to attend the closing ceremony, and had left his suit in a case at his friend’s house back east in Woolwich. After several journeys shuttling around London (and another prolonged wait in a Woolwich car park), eventually I dropped the client at the Olympic Village from where he could march (carrying his young son) into the stadium with Team Uganda.
As the east end was now in full closing ceremony mode, police waved my Olympic car through red lights and I sailed along the games lanes back to the west end. I parked for one final time in the subterranean depot, from where I could hear the bass of the concert I had tickets for above me in Hyde Park. The gig (Blur) wasn’t that good anyway.
I think that’s about it. A truly unforgettable fortnight, followed by the incredible Paralympics a few weeks later, for which I didn’t volunteer but did buy a lot of tickets. By the time the Olympic Park closed for the final time at the end of the Paralympics, it was feeling like a second home.
I don’t think even the most optimistic supporter of London 2012 could have predicted the huge impact the Olympics and Paralympics had on the nation. I feel very lucky that it happened in my lifetime and in my city, and enormously proud to have been a very small cog in the huge, well-oiled machine that changed the way the world views Britain and the way Britain views itself. To quote Seb Coe: “When our time came, we did it right.”