Flying into the U.K. last week, the capital lay mostly hidden beneath a bank of cloud and mist. Occasional breaks in the gray hinted at green fields and brick houses, but nothing really out of the ordinary. No sign that just a week later, it would be host to one of the world’s biggest sports events: the Summer Olympics.
Well, maybe just one sign. As the plane started its final approach I glimpsed a clever piece of gardening through the swirling clouds: five large interlocking rings—the iconic logo of the Games—cut into a grassy field, as if the country had been branded from above.
Once we touched down, more and more clues appeared that something was happening. Throughout the terminal there were signs and volunteers directing members of the Olympic community, and beyond the airport British flags and team jerseys began to sprout up everywhere.
Having been in the U.S. for the last year I had missed the buildup to the Olympics. Most of all, I had missed the long journey of the Olympic flame through the U.K., seeing it only through photos posted on Facebook, but upon hitting home soil I began my own little torch relay. I passed from friend to friend, first visiting Birmingham—where I spotted a handful members of Team USA wandering down a nondescript street—and then moving on to Oxford and Reading. Then finally, a few days ago, I made it to London proper.
When I wrote this I could actually see ground zero, the Olympic stadium, poking up above the skyline on the north bank of the River Thames from the window of a friend’s apartment in Greenwich; lights from a dry run of the Opening Ceremony flickered in the darkness. I had also just made my first visit to one of the Olympic venues, the Horse Guards Parade.
For the next couple of weeks I will be based there, working as a volunteer at the beach volleyball tournament. I was lucky enough to get an early behind-the-scenes peek at the stadium that sits just outside the gates of Buckingham Palace. Unfortunately, I’m not really allowed to go into the details of the site yet, but having the beach volleyball court and start and finish line of the marathon sandwiched between some of the most famous and historic locations in London makes for a pretty impressive venue. Another reason for tuning in, if Kerri Walsh ‘00 potentially winning her third straight gold medal wasn’t enough justification.
Elsewhere in the capital, whether they want to be or not, Londoners are face-to-face with the Games wherever they go, from the stadiums themselves to the exhaustive TV and newspaper coverage to both signs and advertisements filling up the available visual space.
Some of my friends have escaped the madness, having run away up north or even across the English Channel to France. I can understand why. With the mountain of tourists, it seems hard to believe that the city won’t be brought to a standstill; on my way back from Horse Guards Parade, just the normal commuting rush packed the train to bursting point.
My friends are clearly wrong, though. We’ll only have this madness once. It seems next to impossible that anywhere else in the U.K. will host another Olympic Games in my lifetime. Being crammed into a hot and stuffy Tube train and suffering with long travel delays won’t be fun, but in a few years’ time, when my grandkids ask where we were for the Games, I’m not so sure the story of how we ran away to find some peace and solace will really enthrall them.
The next two and a bit weeks—I can’t quite believe the window between the Opening and Closing Ceremonies is just 17 days—will flash past in a blur of athletic activity, and pretty soon, after the Paralympic Games, London and the U.K. will return to normal. In fact, the biggest local soccer league, the English Premiership, kicks off in just over three weeks, so the Games are under pressure to finish on time.
It is going to be a little crazy to squeeze everything in, and amid the summer heat and the bustle of tourists it will surely be a little cramped and uncomfortable. But you don’t often get a chance to be part of history. Bring it on.
Tom Taylor loves his homeland so much that he might not be coming back. Make sure he does return at firstname.lastname@example.org.