LONDON — Few people call themselves living legends. Even fewer put themselves in that category, then tell the world how lazy they are. But the ever-entertaining Usain Bolt did just that at his final press conference of the London Olympics, responding to a question from a Peruvian reporter about what he would be doing in 2022.
“Hopefully, I’ll be just chillin’ somewhere,” said Bolt. “After track and field, I just want to take it easy, maybe own a few businesses somewhere, have some money coming in. But I’m a lazy person. I like to just chill out, just always be relaxing.”
A few questions later, a Norwegian reporter asked if Bolt would celebrate his three gold medals with the gold medal-winning Norwegian women’s handball team. The query came after Bolt celebrated his 100-meter win with three Swedish women’s handball players, tweeting a photo of the group.
“We’ll see,” said Bolt, prompting more laughter as he conducted track and field’s most entertaining media session alongside his teammates from the 4 x 100-meter relay. “If I see them, I’ll make sure I tweet that one also.”
In press conferences, chaotic media mixed zones, security line queues, packed stadiums, and overcrowded subway trains, the London Olympic experience was much different than the neatly packaged production beamed around the world. It was more intimate, yet more difficult to wrap your arms around. It was more glamorous and fun-loving, yet also more unpolished. It was more impressive in some ways, yet more ordinary in others. Outside the competitions, beyond the historic accomplishments of athletes such as Bolt, US swimmer Michael Phelps, British distance runner Mo Farah, US gymnast Gabby Douglas, and British cyclist Chris Hoy, the Games produced a jumble of delightfully unexpected, wonderfully quirky moments.
And those moments stay with you as much as gold medal performances. In many ways, those moments give the Olympics depth and make it more complete, more a global event than simply 26 simultaneous sports championships contested in one city.
That said, it is not often you find yourself running beside an Olympian. But with hotel accommodations near Regent’s Park, middle distance and distance runners on the US track and field team made use of the vast green space with formal gardens, a boating lake, and athletic fields. They were the gracefully striding athletes mixed among the laboring, casual joggers. So it was easy to spot US 1,500-meter runner Matt Centrowitz and his coach Andy Powell, who was a standout at Oliver Ames High School, as they ran past the park. We ran together for about three-quarters of a mile and, almost immediately, the New York-raised Centrowitz started talking trash about the Red Sox, having a little fun the day before his semifinal heat. He seemed slightly surprised to see me again in the mixed zone after he advanced to the final.
Throughout the Games, it wasn’t hard to find athletes all around the city. They were eager to see London, drink in the city, mix and mingle with visitors and residents. It helped that the Athletes’ Village and most venues were a relatively easy train or subway ride from main attractions, barring service disruptions. (Word of advice: If you ever find yourself in a transportation jam, make sure you’re traveling with Italians. When a shuttle bus never showed at 5 a.m. after the Opening Ceremonies, I was with two Italian photographers. I’ve never seen two people argue, then negotiate more gracefully and more effectively. We were in a cab back to our hotel in less than five minutes. Most entertaining, they told me they worked for both the Italian Olympic Committee and Georgio Armani.)
Athletes visited their national hospitality houses a lot. Often, as I headed home from a night of track coverage at 3 a.m., I saw the celebrations continue near King’s Cross station.
Outside the Czech House on Upper Street, a double-decker bus doing push-ups became one of the biggest, non-sports attractions of the Games. Every day, the art installation drew large crowds and stopped traffic; even seen-it-all black-cab drivers slowed to watch. The bus grunted and groaned as its two mechanical arms pushed it up and down.
The overwhelming reception for the push-up bus was just one of many ways Londoners and visitors showed their enthusiasm for the Games, enthusiasm that quickly grew as British athletes won gold after gold. The day after Team GB won three gold medals in track, it seemed every bakery offered an “Olympic” bran muffin and every pub an Olympic-sized deal. At a grocery store near Piccadilly Circus, televisions showed BBC broadcasts of daily sports action and shoppers often lingered to watch. On the London Underground, known as the Tube, it was common to find recent Olympic converts who had queued up for tickets. They went to indoor volleyball and shooting and judo not knowing anything about the sports, just wanting to be there.
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever been to,” said Caroline Daintree of Manchester as she watched track in the Olympic Stadium. “I hope it inspires UK kids to stop watching reality TV and do sport.”
But one thing that won’t change is the British love affair with lines of all lengths. The capacity of the British to wait in endless queues never ceased to amaze me. The same goes for the ability of British volunteers to manage several queues simultaneously. For almost the entire Olympics, I avoided the queues at the Megastore, the giant retail space crammed with souvenirs and people. All I saw was three lines snaking around the building in several different directions and figured it would take hours to gain entry. But an older British woman encouraged me to queue up. “This is what we do,” she said, promising it wouldn’t take long.
She was right. It took less than 10 minutes to get in. There were long lines for the “Bar” concessions stands and very long lines for curries at the Olympic Stadium, but they moved quickly, too.
And it was not the only time the British displayed organizational expertise. Although there were days when the Olympic Park was crammed with so many people it was difficult to walk, volunteers with directional signs kept spectators moving the right way. Meanwhile, volunteers with megaphones sitting on lifeguard-like high chairs sang songs, told jokes, and made sarcastic comments to distract people from what could have been a maddening crush. Between the masses of volunteers, military personnel, and police and the directional signs everywhere, Great Britain struck me as a country constantly preparing for the worse.
But nothing really bad happened, just the suspended service on the Tube here and there, ticket issues, and a leaky roof at the ExCel Arena after a hard rain.
When I saw a dozen volunteers mopping up water on the way to a judo match, it made me laugh at how extraordinarily ordinary the scene was. And that is the Olympics — athletic perfection mixed with plenty of sometimes untidy, often unexpected, as the British say, bits and bobs.
Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.