Descending into Heathrow, there was a buzz in the air. It was opening ceremonies day and the city of London was alive. I always knew that sometime I would eventually attend an Olympics. The seed was planted early on. I remember my cousin Sean talking about his experiences at Lake Placid in 1980. When the Summer Games rolled around to LA in 1984, I had a chance to get a temp job as cameraman, but had to turn it down for that summer our son was born. Now 28 years later, that same boy is living in East London, a mere stroll to Olympic Village. Yeah, the time was now. We seized it.
That night we went to a city park where wide screen TVs were set up for Londoners who had no tickets to watch the opening ceremonies. By the time we arrived, the gates were closed. The park was maxed out. The months of skepticism leading up to the Games had apparently dissipated. London Town was now hungry for the Olympic experience.
The next day we had better luck. We went to Victoria Park, an enormous urban green space, near the Olympic Village. There were four widescreens set up to view events plus food/drink stands, gift shops and a stage where musicians played throughout the day. The weather was brilliant—sunny, about 75 degrees. We watched a bit of women’s judo and then strolled to Screen Two. In progress was the men’s road cycling event, a grueling, 150-mile race that wound its way through the outskirts of Boxhill and ended at the gates of Buckingham Palace. Now into its sixth hour, the heavy favorites were leading the peloton, a grouping of riders that stay together to take advantage of drag from the mass and thus save energy. It is a bit like birds flying in formation, but at some point, riders will break away from the peloton and try to win the race alone.
It was a bit early for the leaders to break away from the pack on this fine afternoon when the unexpected happened. Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland crashed into a barricade, causing a massive collision that took out a bunch of riders. In an instant the peloton was destroyed. Alexandr Vinokurov from Kazakhstan and Rigoberto Uran Uran from Columbia, two quick thinking cyclists, surged ahead. By the time the rest of the riders regrouped into a new peloton, the duo had a substantial lead. The BBC announcers commented that the two leaders had too much of a race left ahead of them to overcome the newly formed peloton. But Vinokurov and Uran Uran smartly realized the only way for them to survive the surge was to work together. They drafted behind each other, switching places every few minutes to share the burden of leading. At times riders behind would close the gap, but the breakaways always took it up another gear and kept their distance.
It was soon apparent that the peloton would not catch the leaders. Then it became a chess match between the Colombian and the Kazakhstani—who would be the first to break away and sprint to the finish. With about 100 meters left, Vinokurov veered sharply right while Uran Uran in the lead turned left to see where his opponent was. The race was over. Vinokurov flew to the finish for the gold in 5 hours, 45 minutes and 57 seconds. Uran Uran was right behind to snatch the silver. The Norwegian who won bronze arrived a full minute later. The crowd in Victoria Park roared.
My next Olympic experience happened quite unexpectedly. We were following my son through the hip East London area of Brick Lane when we came upon three young people who obviously had no clue where they were going. Sebastian went forward to help them. His knowledge of London and its transportation systems is impressive. The three people we ended up meeting were athletes from the United States Virgin Islands. Their heats were days away allowing them time to cruise the city. I spoke with Allison Peter from St, Croix who specializes in the 100 and 200 meter sprints. I told her how much I liked her lovely island when I visited there 6 years ago. Sprinter Laverne Jones-Ferrette was also there and a guy who would be running the 400 meter hurdles. Laverne made the semifinals in both the 100 and 200 meter and just missed advancing in each, coming in at 4th place. Allison also made it to a semifinal round. It was a real pleasure getting to talk to the athletes.
To be continued…