By the end of the Olympics, the UK was gripped by Olympic fever, and the 17 days before the Paralympics was a bit like limbo. Walking back in to South Arena 3 on Monday 3rd September felt a little bit like coming home.
From the moment the opening ceremony began, it was clear that this would be a Paralympic Games like no other seen before. It opened with a spectacle on a par with that for the Olympics, with a beautiful story featuring Stephen Hawking and Ian McKellan, protest, music, and spectacular dancing and wirework. It set the tone for the way that ‘disability’ would be sidelined throughout the rest of the Games, moving the focus to what people can do, rather than what they can’t.
I came to the party a little late this time, with my first shift five days after the Games started. I had three shifts at powerlifting, followed by one at sitting volleyball. The shifts at the Paralympics were longer than at the Olympics (10.5 hours compared to 8), but also more relaxed. For me, a big difference was that for most of the sessions, spectators could come and go using their ExCeL day tickets. The tickets were only about £10, and this meant there were a lot more families and young children than there were during the Olympics.
The powerlifting was just as gripping as the Olympic weightlifting had been. All of the lifters competed on an equal footing, regardless of their disability, with only weight categories dividing them, as in the Olympics. It was perhaps easier to understand than many other Paralympic sports as there was not the confusion of classification. In powerlifting, every lifter has three chances at a bench press, with the highest single lift getting the gold. If two competitors lift the same weight, the lighter lifter gets the higher place. One Russian lifter lost out on bronze because his Chinese opponent was 7g lighter than him. Once the medals have been decided, the lifters can have a fourth lift to attempt a Paralympic or World record. On one day this lead to the strange situation of the new world record holder being the silver medallist because she got the world record in her fourth lift, outside the competition.
The most dramatic competition was the men’s +100kg, where the Iranian Siamand Rahman, in a league of his own right from the start, began by breaking the Paralympic record with a lift of 270kg, then again with 280kg, then attempted to break the world record with a lift of 301kg, which would have made him the first Paralympian ever to lift over 300kg. Although he didn’t manage to do this, the reaction from the crowd was still amazing. There were over a hundred Iranian supporters (and probably a lot more!), but the whole crowd was behind him, regardless of where they were from. I recorded the sound of this lift using my phone. First, you hear the announcer stating the weight to be put on the bar, then the crowd roars. The (near) silence is 6000 people trying to be quiet while he does his lift, followed by their encouragement, followed by a slightly disappointed cheer when he doesn’t quite make it. This level of support was given to every lifter, but for Rahman it was something else!
I deliberately didn’t publicise the details of my role on the blog, as it was something we were asked not to do. Now that the Games are over, I think it’s probably OK, though I doubt anyone cares much any more
I worked in Venue Protocol, which meant that I was helping to look after guests from the Olympic and Paralympic families. The guests were members of the IOC and IPC, as well as National Olympic and Paralympic Committees. We had to make sure they enjoyed their London 2012 experience as much as possible, and were also able to work if they needed to. We looked after a stand, a lounge and a drop-off point.
We were also responsible for making sure the medal and flower presenters were in the right place at the right time. Each of us got to go back stage at some point to escort the presenters to the medal ceremony. This was a great privilege: I had already seen examples of the medals for both Games at the British Museum, but this was nothing compared to seeing medals which were about to be handed out to the Olympians and Paralympians who had worked so hard to get them.
At the end of the Games, we were able to take home a few items of memorabilia. I got a Russian flag the sitting volleyball protocol team had been given. Some people even got the plants from the lounges:
As well as volunteering, I managed to spend a day at ExCeL as a spectator. I went with Eloise, who was a fellow Olympic weightlifting Games Maker. We saw TeamGB compete in table tennis, boccia and sitting volleyball, and saw a gold medal being decided in the wheelchair fencing.
During my breaks when volunteering, I saw some sport on the TVs in the workforce break area. Spontaneous applause broke out at Ellie Simmonds broke her world record and got a gold in the S6 200m individual medley.
On the final day of the Games, I went to Embankment to watch the marathon. David Weir and Shelly Woods did us proud. The waves of cheers each time any runner/racer went past, regardless of their country of origin, were fantastic to hear. When Weir crossed the line at the Mall for gold, we found out through a series of cheers and text messages from different points in the crowd, with the occasional shout of ‘He did it!’
The Athletes’ Parade
The Monday after the Paralympics closing ceremony, I was lucky enough to be able to go to the Athletes’ Parade, as I was still in London for a course (thanks to IH London who let me take the afternoon off!). The atmosphere was so positive, and even an hour of waiting didn’t dim it. British Airways were handing out boards for people to write messages on, so there was some flirting going on across the road.
Office workers were climbing out of their windows to stand on a small balcony – each one to emerge got a cheer. They then entertained us by performing Mexican waves, something which we had done too to keep ourselves entertained.
By the time the athletes’ arrived, the anticipation was at fever pitch. There were huge cheers for everyone, and I was so pleased at the decision to divide the floats by sport, with Olympians and Paralympians travelling together. For me, this underlined the way that the Paralympics are now seen as being equal to the Olympics in a way which I think has never been true before.
I watched the parade with five of my fellow Olympic Games Makers. After the trucks had gone past, we stayed to watch the fly-past. While we were waiting, we started chatting to a family with two little girls. They all repeatedly said thank you to us for being part of the Games. They even hugged us, and the girls hugged us twice! At various points through the afternoon, we had photos taken of us as a group, with passing Games Makers joining in too, and it was never just one photo. Each time we posed, seven or eight people would take photos. Marian, who was watching with me, and worked with me at the Olympics and Paralympics, sat opposite someone on the train home in the evening who surprised her by saying “I’ve got a photo of you” – she was one of the anonymous photographers who snapped us outside McDonald’s after the parade went by!
We spent the evening in the restaurant in the crypt of St. Martin in the Fields, joined by many other Games Makers from various teams, reminiscing about our time at the Games. We’ve already started organising our first reunion.
As I got off the Tube on the way home that evening, a man walked past me and said “Well done, Games Maker. Fabulous!” So many people said thank you to us that day that it was a little overwhelming. I have never doubted my decision to volunteer at the Games, even during the long process of interviews and training, but I can truly say that all of the thanks we have received have made it even more worth it.
To all who were involved in London 2012 in any way:
thank you for giving me this spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime, experience.
And in the words of one of the spectators at the Athletes’ Parade: