The greatest Paralympics the world has ever seen

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.

Souhad Ghazouani getting her Paralympic record to win the women's -67.5kg category
Souhad Ghazouani getting her Paralympic record to win the women’s -67.5kg category (all photos in this post are my own)

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!

My job

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.

Powerlifting London 2012, Paralympic Family lounge
Powerlifting London 2012, Paralympic Family lounge
Powerlifting London 2012, Paralympic Family drop-off
Powerlifting London 2012, Paralympic Family drop-off
Powerlifting London 2012, Paralympic Family stand
Powerlifting London 2012, Paralympic Family stand

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.

Powerlifting warm-up area (backstage)
Powerlifting warm-up area (backstage)
Me with the medal bearers, holding Dame Tessa Jowell's handbag while she got ready to present the flowers
Me with the medal bearers, holding Dame Tessa Jowell’s handbag and coat while she got ready to present the flowers
Everyone ready to go out for the women's -82.5kg medal ceremony
Everyone ready to go out for the women’s -82.5kg medal ceremony

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:

Plants on the tube


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.

GB v Turkey table tennis

Nigel Murray in the boccia

GB v Brazil sitting volleyball

Polish wheelchair fencing gold medal winner and coach

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!’

David Weir in the red helmet
David Weir in the red helmet
David Weir showing off his four golds
David Weir showing off his four golds

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.

Is you is or is you ain't my baby

Smile Mr. Cameraman

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.

Office workers do a Mexican wave

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.

Johnny Peacock
Johnny Peacock
Victoria Pendleton
Victoria Pendleton
The Games Maker with the best view
The Games Maker with the best view

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!

Some of the Olympic weightlifting venue protocol team
Some of the Olympic weightlifting venue protocol team

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:

Let's do this every year!

Olympic Games Making

The Olympic Stadium and Orbit
The Olympic Stadium and Orbit
The spectators' entrance to ExCeL
The spectators’ entrance to ExCeL, where I was working

Right from day one, it was clear the London 2012 Olympics would be something special. Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony, for which I was privileged enough to see the first technical rehearsal, was a showcase of British culture and history. It made me truly proud to be British, I think for the first time in my life. I laughed and cried so many times during the ceremony, and spent a lot of my time watching it thinking “Oh my God, I’ll be there tomorrow. I’m actually going to be part of this!” and then laughing or crying again. I stayed up right to the bitter end, and I’m so glad I did, because the idea for the cauldron and the way it was lit were truly ingenious, and clear embodiments of the Olympic spirit and the motto of London 2012: “Inspire a Generation”

'James Bond' and the Union Flag
‘James Bond’ and the Union Flag at the technical rehearsal

My first-hand experience of the Games began early the next morning, when I had a seven-hour coach journey from Newcastle to London. Arriving in the centre at 3pm, we spent an hour being diverted and sent all over South Kensington because of the men’s cycle road race. I was worried the problems on the roads would be a major feature of the Games, but the transport network seemed to be one of the most successful aspects of the whole Games. I managed to make it from where the bus dumped us in South Kensington at 4pm to Leicester Square at 5pm just in time for the matinee showing of the Reduced Shakespeare Company‘s Complete World of Sports Abridged. It was a great way to ease into the Games, and a perfect way to start my ‘holiday’.

The next morning I put on my full uniform ready for my first shift. Chia, who I was staying with, posted a few photos of me on Twitter and facebook, and the messages of support I got were heartwarming. I arrived five minutes before the shift, a little panicky because our pre-shift briefing was already happening, but it turned out there was nothing to worry about as all of my colleagues, and Patrick, our manager, were friendly, helpful and ready to explain everything I’d missed.

Sandy Millin working as a Games Maker at London 2012

Half of my team after my last shift (the other half worked the next day)
Half of my team after my last shift (the other half worked the next day) – Patrick is second from left

I won’t share the exact details of my job at the moment, but I was lucky enough to see about fourteen hours of weightlifting over the eight days I was working, during which time I learnt all about the ins and outs of this fascinating and dramatic sport. During that time I saw Olympic records, a world record, four medal ceremonies and a dislocated elbow, with the whole gamut of emotions covered in the arena. The support for all of the lifters, regardless of their nationality, was universal, with constant waves of tension and release in emotion and cheering throughout the day. I was amazed that the crowds still found something extra for Peter Kirkbride, the only British lifter I saw, since they had always seemed to be at fever pitch for everyone else already, but they managed it, and I was privileged enough to be there at the time. I also saw more Kazakh flags being waved than I had seen in my whole life put together, with four of their golds coming from weightlifting. I watched Azerbaijan get their first ever weightlifting medal, a bronze, on my first day. And I saw a group of hyperactive Thai fans in their national costume, complete with a horse headdress, accompanied by drums and bells to make sure everyone knew they were there. It truly was sport at its best.

Weightlifting - an Egyptian lifter
Weightlifting – an Egyptian lifter

When I wasn’t working, I was watching. I cried when Helen Glover and Heather Stanning got Team GB’s first gold, and I cried again when I heard everyone singing the national anthem at Eton Dorney a few minutes later. On my day off I went to Hyde Park with another Games Maker from my team, Eloise, and watched Gemma Gibbons get a silver in the women’s judo -78kg. We then experienced an emotional rollercoaster of an afternoon watching cycling, with Team GB world records, a disqualification, and the crowning glory of the men’s sprint team getting another gold. As they crossed the line, red, white and blue streamers were released from around the screen and we all cheered together. We then sang ‘God Save the Queen’ together in one of the most emotional moments of my time at the Games.

Streamers released at Hyde Park as Chris Hoy crosses the line to win gold for Team GB's men's pursuit team
Streamers released at Hyde Park as Chris Hoy crosses the line to win gold for Team GB’s men’s pursuit team

I shouted at the TV to make the rowers go faster, watching them win two golds and a silver in consecutive races; I willed Rebecca Adlington to swim faster and then was really happy when her post-800m speech showed how proud she was of her bronze medal; I saw the last three games of Murray’s match against Federer and was ecstatically happy when he won, turning round his Wimbledon final disappointment and proving he can win major tournaments when the pressure is on. I watched Ed Clancy win one of his omnium races during one of my breaks, with everyone in the ExCeL workforce break area (about 300 people) cheering him on, and applauding him as he crossed the line first. I watched Bolt’s 100m victory on a Spanish guy’s laptop on the boulevard which runs the 500m+ length of ExCeL. I saw Jessica Ennis finish the 800m, and win the heptathlon, followed by Mo Farah winning the 10,000m with a group of my colleagues after our shift finished. I watched Farah win the 5,000m one week later during a meal with my mum and my best friend. Later we saw pure unadulterated joy on Tom Daley’s face when he realised he had got a bronze in the diving. I watched the end of the women’s triathlon at home, alone, and saw one of the most amazing photo finishes I have ever seen in any sport, after they had been competing for two hours. At ExCeL, I saw live judo, boxing and fencing, including the very close men’s team foil final, won by Italy in the final match, from a total of nine matches. I even went to an event as a fully-paid up spectator with my mum, watching the free routines at the synchronised swimming at the Aquatics Centre, followed by the medal ceremony, with the Russians taking gold.

Judo - a women's gold medal match
Judo – a women’s gold medal match
Judo - men's team foil gold medal match
Fencing – men’s team foil gold medal match
Boxing - an Algerian v. a Japanese fighter
Boxing – an Algerian v. a Japanese fighter
Synchronised swimming - the winning Russian team during their free routine
Synchronised swimming – the winning Russian team during their free routine

Wearing the Games Maker uniform turned London into a completely different place. Every time I got on the Tube, I ended up chatting to people, and even missed my stop once when I was talking to a Games Maker working at Earl’s Court at the volleyball. I had a long conversation with a pair of Brazilians from Sao Paolo, worrying about how Rio 2016 will live up to London 2012, and heard from many people that the Games Makers were what made London stand out. At the end of my final shift, we were presented with a relay baton to thank us for our work during the Games. We had our presentation on the weightlifting platform, followed by photos of our team.

Getting my Games Maker relay baton from Patrick
Getting my Games Maker relay baton from Patrick

Many times during my nine days in London, I looked at the Olympic rings and had to tell myself that I really was there. The emotions I’ve experienced during the last two weeks, the excitement, the joy, the tears (both happy and sad), and above everything else, the pride, at being there and at being a witness to Team GB’s greatest performance, to some of the best sport the world has ever seen, and to surely one of the most successful Olympic Games of all time, will stay with me for the rest of my life. And best of all, I have been able to share it, with friends new and old, people I have never met, and a country which is holding its head high.

Eloise and Mat training for Rio
Eloise and Mat training for Rio

But it’s not the end yet, even though the closing ceremony took place last night. In three weeks, I’ll be back again, this time for the Paralympics. I have three more shifts, and Eloise and I have already bought day passes for ExCeL, to revel in the sport all over again. Bring it on!

London 2012 weightlifting platform(all images in this post are my own)