I didn't go to the Olympics yesterday. But I did go and watch the Games on the big screen. Here's what the spectator experience is like in Hyde Park and Victoria Park.
BT London Live - Hyde Park If you've not got tickets to the Olympics proper, there's always the big screen. Several have been set up in Hyde Park, inside the Official Fun Compound along the edge of Park Lane, where a free commercial festival is taking place. When the event was announced, demand was expected to be so high that you'd need pre-booked tickets. It's not quite turned out like that. The website's had to be updated to remind potential visitors that you can turn up on the day, no tickets are required, and the evidence from yesterday afternoon is that there are no queues at the entrance. No queues that is apart from the security check. If you're used to the smoothness of the security at Games sessions, this isn't so good. It's also more severe. BT London Live has a strict No Food Or Drinks policy, which means they'll chuck away all your sandwiches as well as your bottles of drink, because they're determined you buy all your food inside. Sweets and crisps are OK, but my Polo mints set off the handheld body scanner, and I was more than glad when the semi-humiliating security ballet was over.
If you're expecting parkland, think again. The entire area's been covered with woodchips to protect the grass, so bring something comfortable like a beach towel to sit on. Earlybirds get green picnic tables, but they're few and far between (try the very southeast corner for your best chance). I counted five screens round the park, some much bigger than others, offering a broad choice of events to watch. Table tennis in one corner, BMX elsewhere, a bit of handball on the opposite side and equestrian on the main screen... take your pick and plonk down with a beer. The beer's expensive, even for central London. It's five pounds for a pint of Heineken or £4.50 for Fosters, plus you can add a "commemorative stackable cup" for £1 (recently reduced from £2). Food stalls are everywhere, mostly of the burger, chips and grilled meat variety like you might find at a car boot sale, but with more ethnic diversity if you look around. With even a Dairy Milk coated ice cream on a stick costing £3, the disposal of food on the way in feels entirely mercenary.
For those not watching the action, the number of other things to do is strangely limited. One good thing is the have-a-go area, where kids can try judo, boxing or some other proper sport in the hope they might be inspired to take it up properly. At the other end of the health scale there's Cadbury House, a big tent experience with a free chocolate medal at the end (and, obviously, very long queues). BT had a pavilion with an exclusive lounge upstairs for customers, plus games to play downstairs and some hats to try on (honest). Samsung have turned up, and a couple of Murdoch newspapers, plus a handful of sporting organisations (for example for badminton or triathlon). The latter were doing good work, but were vastly outnumbered by the food floggers. For all the government's talk of promoting children's sport, there's a hugely missed opportunity here on site.
BT London Live in Hyde Park is busy, but not over-busy, at least on weekdays. That's not a bad state of affairs. If you're in town with no home or hotel room to fall back on, it makes a good spot to catch up on the day's events. A sea of orange shirts indicated that the Dutch had settled in watching the handball, for example, and there was a positive communal vibe. Various medal winners get paraded on the stage if you're there at the right time - apparently I missed Rebecca Adlington and the Brownlee Brothers because I wasn't. But I still couldn't avoid the feeling that this is an event with its heart not quite in the right place, a sop to those not moneyed enough to get 'proper' tickets, and would you like chips with that?
Travel: Even on days when no Olympic events are taking place in Hyde Park, TfL's travel arrangements are rather draconian. Marble Arch may be the closest station to the entrance, but big magenta signs at Bond Street attempt to lure Central line passengers off their train one stop early and then make them walk further than necessary. Marble Arch and Hyde Park Corner stations are officially exit only between 10am and 10pm. For those departing Park Live, the two nearest stations are therefore closed. Pink signs above the exits suggest walking to Paddington, Edgware Road or Bond Street to the north, or Green Park or Victoria to the south. Knightsbridge is actually closer, but that's not mentioned until you're offsite. The walk to Victoria takes 20 minutes, which is fine if you're expecting it, and a nasty shock if you're not. Us Londoners are well prepared for this sort of thing, but I watched a pair of elderly out-of-towners setting off towards Paddington and felt rather sorry for them. Blind acceptance of TfL's travel advice can cost you dear, with the official signs designed to ease "worst case" scenarios that don't always exist.
BT London Live - Victoria Park The second series of big screens is Tower Hamlets' pride and joy. It's located not far from the main Olympic site, in Victoria Park, in the enclosure where all of this summer's festivals have been held. And it's not busy. It was, right back at the start of the Games and possibly at weekends, but recent footfall has been disappointing and the council have taken to increasingly urgentpublicity. I turned up on Tuesday during Team GB's Velodrome golden window, but there was tons of legroom on the grass for watching the cycling, and a vast amount of unfilled space elsewhere. Near the entrance is The Sun's tent, where non-beefcake men can line up to have their photo taken with mini-skirted cheerleaders, or go for a drink in The Sun Pub (which is another tent). This being a commercial event they're not giving newspapers away, merely giving you a free bag when buying one, plus the chance for Junior to get his or her face painted in suitably patriotic style.
No Team GB athletes will be appearing here, but there is a big observation wheel (which costs extra), and zorbing (ditto) and occasionally a hot air balloon. On my visit the "have-a-go" sport on offer was lacrosse, which various children seemed to be meekly enjoying, although I'm not convinced any will ever go on to take it up. The best fun for creative kids was the pink plastic construction set, and apparently there's a Universal Tea Making Machine, but I missed that. A fairly dire musical dance act was screeching in the performance space - it's clear that Hyde Park gets the good stuff and Victoria Park the leftovers. And the legendary zipwire is in place, although I saw absolutely nobody on it, and certainly not a danglingmayor. I have to say the entire site felt somewhat lacklustre and rather dead, and not somewhere you'd travel miles out of your way to visit. If even Boris's aerial antics can't drum up publicity for BT London Live in Victoria Park, what hope is there?