Thursday 13 September 2012

Memories of a Games Maker - The Rehearsal of the London 2012 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony

So London 2012 is over, the build up over seven years for hosting the Greatest Show on Earth has now climaxed. But man what a summer it was. I want to share my experience witnessing the rehearsal of the Opening Ceremony that shook the world on the night of 27th July 2012.  

In January 2012, I was elated to be told that my application to be a London 2012 Games Maker (a process I'd completed in various stages from numerous visits to internet cafe's during my travels in Australia two years previously) had been shortlisted from the 250,000 applications to 100,000 potential 'Games Makers'

Oh my god. My heart skips a beat.

I was invited to attend an interview by LOCOG, the organising committee of the Games in London's Canary Wharf where they would further filter out the applicants to a final 70,000 volunteers that would 'Make The Games'. I was super excited! this was a once-in-a-life time opportunity that I was not passing up. My Australian two year working holiday visa was about to expire so it couldn't have been more perfect timing. Despite the difficulty of it, I would have been willing to leave my blissful travels in Australia to return to the bitterly cold winter of London for a chance to be part of it.  

The whole interviewing process was very relaxed and light hearted, as all the people were good natured friendly volunteers themselves. After registering, you were allocated a coloured wrist band and underwent standard procedures of having a photograph and having copies taken of identification. A exhibition about the Games and a video foreword by Eddie Izzard, the Games Maker patron, was a sort of 'waiting room' for all interviewees which just added to the drive and enthusiasm needed to be involved in London 2012. Funny enough I wasn't feeling any pangs of nervousness. I felt like I could glide in there, just happy to be shortlisted. I was being interviewed for a volunteer role in 'Spectator Entry' which would in theory make you the unofficial 'Face Of The Games' helping to greet spectators from all around the world. Yikes - I could do that. The interview questions definitely challenged me, forcing me to reflect instantaneously back on my life experiences on the spot, but I think I gave them my best shot and left the interview in a content mood. On the way out, I signed my name on the huge whiteboard which applicants were welcome to leave a note of well wishing for a successful games. 

A few weeks later, I receive the news. I'd been selected for the final 70,000 and I'm in the London 2012 Club. My heart explodes. No really, it explodes. I could have died.

As a London 2012 Games Maker, you got extremely spoilt by LOCOG in thanks for giving up your time and energy to make the games a success. As a pre games reward, Games Makers were invited to have their names put into a lottery for a special ticket - to see and help with the preparations of the Technical Dress Rehearsal of the much hushed and highly anticipated opening ceremony 'The Isles of Wonder', organised by film director Danny Boyle right there in the heart of the Olympic Stadium. I would be moronic to pass that up, so I didn't.

I got drawn out. I counted my blessings!

Two days before it is to open to the spectators of the world, I'm at the gates of the Olympic Park in Stratford, crunching on the pristinely laid gravel like its grains of gold that you're only privileged to walk on in the possession of a free golden ticket. How on earth did I get here seven months later?  Madness!!!!!!!!! There were already friendly Games Makers there doing their thing, playing helpful ushers and stewards. East London had turned into such a loving and squidgy place, was I on another planet!? Who cares, I was enjoying myself already.

Security was in the responsible hands of the British armed forces and was a pretty smooth process getting access into 'The Park' which over the duration of the games seemed like getting into a piece of Eden for some people who faced difficulties getting tickets. I wandered in awe towards the Olympic Stadium - its all about the stadium with me as I'm a fan of Athletics, Track and Field being my favourite of the Olympic events.
Have to say I felt a bit spoilt getting this pre-Olympic opportunity to see the Park for this occasion, but was super impressed by its aesthetic layout; cool flamboyant pink, blue purple and orange signs made navigation dead easy. Running canals boasted a funky digitally clever installation of a running water fountain that READ THE NEWSPAPER HEADLINES  (how cool is that!) and the towering entwined corkscrew structure of the Orbit - a bit of a arty twist to add to the parks already new age colossal architecture.

 The Olympic Stadium!

The mid summer atmosphere in this segregated area of the park was buzzing with cheery ticket holders milling around lapping up this new discovery, just like me. The North part of the park had not been opened yet, so there was only a small area that was accessible to the public. Visitors were going to get very fit walking around during the Games as there would be a HUGE!!!! amount of ground to cover, but its a sports event right? 

There was a rule, yes a rule that you couldn't bring water or liquids in through security, so I played to my English ways and patiently waited at the few water fountain stations for a top up. I was cautious of drinking any though - the toilet queue for the ladies was just as long! I was loving it and the ceremony hadn't even started.

You needed to be seated for the rehearsal to commence at 7:30pm but I was too keen to get inside the stadium so I headed there early towards Bridge C and the correct entrance on my ticket. Lingering amongst the food and drink stands I felt a pang of curious excitement, catching a glimpse of the centre of the stadium through one of the gangways - an artificial green hill and thatched roof and water wheel stood in the core of the arena very much like the start of a pantomime show like Hansel and Gretal, a piece of a jigsaw of something much bigger. My curiosity soared and hit the roof about what was in store. I had no idea where I'd be seated in the stadium but discovered following my tickets numbers that I was wandering towards the lower tier, directed by a perky Games Maker usher and stepped into the vast open stadium. The glimpse I caught of the thatched cottage and greenery was in fact part of a huge jigsaw of a fabricated rural farm scene, very pastoral and very English - obviously acting as the introduction for the foundations of the ceremony. It was pretty adorable and quaint - 'Merry Ole England' with a grassy mount marooned to the left of my view, two masts embedded in it. Various camera crews, sounds and technical looking people pottered around near the track which had been covered for the ceremony. Despite being in awe of my colossal surroundings, I searched for my seat number and descended further down towards the track side, soon discovering where I was going to be sitting.

Eight rows from the front. I counted my lucky stars yet again.

I couldn't believe my luck, I literally had a track side seat! I fumbled through the already seated spectators to find my own reserved spot, picking up the handle of a black flat device which was slotted into the back of the seats in front. It looked like it had a lighting purpose but I was soon to find out later. I look up, soaking up the reality of where I was. I noticed the tip of the red orbit, peeking over the sphere roof of the stadium as I studied the chain of various flags representing each country that would be competing in the Games. They were hung up high underneath the covered roof beneath a huge television screen flickering with the iconic symbol of the five coloured rings. It was a momentous occasion and gave me the shivers. This was the Olympic Games, the greatest show on Earth.   

'Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the Olympic Stadium!'

I listen to the exaggerative American announcer and thought about all the great athletes and famous faces that will grace and face combat in this gladiatorial arena. The many that will create and encapsulate historic moments and memories in this intimate and cushioned stadium, over the duration of both the games. I remembered that the torch was going to finish its epic journey around the UK right here and will be ignited and stand as a beacon of unity and those who aspire to the Olympic motto 'Faster, Higher, Stronger' - right here! How, was what kept the public guessing as the torch had two more days to reach the stadium. It's crazy I'm here. I couldn't resist swivelling my head around and marvelling at the sheer enormity of the stadium, steadily filling up with snatches of blurred colours from the streams of 80,000 expected spectators channelling in. The TV screens blazoned a message of plea to all spectators to not be party poopers and #SaveTheSurprise but I doubt people will be able to help themselves tweeting about tonight before Friday evening. Then someone started talking to me.

I was in the wrong seat.

Not the wrong row though, I hadn't become too deluded by the enchantment of the stadium. My correct seat was actually on the end of the row - even better! could stretch my legs. My attention was then caught by a unexpected gigantic ball of fluff hovering over me, pulled along by strings onto the track area by people dressed up like painters. They wore white hats and cute striped dungarees carrying cotton messenger bags, reminding me of oompa-loompas. A few conferred with each other near the front of my section, whilst some proceeded to walk the fluffy balls like balloons around a few laps of the arena like they were needing some exercise. I sussed out that they were clouds as part of the country scene - so cool! A short while after, actors dressed in pilgrim style costumes start to emerge, some leading farm animals to mount the greenery and begin re enacting different scenarios; tending to the waddling ducks and cows, dancing around the maypole and playing games of cricket next to the giant rotating water wheel and bell that stand on the right of my view. My mind begins to play guessing games, the bell is going to be used for something.      

It was getting close to the starting time of the performance as people where frantically squeezing into their seats so not to miss a second of this phenomenal treat, including the person who would be thy neighbour during the performance. A blonde middle aged lady zipped in introducing herself and settling herself down next to me in a sigh of relief. It was impossible not to start talking about our Games Maker experience that lay ahead for us, it would be the centre of the universe for everyone like a special club or secret society. Eeekk how exciting.

My Games Maker friend was a nurse in the so called normality of the 'real world' and was going to be working in a role with the medical team in the Athletes Village during the Olympics. She had already done some pre event work and enthusiastically glided her fingers across her snazzy IPhone to show me photographs of her wearing the what-would-be the most recognisable purple uniform of the summer and what I would be wearing too. We examined the stadium like curious children and wondered how the torch will be lit there, giving our theories and noticing huge ring like structures attached to the roof. We were then interrupted by the rumble of a women's voice over the many speakers dotted around the stadium welcoming us to the opening ceremony - it was a rehearsal right?

The 'painters' were acting as Marshals and were going to be our cues in helping with the technicalities of the rehearsal. We were then instructed to pick up the black devices I'd been playing with before hand from off the back of the seat in front. They suddenly lit up with small bulbs flickering on and off and were told to copy the hand movements of the Marshals standing in front of us. The effect of waving the devices in different directions in unison with the rest of the stadium was AMAZINGGGGG, as different bright colours and shapes flashed around the sphere of the arena all at once. I couldn't believe how well organised this whole thing was - they were just showing off.


Ok so the lights were working and nobody was getting confused or looking dumbfounded. Our next little job as technical helpers was to raise our hands above our heads on cue and wait to guide a huge blue silk blanket from the back seats of the stadium right down to the bottom where me and my lady buddy were sitting. I watched each section across from me become slowly engulfed by a falling sea of blue, the rummaging of peoples hands on it as they passed it down made it look like a huge rippling river running through to the central rural setting - God that Danny Boyle is good, it looked like a clever illusion. We had to hold our hands up a little longer as we got a warning that gigantic inflatable clear balls were tumbling down from the top of the stadium, imagine getting clobbered by one of them ha! I did as I was told and funny enough I was one of the people it would roll over.      

The pilgrim actors began to arrange themselves holding up what looked like helium balloons and further announcement prepared us for the start of the ceremony - ooo butterflies in stomach, this was going to be one hell of a show. The big TV screens on each side of the stadium begin to broadcast a visual countdown from 50 using imaginative pictures from a British scene to show the numbers ticking down. The crowd are rumbling with anticipation and begin shouting with the countdown, watching the numbered images numerically decreasing on the screen. Finally it reaches one, the balloons explode with confetti and the party begins. A clever film plays on the screens, following the journey of a drop of water through the different areas of the River Thames on its way to London, right up to the coloured rings hanging from Tower Bridge. An aerial city view of the Thames is shown with a clever play on the popular TV soap 'Eastenders' famous theme tune before drawing into the stadium here in east London. Amazing Introduction. The spectators fall into silence as the giant bell is rung once and left to draw out its echo. An angelic voice radiates out of the speakers as a young boy on the TV screens begins to sing which gives me goosebumps.

'And did those feet in ancient time, Walk upon England's mountain green, And was the holy Lamb of God, On England's pleasant pastures seen...'

My heart flutters as he continues to sing the moving lyrics like a cherub to the William Blake Poem 'Jerusalem', he must have nerves of steel the sweet boy - his voice doesn't crackle once. It cleverly gets mixed with the voices of other children cutting in to sing lyrics of the native Irish song 'Danny Boy' and Scottish anthem 'Flower of Scotland' (I'm sure Wales was in there too). Video montages play up on the screens and the actors do their bit on the green for the performance as a horse and carriage elegantly roll by in front me. 

If I say what was to follow was pretty spectacular it would be a huge understatement. The darkness was beginning to settle in and the sudden surge of drum rolls begin to rumble through the stadium as the green set begins to be dismantled cryptically and removed - disguising the movement of many new characters coming on, some even emerging from the giant hill as if they were rising from the dead!. There are so many people coming on and off that its hard to keep track of them all flooding into the arena. My lady buddy yells out and points in different directions.

'Look its the Suffragettes, oh The Beatles' she squeals, as a pack of men come parading by wearing colourful varieties of the classic militant 'Sergeant Pepper' uniform in front of us.

Hundreds of people are playing different roles; war heroes symbolising the British armed forces in both World Wars, model submarines, vessels and other features are exhibited around, representing certain events and times in British history. The TV screens hone in on the muddle of bodies and drama that's unfolding; men are dressed in top hats and long coats, figures of the Victorian era no doubt - it is such a whirlwind of noise and distractions you're not too sure where to look as it sweeps you up into a chronological story telling of Britain's pre- revolution age. I become startled by the surprise of a line of drummers descending the stairs right next to me, dressed as sooty covered working class citizens raising there harms and beating down onto drums strapped around them. The noise of the stadium is deafening and quite literally blows your socks off! as a series of tall smoking chimney's suddenly erect from the ground, scaled by chimney sweepers on harnesses. The TV screens teasingly show blacksmiths mysteriously clanking iron hammers on the ground, welding something as the drummers continue to beat and surround the centre stage on the track. Being impressed is an understatement to the logistics involved in all of this and the organisation for sure! I have no idea how they're doing it. The experience of seeing it with my naked eye, becoming helplessly warped by the magical atmosphere is exceeding my expectations to the max. Flickers from the spectators cameras excitably flash uncontrollable, like twinkling stars as the riveting music and drumming now begins to speedily build up in suspense. It makes me look up and gasp, my heart is literally quivering in my mouth by the adrenaline of what I'm seeing. 

'The rings, the rings' my lady friend excitedly yells as I look as well in awe at the mesmeric flaming orange giant rings hovering directly over us under the dark sky. They slowly gliding towards each other like an illusion, meeting in the centre of the stadium - ah I had a secret feeling that was them!

This is the culmination point, the climax right here - It's spellbinding and I'm totally transfixed as they come together to form the symbol of the Olympic Rings - genius! A few seconds later, there is an sudden impulsive explosion - rays of gold sparks fall like rain onto the minute performers assembled underneath them. The lights of the stadium fade, leaving the lonely silhouette of the fiery rings magnificently glowing in the darkness, like they have just been branded onto the enormous cloud of fog in the sky. Soft soothing whistles play over the speakers as everyone is infatuated with the famous circles up above. Very moving. The hairs on my arms stand up and I feel those prickly goose bumps again.  

We sit there stunned and exhilarated, the electrifying roar and applause of the crowd thunders through the stadium in overwhelming splendour - one of the most thrilling things I've ever seen. Honestly, it was emotionally awe inspiring. God that Danny Boyle is good.         
After the mist clears and the crowd settles down, the TV screens blazon the image of a man dressed in a top hat and beard and I recognise him as the famous British actor Kenneth Branaugh beginning to read a passage from Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' on the big green hill. I think he is impersonating Charles Dickens, removing a cigar from his mouth. The industrial revolution set and the rings have now disappeared without you noticing, followed by the James Bond music theme suddenly blaring out of the speakers. Red, white and blue colours of the Union Jack flash around the stadium - obviously its a tribute to the famous English spy of some kind, but what follows next makes the audience erupt with laughter.

'Ladies and Gentlemen please welcome Her Majesty The Queen and his Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh'

Surely they can't really be here? No way. No of course not! I burst out laughing to see two Gamesmakers up on the TV screens awkwardly posing as the royal couple, waving gingerly to the camera - I wonder what they had to do to get picked to do that, maybe it was a special Games Maker role! Of course at that time you didn't know what the James Bond thing would have to do with the Queen until two nights later....I'm sure we'll all remember that hilarious helicopter jump stunt nailing the dry British sense of humour. Gotta love the Queen, she's such a good sport

So pretending the Queen was really there, the armed forces then began the rehearse the raising of the Union Jack and Olympic Flag, marching with them towards the green hill. A typically proud patriotic moment, the crowd stand to belt out the National Anthem as the flag is raised - pretty cool to sing it in the Olympic Stadium of all places. I feel good to be British right now.

Camera cranes swing around across the crowd capturing the action. Music from 'Chariots of Fire' and other melodies are played out for a while after...I guess to rehearse the order and to determine the sound checks. At that point all these are mysterious to us, teasingly disguising the extra treats the ceremony has planned. I think they are likely to involve someone famous or something that can't be rehearsed tonight...will have to wait and see on the real night.

The stadium has become very dark now and the lights fade to a fluorescent purple. What begins to play is the eerie melody of 'Tubular Bells' the theme they used in the film 'The Exorcist' which in fact scared the life out of me when I was a teenager. Nothing satanic though, quite the opposite - a hundred or so performers dressed as war time nurses in blue frocks and white aprons, the men in flawless white uniforms flood into the arena pulling beds on wheels with little children in them. They begin to swing dance to a nice Jazz number as the kids have fun jumping around on the beds - I heard the kids were picked by the luck of having their birthdays on 20th December (20/12) clever hey. The TV cameras pan away to an aerial view, showing that it is in recognition and tribute to the National Health Service and Great Ormand Street Hospital for Sick Children. Lights cleverly spell out the letters G.O.S.H and the famous teary eyed child logo the charity is well recognised by. Some might argue that the international audience won't have a clue what's going on but in my opinion - if the country is hosting the Olympic Games, this is our chance to showcase to the world what is essentially great about Britain and what is important to us. So there you go.

Watching this already dynamic extravaganza unfold, re-enforces what a filthy rich and fruitful culture we have in Britain and this was the opportunity to show off on the worlds stage all those things very British. The bouncy child play then finishes and the nurses tuck the little darlings into bed. A story begins to be read.....unaware that on the night it would be the voice of J.K Rowling. The snazzy light affects that come back to shine are of a huge pair of devilish eyes, stalking the stadium with performers dressed in black rags, representing the idea of nightmares and the dark side. I realised we were about to embark on a fantastic display of English Literature with a fairytale angle - so cool.

A huge scaled model of Harry Potter's sinister villain Voldermort appears from the stage like a giant puppet, as Lewis Carrolls foreboding 'Queen of Hearts' character from Alice and Wonderland emerges from one of the beds. I feel like I'm in Alice's fantasy wonderland just seeing it. There is so much going on in every direction of the stadium that its a struggle to take it all in, all you can do is sporadically distribute your attention to different parts of the stadium and see what snatches of things you can get. My lady friend yells again.

'Look Mary Poppins!' she points at a flock of women charmingly floating down from the roof with open umbrellas down towards the stage, just like Mary Poppins, whatttt!?!?!? I'm hallucinating.
This is all too cool and overwhelming, one of my favourite parts of the ceremony so far. I'm totally gripped by it all - the choreography and direction is outstanding and still baffles me to this day how is was done. All those set changes, all those performers, all those lights and music, the overwhelmingly monstrous task of organising it all.   

The fantasia now fades and a house has been moved onto the track. You hear a car beeping - its a red mini tearing around the track and pulls up to the house where a women a child get out and enter the house. Another cloud hovers over the roof and the image of a BBC newsreader appears on the other side of the arena to forecast a storm. The ear splitting sound of a clap of thunder rocks the stadium and rain begins to fall from the cloud! ahhhhhhhhhh so clever! The performances were beginning to move through the ages of Britain to present day and were now paying homage to the contemporary 'Digital Age' and hip 'Pop Culture'. Musical tributes to Queen, David Bowie and The Beatles were projected on the walls of a second pop-up house that had taken centre stage. Young dancers in 80's rocker outfits rolled around on skates, dancing to Mud's catchy 'Tiger Feet' song. Flickers of British sitcom clips were shown along with a catalogue of images including Shakespeare and other significant British figures, all getting a spot on the house of fame whilst a contemporary storyline based on 'Romeo and Juliet' is re-enacted by actors to tie in with the digital social networking age. With a huge bang out of nowhere, London rapper Dizzy Rascal appears on a stage at the front of the house, beginning to rap a few lyrics from his song 'Bonkers' which I guess he was asked to do to represent the kinda 'street cred' members of society ha! I'm sure her Majesty will love it.

This was the party piece of the ceremony, god we Brits have got a lot to shout about! After all the rocking was done, the ceremony than transformed into a more tranquil setting - a group of people dressed in robes began giving a sort of martial arts performance in the centre of the stage. Illuminated by fabricated rays by the lighting team, a child interacted with them in what looked like they were depicting some ancient storytelling - it looked like to me anyway, I might be wrong, but it still looked pretty cool.

I noticed a lot of people were beginning to leave their seats at this time, the duration of the rehearsal had been over an hour and a half so I guessed that it would be coming to an end soon. The rehearsal could only run up to the marshalling of the athletes who obviously were not there yet. The coloured lights of the stadium changed to a cool purple as white uniformed drummers began to assemble themselves, acting as marshals for the athletes when they eventually parade around the stadium to the eyes of the world on the official night. I actually really like the uniting element of the Olympics - when all the athletes whatever individual sport they pursue, all return to their country of roots and compete not for themselves but as one big team.

Back to the action, names of the competing countries were beginning to be called out alphabetically. I watched Games Maker volunteers walk along the track, acting as stand ins for the absent athletes and flag bearers efficiently rehearsing the timing and order that would be on the night. Now I think it is just a standard rehearsal of logistics for all the marshals involved, putting an end to the ceremony and the nights performance. What was to come after that - how the torch would be lit, would still remain a secret until two nights later- but in all honesty, why would anyone want to know before hand how it will be done?

Well done to the creative genius of Danny Boyle and all those performers who put their heart and soul into it (I'd heard rehearsals were three times a week leading up to it) you did a smashing job and something I can never forget seeing.
'Thank you for your support tonight, please leave the Olympic Stadium'. The final announcement.
Exiting into the park - I look back at the stadium and the 80,000 odd bubbling spectators flooding out, trying not to get swept up in them. The stadiums ghostly white skeletal structure pulsates and glows like a shrine in the night and I still can't believe I'd just been privy to getting a secret sneek peek of this much hushed up ceremony that will have the eyes of the world seeing what I had just seen - really the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games!
I couldn't wait for the Friday night to relive it and for the Games to begin.....and then I bump into British Female Weightlifter Zoe Smith to round it off..



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