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Tuesday / May 24.
HomemitwocentsThe Mixing Pot of Humanity

The Mixing Pot of Humanity

As London adds the final touches to its Olympic Village, Geoff Lawson soaks up the vibe of this bustling metropolis, a mixing pot of the world’s humanity.

Twelve years ago (is it really that long – feels like yesterday) Sydney had the huge task and privilege of hosting the biggest event on the globe.

‘Biggest’ in terms of media interest and participation, but maybe not as big in terms of dollars as the Soccer World Cup.

At the end of this month England has the honour and responsibility, which Australia wore so brilliantly. During a few days transit in the cold and wet of a London spring, I took the opportunity to visit the newest Olympic precinct, maybe to compare it to Homebush, maybe just to check things were on schedule… and maybe because the odds of me being there for the actual event were pretty long.

Smiles look the same in any language and apologies cost nothing

For those of us fortunate enough to get to the UK every few years (usually following the cricket) there is no better place to be than the West End of London when the weather is acceptable i.e. the temperature is in double figures and it’s only drizzling intermittently.

Strolling through Leicester Square, down to Piccadilly then turning right up the curve and bustle of Regent Street, past Oxford Circus and down to Marble Arch, the most striking feature is not the architecture or the plethora of retail outlets. Nor the volume of double decker buses and hackney carriages (London Cabs), but the number and variety of humanity. The streets are crowded – usually so busy that it takes an excellent side-step and careful observation to traverse them without major collisions.

Walking while texting has clear dangers on and across busy streets and walkways. Umbrellas are genuine hazards, sunglasses are more useful for avoiding ocular injury than shading the feeble sun. Minor brushes are inevitable, generally followed by swivelling apologies in languages foreign, familiar or indecipherable but in the environment of individual isolation there is a warm collective toleration. Smiles look the same in any language and apologies cost nothing, and it is actually much easier to get on with people you have a two second relationship with than scowl about rights to a piece of footpath.

Naturally many of the younger generation have their music or phones glued to their ears. Oblivious of the urban symphony, they are deprived a major sensation but at least their eyes are open to see, avoid and take in the sights. For the older folks, such as myself, we can’t bear the thought of a Tom Jones ballad blocking out the street noise. The world comes to the streets of London in summer. The thousands walk past and they chat. Humans shoulder to shoulder seeking Selfridges, Hamleys or Top Man… or just enjoying being with humanity.

Backpackers need only a train ticket to journey from Latvia or Turkey or Moscow or Paris to meet the Spaniards and Italians and Irish and Danes that live in the melting pot of London. There is a wonderful aura, a genuine buzz that I have only experienced for a fleeting time in Australia.

Back in Sydney 2000

Sydney may be one of the world’s most desired cities to visit but it is a long way from the rest of civilisation. The Olympic Games of 2000 has been the only time that the world has come to the great southern land. Granted we had the memorable Melbourne Cricket Ground games of 1956, albeit in an era where international travel was much less accessible than the early 21st century.

Cheap airfares and competition makes overseas travel much easier for so many. Yes, Aussies have always loved to get away from our island prison, but Europeans so often see Australia as ‘too far away’, when they are used to a couple of hours in aeroplane being long enough to get them almost anywhere on the continent. London to Moscow is about the same distance as Sydney to Perth.

The vibe on the Sydney streets in September 2000 was magic. The tongues, the colours, the babble, the tolerance – the lack of traffic – has been impossible to match ever since.

London Games

The London Games will be terrific, no doubt, but in many ways they are just an expensive extension of the usual annual conflagrations – just moved from the West End to The East End with some athletic pursuits thrown in for variety.

My visit to the East End site was surprising. The Jubilee Line or Central Lines will get you to Stratford Station (you can walk from West Ham station about 25 minutes as well) and the exit leads straight into an immense Westfield Shopping centre. The Olympic souvenir shop (I ‘expensed’ the fridge magnet and a tea towel) is on the top floor of the furthest department store from the entrance. Talk about ambush marketing.

The shopping city and major venues are adjacent, built on wastelands of a rusting East End scrapscape. This part of the great city has been rejuvenated in every sense. The Athletes Village will become local apartment accommodation when the caravan moves on, much as the central western Sydney suburb of Newington successfully has.

I couldn’t get into the actual stadia site as there was much construction still in progress. Hopefully they won’t be following the widely practised Indian method of applying the last coat of paint as the spectators are finding their seats. There was a viewing area provided for the early visitors, like myself, who wanted to see from a distance what those with tickets will get to see from the inside. Apart from the Olympic meccano sculpture, which looked like it had been conceived after a particularly interesting acid trip, the venues looked uninspiring. Grey or

cream (at that time anyway) a lack of colour and spirit that will hopefully be altered by the athletes competing and the spectators cheering. Games are after all about the people rather than the buildings.

England has had such a dreadfully wet and cold start to the summer that surely the weather gods will smile on them in late July and August. Sydney had simply the best September in 100 years. It helps to enjoy an event and have good memories of said if you aren’t wearing raincoats, shivering and carrying umbrellas… but maybe the Europeans don’t mind so much?

It should be a wonderful couple of weeks but if you are a cricket fan don’t expect to turn up to the Lords between 27 July and 3 August and expect to see that sport. There will be targets getting hit… it just won’t be cricket!

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