On The Ground: After initial dread, these Games have been 'lovely'

London was wound tight when I arrived three weeks ago. The Olympics were coming, and dread gripped the city.

They were putting in Olympic lanes, and everyone said traffic would be a disaster. They were putting cruise missiles on top of buildings, and everyone said security would be a nightmare. They were telling people to leave the city, and everyone said the Underground would fail.

The bleak atmosphere was similar to the one that gathered around a family preparing to host a Christmas party. Somewhere in east London, the mom was rushing about frantically organizing things and taking care of last-minute details before the extended family arrived. Everyone else was being asked to do small things they didn’t want to do, and that left plenty of time to grumble and complain.

My cab driver from Victoria station to my hotel was like the family’s aggravated son. He had been excited when London won the Olympics seven years ago, but the more he listened to talk radio and heard about road closures, the more agitated he became. He spent most of the drive apologizing for how much longer the drive was than it should be.

“They’ve got everything shut down around Buckingham Palace for the cycling this weekend,” he said. “It’s going to be dreadful.”

He had made plans to avoid the coming calamity by taking two weeks off during the Olympics. It was a tactic a lot of Londoners took during the first week of the Games.

■  ■  ■

I had my own sense of dread about these Olympics. I was worried about the weather, the failure of security contractor G4S and the lines for venues.

The news that came from London the past six months turned an Olympics I was looking forward to into one filled with foreboding.

My first day didn’t help matters.

I planned to buy a mobile phone for emails and calls after I arrived. But I wasn’t prepared to do it at Westfield Stratford mall. The mall, which is the biggest in Europe, acts as the de facto entrance to the Olympic Park. It had five different mobile phone retailers. It took me an hour to figure out which phone to buy from which store.

When I tried to set up my email account on it two hours later, I discovered it was too outdated for our corporate email system. That meant I had to spend another hour walking back to the mall from Olympic Park and an hour after that swapping it out for a phone that did work. All in, I spent four hours of my first day just trying to get a phone that I could use.

Fortunately, things got easier from there. And Danny Boyle had a lot to do with that. There was an enormous difference in the country’s mood after the opening ceremony. Everyone collectively seemed to think, “Maybe this won’t be so bad after all.”

And it wasn’t. For them or for me.

During the next two weeks, I spent my days bouncing from sports to meetings to interviews. I saw handball, archery, diving, beach volleyball, shooting, rowing, swimming, gymnastics, basketball, tennis, track and field, track cycling, volleyball and boxing. I ate 18 Cliff bars, chewed 60 sticks of spearmint gum, and ate more boxed sandwiches than I can remember. I worked at seven different Starbucks.

I saw Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt make history, and went to a party attended by Jessica Ennis and the actor who played Matthew from “Downton Abbey.” I snuck in speed tours of Westminster Abbey, Churchill’s War Room and the Tate Modern. I visited Hampstead Heath with a college friend and heard her 2-year-old son, who is being raised in London, point at a deep gray sky and say, “Ahh, it’s sunny!”

I was called a wanker outside a tube stop and identified as an American “because [my] teeth are white.” I heard a Scottish emcee taunt the prime minister and coin a new phrase for raking sand between beach volleyball sets. “It’s rakey, rakey time!!!!”

I watched the lights flicker on and heard the closing-time-bell ring at a half-dozen pubs. I felt underdressed at Wimbledon and got damp with rain watching women’s marathon runners race through a downpour.

I heard music everywhere. “Born in the USA” after Phelps won his 19th Olympic medal, Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” as sand was raked at beach volleyball and LCD Soundsystem’s “This is how it Starts” during a 1,500-meter semifinal.

I marveled at the bag of tricks organizers used to keep people smiling for two straight weeks. They hired jazz dancers to perform in front of a long line for the Javelin, they gave away free water and ice cream on a hot day, and volunteers kept things humorous with an array of jokes. “They look OK, but I’m not sure about you lot.”

By my last trip to the park, it was clear London was a different place than it had been when I arrived. Great Britain had been through some dark times over the last year or so. Austerity measures had made the nation feel weak, and the riots that hit London last year left its citizens uncertain about the future. But the Olympics and Team GB’s overwhelming medal success had changed that.

Chris Kay, a 63-year-old retired civil engineer who I walked to the Olympic Park with that last day, put it this way: “The Olympics is a morale booster. It’s not a good time for us. This is a shot in the arm and a reminder we can do something big.”

■  ■  ■

By the time I left Friday morning, London was loose and upbeat. The Olympics were almost over, and though tickets had been scarce and business had been slower than expected, optimism replaced the city’s doom and gloom.

My cab driver to Victoria station was chipper even in his British pessimism.

“How’s it been?” I said.

“Absolute crap!” he answered.

Business had been rubbish, he said, but he’d learned from a passenger who’d helped organize another Olympics that business is always rubbish during the Games. It’s not until four or five years after the Games, when people who watched decide to visit the host city, that businesses see increases. And he was OK with that.

“The roads have been absolutely dead,” he said. “It’s been lovely, really.”

It was 60 degrees and sunny outside as the cab sped through central London. I looked out the window as we drove past Number 10 Downing Street and Trafalgar Square. London was just waking up, and I couldn’t help but think that my cabbie was right.

The Olympics had been lovely.

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