It was 9:48pm inside a tunnel at London’s Olympic Stadium when I got perhaps the worst-timed tap on the shoulder of my life.
It was the second Sunday night of the Games and, along with the 80,000 crowd in the floodlit arena outside, 20 million BBC TV viewers and around 2 billion people worldwide, I was getting ready to watch the most anticipated event of the Games – Usain Bolt’s attempt to defend his 100 metres title.
The race was due to start in two minutes time, at 9:50pm precisely, so – along with scores of other journalists and media people in the so-called ‘mixed zone’ where athletes are interviewed – I’d engineered a prime spot to watch the race on a giant monitor close to the track. Which is why the tap on the shoulder – and more importantly the message that accompanied it – was, on the face of it, about as welcome as a right hook from Nicola Adams.
“Mate, I can’t find anyone else, can you head off and do the press conference for the final of the women’s triple jump?,” asked one of the senior members of the Olympic News Service (ONS) to which I’d been assigned as a volunteer or Games Maker.
“Sure,” I said, releasing my position to a grateful American hack and heading away from the track sensing that I’d made a schoolboy error in standing so close to the ONS office.
The atmosphere within the mixed zone can be manic so the near empty press conference room I entered was an oasis of calm in comparison. Apart from two Kazakh journalists excitedly waiting to interview their gold medallist, Olga Rypakova, the room was as barren as, well, the Kazakh steppes in Winter.
I managed to catch Bolt’s miraculous win on a monitor in the corner. Then, as the rest of the stadium screamed itself hoarse at the great showman’s lap of honour, I sat down and dwelled for a moment on what a profound experience these Olympics had become for me.
To begin with it had brought me a rather warming dose of deja vu. It was twenty five years since I’d been a reporter on national newspapers. My life since then has generally been led far from the front line of journalism. Not that this was precisely Aleppo, but I was on a deadline needing to accurately report the conference then file a report within minutes. It felt good to reconnect with the sharp end of the profession that is in my blood.
But I was also reminded of what a privilege it was to witness the Olympics in such an up close and personal way. I couldn’t really complain about missing out on Bolt’s 100 metres. On several other occasions already, I’d been positioned in the stadium alongside the television broadcasters whose interviews I eavesdropped in search of juicy quotes for the ONS. The likes of the BBC, NBC and Eurosport, of course, have the very best seats in the house, so I’d been trackside for Jessica Ennis’s imperious run to gold in the final 800 metres, and would be there again for Bolt’s 200 metres and 4×100 metre relay win.
But it was a privilege in another way too. The Kazakhs and I were soon joined by three rather beautiful and charming triple jumpers, each of whom was clearly overjoyed to be sitting here. As they were soon making plain, this was the highpoint of their lives, the moment for which they’d expended blood, sweat and tears on the track and in the weights room for most of their adult lives. I felt honoured – and not a little humbled – to be sharing it with them.
By the time I was weaving my way back through the mixed zone to my office, the scrum forming in anticipation of Bolt’s arrival after winning the 100 metres was already ten deep. When my colleague asked me whether I’d now like to cover another press conference – not Bolt’s, but the one for the men’s 3,000 metre steeplechase – I had no hesitation in saying yes.
That was the other thing I’d reconnected with during these Games. As an author and freelance journalist I generally work alone. I inhabit a self-made bubble. At the stadium I was part of a team of diverse individuals that included a student from John O’Groats, a couple of former PE teachers and a regional newspaper editor who was sleeping in a tent a few miles away. I’d already forged friendships that, I suspect, will endure personally and professionally long after the Games – maybe even all the way to Rio in 2016.
But I’d also rediscovered the rewards that come from being in a team. I wouldn’t want to over-egg it and draw comparisons with the road time trial cyclists or Mo Farah’s selfless running partner Galen Rupp, but tonight had underlined that ethos for me. As an individual, there was no way I’d have given up my prime spot to watch Bolt. But as a member of a team, I had committed to doing a job – regardless of how inconvenient it might be. Here at the Olympics I’d rediscovered the beauty of being part of something bigger than ourselves – of being a link in a chain that strengthens our sense of community and humanity.
On Saturday night, I was back at the stadium for the last of my eight shifts. Perhaps it was demob fever, but for the first time in a fortnight I let my professionalism drop and leapt up and down like a lunatic roaring Mo Farah on down the home straight in the 5,000 metres. But I also managed to achieve two things that, for me, crystallized the experience of being part of these remarkable Games.
The first came early that evening during a press conference held by the ruling body of athletics, the IAAF, with Lord Coe on the panel. On the way out, I shook Coe’s hand and thanked him on behalf of all the volunteers with whom I’d shared the past fortnight.
“You do realise that it wasn’t just the younger generation who were inspired by this Games,” I told him. It wasn’t an original line, I’m sure, but the rushed smile and “thanks” he gave me felt like my very own gold medal.
The second was my very last act as a so-called Games Maker. As I was gathering together my belongings, including the rather lovely metal baton handed out to all volunteers at the end of the Games, my team leader, a brilliant lady on secondment from UK Sport, let slip that she was short of reporters for the Paralympics in a couple of weeks time.
So I stuck my hand up and volunteered. I’ll be back dashing around that stadium again very soon.