Flash Says…

Posts Tagged ‘olympics

There is a petition doing the rounds, complaining that a wheelchair user cannot be seated with their family at the Paralympics because at the time they tried to book, the only available seating was a wheelchair bay next to a single seat. Several people have sent me the petition, assuming that as a disabled person myself, I would agree with and sign it. In fact, I think it is spurious to produce this complaint just two weeks before the event, and that if you want to campaign, there is a better time and reason to do so…

Why this campaign is badly timed

Tickets for the Paralympics went on sale a year ago. At the time I, as a wheelchair user, was told that every effort is made to keep wheelchair users with their friends. But with only two weeks to go, trying to buy tickets and finding there isn’t a space where your whole family can be accommodated around you is hardly a surprise. The time to complain – if it was relevant – was a year ago.

The tickets have been sold. The Paralympics will be set up for the seating that has already been purchased. They won’t change their set up at a fortnight’s notice!

A wider campaign?

I attended the Olympics and at both the venues I found that wheelchair bays were next to a seat for your PA (assistant), and so it repeated: bay, seat, bay, seat. This is ideal for couples or single wheelchair users who may or may not have a PA, and a free PA ticket was included with every ticket for a wheelchair user.

This is also the way it works at Wembley normally, at many gigs and festivals. If complaining that you can only take one person with you and not your whole family, why not make it a wider campaign, to tackle the policy in general?

Provision for disabled people is always limited (as are regular tickets – there’s no infinite supply) and so space is at a premium. Sports grounds and venues have a set number of spaces for wheelchair users. Festivals will build viewing platforms to accommodate the tickets they have sold to disabled people. Although I think most events have the balance of accessible seating right, because wheelchair spaces are usually last to sell out when the normal tickets are all gone, I have still experienced a crush on a viewing platform, where there wasn’t even space for my PA, only for wheelchair users themselves. So actually, I would rather that you could not bring your family onto the viewing platform or into the wheelchair spaces. Your children could be denying a ticket to a needy wheelchair user who could have used it instead.

So what’s the solution?

When I attended the Oval last year, I was allocated a wheelchair bay and a seat next to it for my PA. My friends were accommodated in the row immediately behind us, so that they didn’t take up any wheelchair spaces, but we could still chat together when we wanted. Many venues will sell tickets in the row immediately in front or behind for the rest of your friends or family, so you can still be near each other and pass around the sandwiches. This is ideal – everyone together, with no abuse of a wheelchair space by an able bodied friend. If the venue you’re visiting won’t offer this option, that is the time to complain – and campaign.

The Olympics is over, but the venues are being transformed ready for the Paralympics in a couple of weeks. The Olympics was undoubtedly a success from a sporting perspective, but how was it for those of us who live within a mile or two of the venue?

The good:

  • Our high streets have been improved. In Leytonstone the High Road was redone which meant pavements repaired, new street trees, ramps at the entrance to every side turning making a smooth path as you walk down the main road, and basically the whole street scene looks better and is nicer and easier to walk or drive along. In Leyton businesses had new shop fronts and a lick of paint so the whole street looks smarter. And in Stratford itself there was “Operation hide the concrete shopping centre from the 60s” as colourful shapes appeared in front of the more ugly buildings. I doubt any of this work would have happened so soon or so comprehensively if it was not done to make the area look attractive for the Olympic visitors.
  • There were local events inspired by this being Olympic year. As a choir member, I’ve never known so many opportunities to sing! I’ve performed at a music festival in Waltham Forest, at a council run Christmas “Winter Wonderland” and even in the Olympic Park itself, singing opera in the media centre. Many of these opportunities involved singing with local school children, in the vein of “inspiring a generation”.
  • There were some free tickets available to local people. For example Waltham Forest council gave away tickets to over 60s. I’ve also heard of free tickets for some local schoolchildren.

And good things about the Olympics themselves – as well as being a wonderful event, the army were charming and friendly while undertaking security checks, the volunteers were happy and helpful, and free travelcards were sent with every ticket, a great idea. It all made a good impression of London, and hopefully showed that East London is a great place to be.

The bad:

  • The army put a missile on a tower block near my house! This was ostensibly to shoot down a hijacked plane if terrorists should try to attack the Olympic venues in that way. As a pacifist, I find this kind of thing frightening and unnecessary. I don’t want to see the army in my neighbourhood streets.
  • Parking – every residential street has had a permit parking zone imposed upon them. Although residents can register for a free permit, it’s only for the specific area in which you live. And although people in my neighbourhood have largely got to grips with this, when the bays for these parking zones were created, some of my neighbours were given parking tickets if their car was in the way. Apparently the council put notices on cars and through letterboxes, but not everyone received one.
  • Police with machine guns at stations and near the Olympic Park. This might not be a surprise to people from other countries, but in the UK our policemen don’t routinely carry guns, nor do members of the public, so it is always a small shock to my system when I see one.
  • The Leyton “Olympia Market”, set up to provide food to passing Olympic visitors, has been a complete flop. None of the designated walking routes to the Olympics went past it! The traders have lost thousands of pounds as a result.
  • The cost and difficulty of getting tickets. I was desperate to see some of the sport on my doorstep, and I’ve already detailed my Olympic ticket marathon in an earlier article.

It was also difficult to get to Stratford: as a wheelchair user I can’t get on the tube at my local station. I have to get a minicab to Stratford to begin my journey – Olympics or not! However, police were forbidding any vehicles from stopping to set down, even when I explained I am a wheelchair user. So we couldn’t stop at my usual place and instead I had to be dropped some distance from the station. You’d think a drop off point for disabled people would have been made available.

But some things haven’t been nearly as bad as expected. The traffic was terrible on day 1 of the restrictions, but Transport for London reacted and made changes so that it was manageable thereafter. Even when there were queues going down the High Road, these were clearly not local drivers, because the rat runs were clear and I could quickly get around the queues via back roads.

On balance, I’d say the Olympics has been good for the area. Improvements to the area will remain long after the Games has finished. The Olympic Park itself should become a lovely place to visit, and the Athletes’ Village will provide new homes in due course. We just have to brace ourselves a little longer, while the Paralympics takes place.

What do you think? Do you live near an Olympic venue? Have your experiences been good or bad? I’d love to hear your views.

This weekend the Stratford shopping centre, Westfield, has been closed except to visitors with an Olympic ticket, for fear of overcrowding. Yet neighbouring areas Leyton and Leytonstone don’t seem to have any extra visitors – even though they’ve been spruced up for the Olympics. If you’re visiting east London, here’s why you should try shopping just a mile or two from Stratford…

Leyton is almost walking distance from the Olympic Park. I lived there for many years and yet I don’t recognise it nowadays. Shops have been given a facelift and the buildings are coloured and attractive. To be fair, Leyton doesn’t have a huge heap of reasons to recommend it – it is just another suburb of London, with all the shops that you might want along with a trading estate, so you’ll find at least one large supermarket, clothes stores like TK Maxx and Next, and a few cafes. There’s also a pop-up pub in the Town Hall, where you can watch the Olympics on TV. If you’re staying nearby and need to stock up, you could do worse than Leyton. It’s a friendly area with plenty of “blitz spirit” where the older neighbours still chat to each other on the street. There’s also a temporary market which is complaining of being quiet – why not give it a go?

Leytonstone is a little further away, two stops from Stratford on the Central line. It’s where I have lived for a decade and an area about which I am passionate. This is where everyone should be coming! We have high street stores such as Argos, Boots, Superdrug, Primark and Matalan, a big Tesco, and lots of independent traders. My favourite is the Engine Shed, a Hornby and modelling shop. However I understand that Olympic tourists may not want to go home with a toy train! We also have some fantastic cafes – I recommend Horizon on the High Road, with hot chocolate to die for and a wide range of patisserie and main meals, as well as Cafe Montmartre in Church Lane, which sells homemade chocolates. Both of these are within 2 minutes walk of the tube station.

”Peace There is also a thriving arts scene in Leytonstone. In Church Lane you can visit Stone Space Gallery (currently showing an inspirational group exhibition called Wandering Rocks, open Thursday to Sunday), and next door is a window display space displaying a series of colourful prints inspired by a hospital stay. Not enough art? By the tube is Stone Space Projects, a temporary gallery, currently exhibiting a Peace Quilt with squares contributed by children, one from each of the countries participating in the Olympics. The North Korean square was snuck out of the country, and there is even one from Iran. The whole thing is inspirational and well worth viewing (until August 10, 11-5 daily).

Need to stop for food in Leytonstone? I recommend The Olive, a wonderful Turkish restaurant near the tube station, which provides affordable and delicious food (my favourite is Mucver, feta and courgette fritters served with tzatziki). Need a drink? Stop at CAMRA’s East London pub of the Year, the Red Lion, which has real ale, a beer garden, and provides highchairs, dog biscuits, and disabled access. Fancy a walk? We can offer green space in the shape of Wanstead Flats and Hollow Ponds, both a part of Epping Forest. If you fancy testing your athletic prowess, you can hire a rowing boat on Hollow Ponds or enjoy a 5km run on Wanstead Flats.

To be honest, you will get much more of a feel for the East End by visiting Leytonstone (and to a lesser extent, Leyton) than sitting in a soulless hotel in Stratford. The council has spent a lot of money revamping our streets and pavements – the least you can do is come to visit!

I have been through a marathon of my own… in order to buy Olympic tickets. Hooray, I’ll be able to enjoy the celebrations. But why does this matter so much to me?

You are probably not aware of my backstory. Well, I live about 2 miles from the Olympic Park. I’ve been so excited since the Olympics were awarded to London. Such a great event, on my doorstep! Amazing! So I was keen to buy tickets, to give my support and share in the experience.

The initial ticket phase was open for a few weeks. I had a quick look and realised I would have to spend quite a long time analysing the events, the session codes, the price ranges, and so on. It would take me a while to sort out. So I allocated the last week of the sale period for working all this out and taking time to make a coherent application. The sale dates were put onto my wall planner so I would be sure to make time for it.

My dad died on the weekend I had set aside. I spent days in a hotel with poor network access, sleeping whenever I got the chance, visiting my dad until he died and then planning a funeral immediately afterwards.

It goes without saying that I missed the deadline to apply for any Olympic tickets.

I was worried. As a wheelchair user, I didn’t think there would be any tickets I could use appearing on ticket exchanges. And all the packages (i.e. hotel plus ticket) would be for those who could use a normal seat. This excluded me.

At this point I wrote to Seb Coe. I explained my excitement about the Olympics being on my doorstep, and my sadness at not having been able to apply for tickets due to my dad’s death – and also my concern that wheelchair user tickets would not be available later on at ticket exchanges. I said I was willing to buy tickets for anything, so long as it was at the Olympic Park in Stratford – I just wanted to be there! To his credit, Lord Coe did reply – but it took him several weeks. The response when it arrived was brief and merely suggested that I go out onto the streets to watch the marathon. Not only was this missing the point (the fact that I live near Stratford) but it was inappropriate – it is difficult to get a wheelchair through crowds and the chances of getting near enough to see the runners, from my low vantage point, would be incredibly slim. Thanks for nothing, Lord Coe!

This really felt unfair. My home is in a zone which will have permit-only parking imposed upon it for the duration of the games. For eleven weeks, we will have restrictions on parking from 8am until 9pm, and it will be difficult if we need to arrange for visits, be it from friends or tradesmen. There will be other issues – not least traffic jams and crowded public transport – and it began to feel to me as if I would have to deal with problems caused by the Olympics, without being able to appreciate the Games in any way.

I was then frustrated as second and third waves of ticket sales were limited to those who had previously applied but been unsuccessful. These were closed to me, as I hadn’t made an initial ticket application. I watched as others excitedly tweeted about their ticket buying success. I saw my dream of attending the Olympics slipping away.

I looked into ticket sales held in other EU countries, but none of these had wheelchair user tickets available, only normal seats. Again, I was excluded. I began to despair.

Today, at last, tickets were on sale to the public. This was my chance! I was frustrated to see that wheelchair users could only purchase through the phonelines – yet we had to call the same phone number as everyone else. Due to disability I usually sleep through the morning, so I set an alarm in order to wake just before phonelines opened. I tried to get through and was told “we are experiencing high call volumes… this call will disconnect shortly”. Why on earth were wheelchair users, who could only buy by phone, forced to compete with the world and its donkey on the main telephone line? The recorded message suggested that you try to buy online instead, a kick in the teeth when I was excluded from doing so!

After an hour manning my phone, I finally managed to get through, following an hour of redial at a cost of goodness-knows-what! Eventually I reached an assistant. I had done my research and knew that the only sports at the Olympic Park which had any ticket availability would be diving, handball, the early basketball heats, and hockey. To my relief, the telephonist told me that there was good availability for wheelchair users across all four events. Wow! I was spoilt for choice – glossing over the fact that my original preferences, for athletics and cycling, were long gone.

I was initially reluctant to consider diving – I enjoy it on TV, but I have a phobia of open water. However, photos of the venue persuaded me that the spectators wouldn’t be too close! I have never been keen on hockey, and only the earliest basketball heats would be at Stratford – and I really wanted to see a medal ceremony. I got thinking. Maybe I could learn to love handball…?

To my delight I was able to buy tickets for the men’s diving (10m platform final). I should be able to see Tom Daley dive for England! Only the more expensive ticket options remained, but surely that was worth paying for a once in a lifetime event? Having secured this, I also bought cheaper tickets for handball earlier in the same day – the bronze medal match. Time to learn about a new sport!

Next, the telephonist asked me if there was anything else I would like. I thought quickly – after all, this was probably my only chance to buy tickets and I didn’t want to let it slip through my fingers. I had previously managed to get a general pass for the Paralympics on one day (providing access to five sports, space permitting) so I had a quick search to see what else would be held on the same day, and found that the evening athletics session had finals in lots of disciplines, and lots of medal ceremonies. Amazingly I could snap up a ticket for that athletics session for just £30!

So at last I have my Olympic and Paralympic tickets. I feel like I deserve a medal just for jumping the hurdles that LOCOG put in front of me to get them! And of course my wallet is much lighter. But does any of that matter? I’m going to the 2012 Olympics, ready to support my country and to enjoy a wonderful spectacle near my home. What a fantastic thing to look forward to.