The Olympic Park has become the hottest location in town during the Games with now even those hard to shift £725 athletics tickets disappearing off the virtual shelves within moments of their appearance. Over at Docklands,however, the ExCeL centre is seeing almost as wide a variety of events throughout its halls. Unlike the Park, it's not purpose-built to challenge for architectural awards, but it is still the place where tens of thousands will have their own personal Olympic experience. Here's our guide to getting the best out of your time down by the riverside.
You'll almost certainly arrive via the Dockands Light Railway, which, if you're not a regular, can be a slightly confusing place. We headed to Tower Gateway from Aldgate tube, missing a sign in the first couple of hundred yards, but eventually getting ourselves back on track. Once on the DLR, LOCOG's official map offers you a choice of destination stations for the venue. Our train was bound for one, West Silvertown, but when we reached Canning Town, announcements on the train and staff on the platform urged us to get off and instead grab the next train for the other, Custom House. We couldn't be sure if that was circumstantial, but no-one seemed interested in entertaining an either/or choice. From the Canning Town platform you could see several other shelters and platforms sporting the pink London 2012 signs that made you feel uncertain you were in the right part of the station, but the Custom House service did duly arrive.
The best way to describe the ExCeL in Games mode is as a tidal airport terminal. Passengers check in through the West entrance, pass through security scanners, grab a snack from a fast food outlet then try to find their gate in plenty of time to take their seat for a two hour
flight fight, disembarking en masse at the end for the long walk to the East exit and public transport to the city centre. One vast corridor services half a dozen massive lounges to right or left and the expectation is that you will only ever travel in one direction. They also don't seem to want you to stop in the corridor. There are umpteen places to grab food down the sides, but only a couple of moderate sized bench areas in the middle at which to enjoy your purchases without standing or slumping against a breeze block wall.
At the curry outlet half way down on the left hand side, £8.95 bought us a decent helping of rice topped with a main dish, or in our case two as the vendor was flexible enough to give us half portions of chicken tikka massala and lamb rogan josh side by side. The dishes were enjoyable and tasty, though a little on the watery side and felt like fair value, though £1 for a small catering serving of mango chutney did seem a little pricey. Elsewhere, there was a creditable selection of hot and cold catering from around the world. Many seemed to have gone for the fish and chips and we did look on a little enviously ourselves, though we were too reticent to enquire further regarding the "Hot Roast Vegetarian Sandwich."
We're of the opinion that you shouldn't list cappuccino as an offering unless you can deliver something approximating to the real deal. Two other venues had already failed us on this score: the Olympic Park near the Riverside Arena (barely warm, returned) and Lee Valley (lots of anxious looks from the barista before handing over a vaguely white Americano, (not returned through lack of time and desperation for milky caffeine). Step forward the second specialist coffee/ice cream place up the right hand side of the ExCeL corridor! Now, THAT'S how to do it!
The Waiting Area
The holding area for your session will typically be open to you two hours before the start. However, you might have to wait until 45 minutes before the session to actually go to your seat. In the meantime, you can buy some more food and drink (there's a more limited selection), have a nose around a couple of museum type exhibits (e.g. table tennis bats signed by previous Olympic champions and photos of how the sport has developed), catch up with recent action from that event on the big screen (though NOT live action from other Olympic events) or simply join the lengthening queue for the water fountains (should take you 15-30 minutes). There are toilets, too, that will probably be less busy than the ones downstairs along the main drag. Talking of which, you can go back out into the mega-corridor if you make sure you get your hand stamped at the entrance to your hall. Overall, the waiting areas are comfortable and diverting enough for their purpose.
The Action and the Atmosphere
Table Tennis felt a bit like going to watch professional snooker, complete with televised pre-match discussion and introductions and a single table about 30 metres from the nearest spectator. The view was adequate, though, some of the play breathtaking and the crowd eager, if prone to giggle at the elaborate serving rituals of some of the competitors. Boxing was different altogether. Some commentators have already described it as a bearpit and the atmosphere is something like a vast pub showing a world title fight on a 3D big screen. The crowd here seems more cosmopolitan than in many venues, representative of the wide range of nations providing competitors with genuine medal chances and also generally very knowledgeable about the sport, warmly appreciative of the finer points and quick to burst the bubble of any fighters or fans getting too big for their fighting boots.
Each waiting area has it's own mini-shop selling general Olympic mementos, but also some items, such as t-shirts, specific to the sport and the venue. The main Excel centre only has one smallish shop located very near to the exit for the Prince Regent DLR. It's busy, but offers only a very general stock. Our advice would be to get your souvenirs while you're still in your event area.