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I love watching the Olympics, but I haven’t been to the games since I was a young kid in L.A. in 1984. Since then, I’ve always wondered if it would be better to attend events or simply watch at home. Last week, I had the chance to go for a day to see which was best. The verdict: The two are completely different experiences, but I highly recommend that everyone go to the games at least once.

Last week, British Airways offered me the opportunity to fly out to London for a couple days so I could experience the Olympics. [Full disclosure: BA paid for this trip.]  After having suffered through NBC’s terrible tape-delayed coverage, I was looking forward to seeing some action in real-time. We had two events the day we were there, and we spent the whole day at the Olympic Park, on the east side of London.

I had worried that the hassle of security would start the day off on a sour note, but I was wrong. Our first event started at 10 a.m., so we arrived at about 8 a.m. Although there were a lot of people around, we sailed through security without any trouble at all. It felt like a more relaxed version of airport security, with a quick trip through a radiation detector first. (I was glad to find out I was radiation-free.) The smiling, friendly volunteers decked out in purple and pink were an incredibly welcome sight. These volunteers were not only at the Olympic Park but at the airports and around the city. No matter where you turned, someone was there to help, and I took advantage of that service multiple times.

Once we got into the Olympic Park, I was amazed at the sheer size of the place. To walk from one end to the other took more than 30 minutes. When the games are over, this formerly blighted part of London will have a scaled-down aquatics center, a velodrome, and more along the banks of a river. There will be a great deal of parkland and the Olympic Village will become a housing complex. You can see how this is going to be a great addition to the area.

Fortunately, the venue for our first event, the aquatics center, was right near the entrance to the park. It’s massive—it can hold 17,500 people, and when we were there, it was mostly full except for a few spots down in the fancy seats. Even though we were just watching qualifying heats for swimming, it was still exciting to see people like Michael Phelps and Missy Franklin race. The place was pretty warm, however, and our seats on the side had a big obstruction that blocked the finish line for half the lanes. The atmosphere was interesting, but I’d still have preferred to watch swimming on TV where you see it up close.

After swimming, we had four hours until our second event, so we wandered around the area. The energy in the park was incredible. There are few places on earth where you have such a melting pot of nations, and you can see exactly where each person is from—nearly everyone had country-identifying clothes on to support their nations. There was clearly an overwhelming presence from the Brits, and the gift shop had almost exclusively British gear for sale (besides generic Olympic gear, of course). But there were people from all over just strolling around together. The meaning of “small world” became quite clear.

One thing that I learned not even halfway through the day: Attending the Olympics is utterly exhausting. With so many venues spread out, we probably walked for miles that day. Some people were smarter than we were and they took breaks. British Airways actually set up a massive television screen where people could sit on the banks of the river and watch the live action. We stopped to see Britain win gold in canoeing, and the place erupted.

Soon enough, it was time for our second event, track cycling. If you’re an American, you probably didn’t see this on TV—because no Americans were competing, it wasn’t broadcast. And that’s exactly what’s wrong with Olympics coverage here. This was something worth watching regardless of what country you supported.

The races were held in the velodrome, a beautiful saddle arena that seats only 6,000 people. The air is kept at a constant temperature with no breeze in order to keep the playing field fair. In fact, you enter an airlock from the outside to ensure that no breeze gets in. While the Team Pursuit event was boring due to its long race time, the Team Sprints were incredibly exciting.

The day culminated with the British men winning the gold and setting a world record in the process. The electricity of the crowd was infectious. Without an American team to root for, I instantly jumped on the Team GB bandwagon. With the royal family in attendance, it felt even more surreal.

After the flag was raised and anthem sung by nearly all in attendance, our day was done. I dreaded the crush of traffic getting back into town, but it wasn’t bad. I opted for a train that went directly to St. Pancras station instead of the Tube, and I didn’t have to wait at all.

So was it worth the trip? Yes. While it’s undeniable that seeing some events from the vantage point you get on television is better, just being a part of the global crowd is a very special thing. It’s expensive, but I do think it’s worth experiencing at least once in your life

By Brett Snyder

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