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London 2012: Ultimate guide to the Olympics
Everything you need to know, and a few things you may not, to get the most out of London this summer
The London 2012 Olympic Games, dubbed the "greatest show on earth" by the organizers, has arrived and London is pumped.
There's better transport -- the tube, the underground rail system that runs throughout London, has been revamped -- there's better accommodation -- hotels have undergone major facelifts -- and there's a sense that if ever there was a time to visit the English capital, this is it.
So let's get on with it.
Click through the pages for everything you need to know about seeing the London 2012 Olympic Games, the city and all they both have to offer, with or without a ticket.
If you were lucky enough to get one of the 8.8 million tickets for the Games then it's likely you'll be watching at least some of the events at the newly constructed Olympic Park in Stratford.
The 2.5-square-kilometer site will be home to nine of the sporting venues used at the London Games and will house a number of key events including the athletics, diving, swimming, modern pentathlon, basketball, hockey, track cycling and water polo.
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The jewel in the crown of the Olympic Park is the 80,000-capacity Olympic Stadium.
It cost £500 million (US$773 million) to build, will host both the opening (July 27) and closing (August 12) ceremonies and will be the place to see a certain Usain Bolt no doubt winning the 100 and 200 meters while at the same time texting his mum and doing that pointy finger thing.
Two London Underground stations provide access to the Olympic Park: Stratford on the Jubilee and Central lines, which run into London Bridge and Liverpool Street respectively; and West Ham on the District and Hammersmith & City lines, which both run into Victoria.
Be warned: West Ham station is approximately 15 minutes' walk from the entrance to the Olympic Park.
Three National Rail stations also service the Olympic Park: Stratford, with direct trains from London and East Anglia; Stratford International, with direct train services from London, Ebbsfleet and Kent; and West Ham with direct trains from London and Essex.
The other venues being used for the Games are something of a who’s who of London landmarks.
Lord’s Cricket Ground will house the archery (nearest Tube: St John’s Wood and Regent’s Park).
Wimbledon will be home to the tennis (nearest Tube: Southfields).
Earls Court will be used for the volleyball (nearest Tube: Earls Court).
And the O2 Arena will be used for the gymnastics, trampolining and basketball (nearest Tube: North Greenwich).
Horse Guards Parade, meanwhile, will witness the eagerly anticipated beach volleyball (nearest Tube: Westminster).
Hyde Park will be home to the triathlon (nearest Tube: Hyde Park Corner).
Wembley Stadium will host the football final (nearest Tube: Wembley Park).
And the ExCeL Centre will be used for the boxing, fencing, judo and table tennis (nearest Tube: Canning Town).
London 2012 Olympics without a ticket
If you haven't got a ticket, highly likely given that more than 1.8 million people tried to get hold of one, then fear not, as there's still plenty to see.
The marathon, the walk, the triathlon, the open-water swimming and four road cycling events will all be free to the public while big screens in Hyde Park and Victoria Park in Tower Hamlets in east London will broadcast live BBC coverage of the Games.
Hyde Park will accommodate up to 50,000 people and Victoria Park up to 30,000. While admission is free, it is possible to pre-book tickets for Hyde Park that guarantee early and speedy entry, each costing £3.50. (Visit www.btlondonlive.com for information)
The organizing committee is also working through the details of general admission tickets to the Olympic Park during the Games, so fans can watch events on several big screens, including one large double-sided screen positioned in the Lea River.
The number of tickets available will depend on how many events are taking place on site each day, and it is expected the tickets will cost around £10 (see www.london2012.com for more details).
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Venue: Olympic Stadium, Olympic Park
Date: Friday July 27
More than 1 billion people are expected to tune in to watch the London 2012 opening ceremony with performances that will celebrate London's culture.
Award-winning film directors Danny Boyle ("Trainspotting" and "Slumdog Millionaire") and Stephen Daldry ("Billy Elliot") will oversee what is being billed as the United Kingdom's biggest-ever live show.
The ceremony, which will feature 10,000 athletes from 205 nations, will cost an estimated £27 million and is called "Isles of Wonder," named after a quotation from Shakespeare's play "The Tempest."
Some 15,000 performers using 25,000 costumes will take part in the opening and closing ceremonies. The opening night will be attended by Queen Elizabeth II and up to 100 heads of state.
Venue: Olympic Stadium, Olympic Park
Dates: Friday August 3-Sunday August 12
Medal events: 47
With 2,000 athletes competing in 47 events, the athletics events are the Olympics for many fans, with the men’s 100 meters final alone attracting 1.3 million ticket applications.
There are four main strands to the athletics: track events, such as the 100 meters; field events, which include the high jump; combined events, such as the decathlon; and road events, including the marathon.
Jamaica is king of the sprint while Kenya dominates the long-distances but expect the medals table to be topped by all-round powerhouses, the United States and Russia.
Venue: Horse Guards Parade
Dates: Saturday July 28-Thursday August 9
Medal events: 2
First introduced in 1996, beach volleyball was one of the quickest events to sell out. Tickets for the women’s event were, curiously enough, particularly sought after.
Twenty-four teams of two players will take part in a total of 108 matches to determine who will win the two gold medals up for grabs.
Set at Horse Guards Parade, the home of the annual Trooping the Colour parade, beach volleyball is one of the few events to be held in central London.
Venue: Aquatics Centre, Olympic Park (pool events); Hyde Park (Marathon Swimming 10 kilometers)
Dates: Saturday July 28-Friday August 10
Medal events: 34
The swimming will take place at the brand-new, wave-shaped Aquatics Centre in the Olympic Park. It is one of four aquatic sports, the others being water polo, diving and synchronized swimming.
The United States and Australia are the nations to beat. They maintained their dominance during the Beijing 2008 Olympics with the United States securing 31 medals and Australia 20.
Great Britain, their closest challengers, won six medals in Beijing and, as the home team, will be looking to make a bigger impact in 2012.
Dates: Saturday July 28-Sunday August 5
Medal events: 5
Competitors will make their way to the leafy London suburb of Wimbledon in the hope of securing one of five gold medals up for grabs.
The sport is split into men's and women's singles and doubles competitions.
Since its reintroduction at the 1988 Olympics, some of the sport's best known figures have picked up Olympic gold medals, including Andre Agassi, Boris Becker and Steffi Graf.
Venues: Basketball Arena; O2 Arena
Dates: Saturday July 28-Sunday August 12
Medal events: 2
One of the world’s most popular and fastest-growing team sports, men’s basketball first appeared on the Olympic program at the 1936 Berlin Games, with the women’s event introduced at Montreal in 1976.
Professional players first competed at the Barcelona 1992 Games, when the United States' "Dream Team" led by Michael Jordan dominated proceedings.
The basketball will take place in two venues. All preliminary matches, along with the women’s quarterfinals, will take place at the Basketball Arena, a new, purpose-built venue in the Olympic Park, while the men’s quarterfinals, plus all semifinals and medal matches, will be held at the O2 Arena.
Dates: Saturday July 28-Sunday August 12
Medal events: 13
At the London Games, the ever-popular men’s boxing will be joined by a women’s competition for the first time.
It will feature 10 men’s weight categories from light flyweight (46-49 kilos) to super heavyweight (over 91 kilos).
Men’s bouts will take place over three three-minute rounds, with women’s bouts held over four two-minute rounds. Boxers score points for every punch they land successfully on their opponent’s head or upper body.
Muhammad Ali (1960), George Foreman (1968) and Oscar de la Hoya (1992) have all won Olympic gold medals.
Venue: O2 Arena
Dates: Saturday July 28-Tuesday August 7
Medal events: 14
Men compete on the floor, pommel horse, rings, vault, parallel bars and horizontal bar, while women compete on the vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor.
The men’s individual apparatus and team competitions first appeared at the 1924 Paris Games. A women’s team event was introduced in 1928, with women’s individual apparatus competitions added at the 1952 Helsinki Games.
Dates: Saturday July 28-Tuesday August 7
Medal events: 15
One of the most straightforward sports is also among the most awe-inspiring. The result is pure sporting theatre and is a real spectator favorite.
Competitors are divided into 15 weight categories, eight for men and seven for women.
The heaviest individual weight lifted at the Olympics was by Iranian Hossein Rezazadeh at the 2004 Games after he clean-and-jerked 263.5 kilos, the equivalent of five flyweight boxers.
Venue: Olympic Stadium, Olympic Park
Date: Sunday August 12
The show called "A Symphony of British Music" will involve established British acts and new talent, according to creative director and choreographer Kim Gavin, who was behind Take That's comeback shows.
The names of artists playing on the night have not yet been revealed but the London 2012 organizers say the 4,100 performers will include 3,500 adult volunteers and 380 schoolchildren from the six Olympic host boroughs.
The London Symphony Orchestra will record the core orchestral soundtracks for both the opening and closing ceremonies.
Games chiefs will have less than 24 hours to set the stage for the ceremony after the end of the athletics action.
Hotel rooms -- and not particularly good ones -- that are usually advertised for £100 are currently going for £400 over the Olympic period and so the advice is to book early, shop around and check out cheaper alternatives.
Click here for some premium to budget hotel options
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Pop-up campsites are going to mushroom across the capital with the Camping and Caravanning Club, for example, running a serviced, temporary site in Lee Valley, just a 10-minute walk from the Olympic park, with prices ranging from £30 to £45 a night. (www.campingandcaravanningclub.co.uk; 0845 130 7633)
Another option is to take a room in someone’s home. Airbnb recently opened a London office and currently lists some 3,300 properties in the capital. (www.airbnb.co.uk)
Onefinestay, meanwhile, has more than 100 properties still up for grabs for the Games with a two-bedroom Regency flat in Pimlico, for example, which can sleep four people, currently on offer for £349 a night. (www.onefinestay.com; +44 (0)20 7097 8948)
Student halls of residence are also a good cheap alternative. Some have already been booked out by official groups, but there are plenty still available.
The Visit London website shows Imperial College, on the west side of London, offering its halls of residence to tourists at £34 a night for a single or £47.50 for a double room -- both have ensuite bathrooms. (www.visitlondon.com)
Staying in a hostel might be your idea of hell, but it is definitely a cheap version of hell. Rooms are filling up fast, but the Youth Hostel Association runs hostels across the capital -- including Oxford Street, St Pancras, Earls Court and St Paul's -- and is a good place to start your hostel search. (www.yha.org.uk; +44 800 0191700)
Piccadilly Backpackers, which bills itself as “London’s most central hostel,” is also a good option with a night in a four-bed room currently being advertised for £55 during the Games. (www.piccadillyhotel.net)
Some 5.5 million day visitors are expected to descend on London 2012, so finding a top restaurant is going to make your quest to find a ticket look positively easy.
New restaurants, however, are popping up all the time -- not least the opening of the world’s largest McDonald's restaurant (to use the term loosely) within the Olympic Park.
The 3,000 square-meter restaurant will stretch over two floors, will be the equivalent of half the length of an American football field and will employ 470 staff to serve around 50,000 Big Macs, 100,000 portions of fries and 30,000 milkshakes during the Games.
But don't worry. You won't be so short of options that you are forced to eat every meal chez Ronald.
The trick is to book early and be flexible. Several excellent "no-booking" restaurants have sprung up in the capital too, so if you are prepared to queue you will be able to secure a table.
Stand out ‘no-booking’ options include:
Da Polpo, acclaimed for its meatballs (6 Maiden Lane; +44 (0)20 7836 8448; www.dapolpo.co.uk)
Burger & Lobster, particularly good if you like burgers and lobsters (29 Clarges St.; +44 (0)20 7409 1699; www.burgerandlobster.com)
Soho tapas joint Barrafina (54 Frith St., +44 (0)20 7440 1463; www.barrafina.co.uk)
Communal Thai dining canteen Busaba Eathai (106–110 Wardour St.; +44 (0)20 7255 8686; www.busaba.com).
If queuing is not your thing then click here for some of the best options across varying price ranges.
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Getting out of London
It is likely that paying double the usual price for your room, queuing for 20 minutes to get into the restaurant of your choice, or having to squeeze yourself onto London’s public transport system could leave you wanting some much needed time away from the capital.
Fortunately, there are many great places to visit that are less than 90 minutes away from London by train with Bath, Brighton and Cambridge being the pick of the bunch.
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If the Olympics just feel a little too serious for you, or you just loathe Spandex, then a slightly more laid-back alternative to the Games is to be staged in Wales thanks to a Welsh Government grant of £50,000.
The World Alternative Games in Llanwrtyd Wells (some five hours from London by train) will feature "sports" such as underwater rugby, wife carrying, snail racing and jousting.
Other events planned include black pudding throwing -- during which competitors throw black puddings in order to try to dislodge Yorkshire Puddings from a plinth -- and extreme ironing, which “combines the thrills of an extreme outdoor activity with the satisfaction of a well-pressed shirt.” (more details, as well as hotel listings, can be found at www.llanwrtyd.com)
Or there's the Olimpick Shin-Kicking contest on June 1 at Dover Hill in Gloucestershire, the World Egg Throwing Championships in Swaton in Lincolnshire on June 24, and the World Pea Shooting Championships in Witcham in Cambridgeshire on July 14.
If you can lengthen your stay in the United Kingdom, the annual World Toe Wrestling Championships takes place in Ashbourne in Derbyshire on August 25. The idea was conceived in 1976 in -- surprise, surprise -- a pub.
Listed as a World Heritage City, Bath is 80 minutes away from London by train from Paddington Station. Famous residents have included Jane Austen and the "must-sees" of the city include the Roman baths, Pulteney Bridge, the Circus and the Royal Crescent. (www.visitbath.co.uk)
Recommended places for lunch include Sotto Sotto, just a few steps away from the Roman baths (10 North Parade; +44 (0)1225 330236; www.sottosotto.co.uk), and The Chequers, a short walk from the Royal Crescent (50 Rivers St.; +44 (0)1225 360017; www.thechequersbath.com).
An hour away by train from Victoria Station, Brighton is one of Britain’s best seaside towns. Key draws include the Royal Pavilion, the Regency architecture, the Brighton Pier and the boutique shops of the Lanes. (www.visitbrighton.com)
Recommended spots for a bite to eat include vegetarian restaurant Terre à Terre (71 East St.; +44 (0)1273 729051; www.terreaterre.co.uk), and English's, which has been frequented by the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Dame Judy Dench, Tony Blair and Charlton Heston (29-31 East St.; +44 (0)1273 327980; www.englishs.co.uk)
An hour from London by train from King’s Cross or Liverpool Street station, Cambridge revolves around its world-renowned university with reminders of this at every turn. The beautiful college buildings, students on bicycles and punts along the River Cam all contribute to its charm. (www.visitcambridge.org)
Recommended places for lunch include Browns (23 Trumpington St.; +44 (0)1223 461 655; www.browns-restaurants.co.uk), and The Cambridge Chop House with its traditional British fare (1 Kings Parade; +44 (0)1223 312817; www.cambridgechophouse.co.uk)
Running alongside the Games, the London 2012 Festival, which begins on Midsummer's Day (June 21) and carries on all the way until the end of the Paralympic Games (September 9), is billed as the most ambitious cultural program to take place in our lifetime.
On top of what London already has to offer, the 12-week program brings together more than 1,000 arty, musical, theatrical and cultural events.
It features live music sets and the silent films of Alfred Hitchcock, exhibitions from leading artists including Damien Hirst, new theater commissions and free performances with Damon Albarn, Cate Blanchett, Tracey Emin, Jude Law, Mike Leigh and Leona Lewis all set to appear in various guises.
Below is a pick of the best of what is on offer as part of the London 2012 Festival. Full details of each event and booking information can be found at www.london2012.com.
Damien Hirst Exhibition
The artist who gave the world a cow's head being eaten by flies is to have his work -- which now spans 20 years -- showcased at the Tate Modern.
The exhibition will include iconic sculptures from his Natural History series, including The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living 1991, in which he suspended a shark in formaldehyde.
April 4–September 9, Tate Modern, £13.50-£15.50, www.tate.org.uk
Festival of the World
Festival of the World opens just in time for the Diamond Jubilee bank holiday weekend and continues until the final day of the Paralympic Games.
Inspired by the cultural vision of Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1863–1937), founder of the modern Olympic movement, the Southbank Centre will be transformed into an international learning site to include art, music, comedy, markets and free events.
June 1–September 9, Southbank Centre, www.world.southbankcentre.co.uk
The Yoko Ono Exhibition
Her first exhibition in a London public institution for more than a decade, Ono will present new and existing works, some of which have rarely been shown in Britain.
These will include installations, films and performances, as well as architectural alterations to the galleries.
June 19-September 9, Serpentine Gallery, free, www.serpentinegallery.org
You Me Bum Bum Train
Award-winning interactive show "You Me Bum Bum Train" is returning to London as part of The Barbican’s contribution to the Cultural Olympiad.
In previous shows participants have sparred in a boxing match, delivered a church sermon and burgled a house.
Last year’s event, which was staged at the LEB building in Bethnal Green, won the Evening Standard Award for Outstanding Newcomer.
June 21-August 26, Secret location in Canary Wharf, £20, www.bumbumtrain.co.uk
The Genius of Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock’s early British movie masterpieces will be restored to their former glory and presented in a series of one-off screenings across London with live music.
As part of the London 2012 Festival, Hitchcock's surviving silent films will be screened with new scores by composers including Nitin Sawhney and Daniel Cohen.
June 28–July 21, Wilton’s Music Hall/BFI, free, www.explore.bfi.org.uk
Providing a unique insight into both the playwright and his adoptive city of London, the British Museum invites visitors to step back in time to 1612 and experience life as Shakespeare and his contemporaries would have known it.
July 19- November 25, British Museum, www.britishmuseum.org
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
Adapted for the stage by award winning playwright Simon Stephens, the production of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night" at the National Theatre retells the story of autistic 15-year-old Christopher Boone, who sets out to solve the mysterious death of Wellington, his neighbor's large black poodle.
The production is directed by Marianne Elliott and features a cast of well known actors, including Una Stubbs.
July, National Theatre, www.nationaltheatre.org.uk
And finally, some Olympic trivia
More than 1 billion people are expected to tune into the opening ceremony of the London Games, which will be directed by Oscar-winning "Slumdog Millionaire" director Danny Boyle.
London previously held the Olympic Games in 1908 and 1948 and the upcoming 2012 Games will make it the only modern city to have hosted the Games three times.
The 2012 Games are expected to end up costing £20 billion, almost 10 times the original stated amount.
The Olympic Park sports venues will use at least 40 percent less water than equivalent buildings elsewhere due to initiatives such as collecting rain water on roofs to flush toilets.
More than 800,000 tons of soil -- enough to fill the Royal Albert Hall nine times -- had to be taken away while 33 buildings on the site had to be demolished before construction could begin.
An extra 3 million journeys are expected to be made on London’s already creaking public transport system during the busiest days of the Games.
Around 4,000 trees will be planted in the Olympic Park and Olympic Village by the time the Games begin. Queen Elizabeth planted the first tree in October 2009.
International Broadcast Centre, the main press building in the Olympic Park, is the size of six football pitches and will be a 24-hour media hub for around 20,000 broadcasters, photographers and journalists.
The Olympic Stadium is the lightest Olympic arena ever built, using around 10,000 tons of steel.
Once the Games have finished, the sports equipment used will be donated to various charities.