LONDON — Mark this on your intergalactic event calendar: In October, the ExCeL Center, a one million square-foot convention hall in East London’s Docklands, is set to host Destination Star Trek London, which promises to bring all the Trek TV series captains on a stage together for the first time. It has the makings of a Trekkie madhouse, but ExCeL should be able to handle the historic convergence of Shatner, Stewart, Brooks, Mulgrew and Bakula, given what it’s pulling off during the Olympics: simultaneously hosting boxing, judo, fencing, table tennis, taekwondo, wrestling and weightlifting — and hundreds of thousands of fans — under the same roof. Stepping into each sport’s hall is like passing through a portal into a new world, and to catch everything, you’d need to be equipped with Warp Drive.*
(* A brisk walk from end-to-end of ExCel took me seven minutes; the Nike+ app on my iPhone logged it as 0.34 miles with 38 calories burned. Going between five events, I logged 1.1 miles and burned 120 calories. Had I stopped at the baked potato stand in the middle, the caloric register would have gone well into the black.)
Ping Pong Diplomacy is nonexistent at ExCeL, as the Chinese are set for a ruthless sweep of golds. The men’s team event is so uneventful that I saw a few ticket-holders leave the stands on Sunday afternoon to go watch actual tennis, because Andy Murray was beating Roger Federer on the video screen in the lobby. Judo Diplomacy, however is making headlines: on the Games’ first Thursday, British prime minister David Cameron arrived with Russian premier Vladimir Putin, who made a stunt of bear-hugging countryman Tagir Khaibulaev after he won gold in the men’s 100kg division. Afterwards, Putin made his first public remarks on the trial of Russian punk band Pussy Riot, who are facing seven years in jail for performing a profane, anti-Putin song — with the lyrics, “Mother of God, Blessed Virgin, drive out Putin!” — in a Moscow cathedral in February.
(Putin on the left, Cameron on the right. Franck Fife/AFP)
“I don’t think they should be judged too harshly,” Putin said, but it was unclear whether that meant full clemency or just fewer years in the clink. In that day’s Times of London, British musicians, among them Pete Townshend, co-authored a plea to Putin that included the line, “Dissent is a right in any democracy.”
The ExCel scene has been more about rights than rights and lefts. The following morning at judo, 16-year-old Wojdan Shaherkani, wearing a swimcap in place of a hijab, became the first Saudi Arabian woman ever to compete in an Olympics — a monumental breakthrough despite the fact that she was eliminated in 82 seconds. “Hopefully,” Shaherkani said, “this is the beginning of a new era.” Down the third-of-a-mile-long hall on Sunday, a new era began in boxing when Russian flyweight Elena Savelyeva won the first-ever Olympic women’s bout. Two matches later, India, a democratic nation that hasn’t historically encouraged women to get involved in sports, had its own female flyweight winner, and hundreds of British Indians were in the stands chanting her name: “Mery Kom! Mery Kom!”
(Elena Savelyeva, punching her way to history. Ivan Sekretarev/AP)
Not one to be left out of the revelry — or a chance at political gain during election season — Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela’s specious democracy, made a phone call that interrupted the Wednesday press conference of fencer Ruben Limardo, who had just ended his country’s 44-year gold-medal drought at ExCeL. Chavez, who was piped into the audio feed of the presser, hailed Limardo as part of a new “golden generation” of Venezuelan athletes.
Limardo did not let it go to his head. He left the convention hall on public transit while wearing his gold — and proceeded to lead stunned light-rail riders in Venezuelan chants and let them pose with the medal for pictures, which quickly surfaced on Twitter. If all stays golden for ExCeL after the Olympics, it will win a bid to host the 2014 World Science Fiction Convention (better known as Worldcon) to follow up its Star Trek extravaganza. But when Putin, Pussy Riot, a Saudi trailblazer, female boxers and a people’s fencer are your reality, do you really need science fiction?