LONDON – Beyond the exit of Westfield London Shopping Centre, fans lounge in grass near the fence separating them from the Olympic Village and its balconies bearing the flags of various countries.
When an athlete passes through the gate, heads turn, many hunting for autographs.
On Monday, one eager little boy ran up to every athlete, Mickey Mouse autograph book in hand.
Asking politely for an autograph, the boy handed a pen to Serbian boxer Aleksandar Drenovak, who bent over to sign as the boy and his little brother watched.
Then the boys’ mother, Kerizia Moussa, took a picture of the three together – the 35th picture of the day featuring swimmers, boxers, fencers, karate and water polo players, she said.
“We try to go for the swimmers because that’s what we like … and the boxing,” she said.
Mitch Larkin, an Australian swimmer, said he has mixed feelings about everyone asking him for autographs and pictures.
“Sometimes I just want to be left to myself,” he said. “But it’s pretty cool. It means [I’ve] done something special.”
Since athletes are required to wear their countries’ brightly colored uniforms at all times, it’s hard to blend in and most are stopped, especially British athletes.
“It shows the whole nation is behind us and they are very supportive,” said Sally Walton, a member of the British field hockey team..
Athletes whose sports get little attention in non-Olympic years welcome the recognition they are getting here, Walton said. She enjoys the in-person and social media interaction, like on Twitter.
“It’s always fun – playing hockey, we get a lot of media attention but not like during the Olympics when people are getting behind [us] for it and supporting it,” Walton said.
For most waiting to get a peek at athletes, this is the closest they can get to experiencing the Olympics. An event ticket is required to get inside Olympic Park, home of the Olympic Village and nine sporting venues.
“The closest we can get without tickets is probably here,” said Jai Street from Essex, England, sitting in the grass next to the walkway to the mall.
Louise Green and her two children, dressed in Great Britain’s colors, couldn’t get tickets for inside Olympic Park but did for British soccer games.
“We just came down state to wander around, absorb the atmosphere and see what we can see really,” Green said.
Interaction with athletes along with all the workers, media and Olympic visitors brings the games to life for those sitting outside the Olympic Village, Green said.
“It’s been interesting,” she said. “There’s been a lot of people walking past that are quite interesting to see the different countries that we recognize from the Opening Ceremony.”