Olympics: Men's 50km walk draws crowds

Image caption Large crowds watched the men's 50km in sunny conditions

As the 2012 Olympic Games nears an end, there is a palpable sense that London's time at the centre of the sporting world is almost over.

Perhaps with this in mind, thousands of people turned out to watch the 50km race walk, one of the remaining events that are free to watch.

Applause, whoops of delight and frenetic banging of hoardings rippled through the crowd as athletes glided past on the 2km course that looped around The Mall and Constitution Hill 25 times.

Men, women and children pressed up against barriers waving and cheering as the athletes walked by.

For the uninitiated, commentators peppered their observations with regular reminders of the rules.

The grimacing competitors, eyes fixed in concentration and sweat dripping down their faces, were walking incredibly fast, hips sashaying and arms pumping like pistons.

And, while the melange of flags, languages and accents was - for the most part - mixed, there were some particularly vocal national blocks.

Ireland's Robert Heffernan, who eventually finished fourth in a national record of 3hrs 37mins 54secs, had particularly strong support from those who draped his nation's flag over their shoulders and others clad in green T-shirts and wigs.

Katie Roberts, 42, from Marlow, near London, watched with her husband and two young sons.

Her husband has a ticket to watch the US and Spain contest the men's basketball final but it was her only opportunity to see Olympic athletes in action.

"I definitely wouldn't usually watch this but I'm glad that I saw something. It's been a good opportunity to experience the Olympics in London - it's a once in a lifetime opportunity," she said.

She wasn't alone in highlighting the ability to watch for free as a factor.

Others expressed a desire to soak up the Olympics atmosphere before it is all over.

For some, it was an opportunity to watch disciplined athletes in peak condition, amidst the grand backdrop of Buckingham Palace.

Image caption Carlos Flores has been to the Olympic Games in Athens, Beijing and London

Carlos Flores, a 28-year-old from Mexico, added the race walk to his memories of watching diving, football, beach volleyball and sailing.

The accountant, who also travelled to Athens and Beijing when they hosted the Games, said he found London to be a "beautiful city with beautiful, friendly people" during his two-week visit.

In stark contrast to the veteran spectator of three Games, Nick Forbes showed what the Olympics could offer without a penny being spent.

The home maintenance consultant from Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, added the race walk to triathlon swimming, 10km swim and a cycling event to his tally of free sporting spectacles.

"I've really enjoyed the free events. I've had a fantastic time for nothing," he said.

He explained that he had been given an insight into sports he did not follow before.

'Big party'

"I'm amazed at how they can walk at that speed," said Mr Forbes, as a pack of walkers passed by, before adding: "I'd definitely watch this again. It's been very entertaining."

He pointed out that he has also made the 90 minute-long journey from his home to enjoy an array of free cultural events at London's South Bank.

Two other people who had enjoyed the Games for free, albeit in a very different way, shared their final reflections.

Image caption Elizabeth Wilson and Gilliane Carlsson were helping people at the men's 50km walk race

Two volunteers - Elizabeth Wilson and Gilliane Carlsson - agreed that they had been through "the most unbelievable experience".

The pair, who met volunteering around Green Park, said they intended to remain firm friends.

For Ms Carlsson, a restaurateur, it was a chance to reconnect with the "special city" she lived in before moving to Mallorca seven years ago.

She nodded enthusiastically as her fellow volunteer summed up her views, between bursts of cheering from the nearby crowd.

"People from around the world have been coming to London because they want to be part of the atmosphere," said Ms Wilson or Liz, as she likes to be called.

"We've had so much fun and it's given us the chance to help everyone else have fun. It's just a big party."

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