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The Olympics Meet A Mall, And Make A Nightmare

Y'know your local mall? The one you drive to whenever, or just as easily drive past? What would happen if you didn't have a choice — if you couldn't avoid going there? Would you walk right through without stopping and shopping? Or, a darker question: What if you could never get out?

Welcome to my Olympic nightmare.

The behemoth mall known as Westfield Stratford City looms — not sits, but looms — on the edge of Olympic Park. It's the gateway to the London Games. According to The Guardian, 70 percent of the 10 million expected visitors heading to the Olympics' big events — swimming, track & field, basketball — will pass through it.

So, too, will many of the 20,000 journalists covering the games. Stratford City is also a transportation hub. There, you catch the tube, the bullet train, the regular train, or buses that lead to all points Olympics 2012.

As so it was, on one of the first days of my Olympic assignment, that I headed to the London Underground. Via the mall.

Now, there are two types of mall-goers. There are those who feel bliss at being in a comfortable, temperature-controlled environment, with the ability to buy a smoothie, have a massage, or build-a-bear all within the same general area.

In Westfield Stratford City's case, that area is some 1.9 million square feet. Or, as The Guardian also says, five times the floor area of Tate Modern; 20 times that of St. Paul's Cathedral.

I am the other type of mall-goer: One who generally doesn't like to go to malls.

In malls, I feel a vague sense of claustrophobia – and at WSC, vague became well-defined. Portions of WSC are open-air. Still, I couldn't escape the feeling that long fingers were starting to emerge from the likes of Hugo Boss, Nike, H&M, Marmot, poised to envelop me and not let me go. Ditto for Victoria's Secret. But interestingly, I didn't feel the same creepiness.

Long story short: After my tube ride, I returned to the mall. And I couldn't leave.

That doesn't mean, "I just can't go until I find the right plaid shorts to go with this fluorescent pink tank top." No – I couldn't get out.

There's a specific exit that leads to the media buses that take us back to where we work. And I simply couldn't find that exit. I did more U-turns than a Brazilian taxi driver trying to fleece an out-of-towner (I'm not anti-Brazil; I actually had that experience).

Around and around I went, weaving in and out of masses of people, many seeming to be in a state of credit card-fueled Olympic euphoria. (A tip for WSC-goers: don't try to play walking-chicken with these folks. They will not change direction, and they will curse you in any number of languages, the Olympics being a global event.)

Suddenly I saw an opening: a flight of stairs leading down to a security station, and then leading OUT. But, it was a false summit. The guard informed me the only people who could pass through are those who work at the mall.

I flashed my reporter's credential at him, the credential that gets me access everywhere and free transportation around London. But no-go. It was worthless. I looked at the guard. I looked back up the steps at the mall. I thought about applying to get a job there, and thus gain the right to leave.

But, no. I sadly trudged back up the stairs and went back in, living out the headline that accompanied a story about WSC's opening last September: "Uplifting....or a vision of Hell?"

I ultimately found the right exit and made it back to work. Once there, I fielded a call from BBC Scotland, asking me to be a guest on their radio show... in their studio... in the Westfield Mall.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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