Before London 2012 wrapped up with the pretty lame finale, and the Olympic Flame was put into cold storage, there were two more events to attend, namely ladies diving and gents wrestling. Not quite the golden tickets I aspired to but still a helluva’ lot better than dressage, sailing or nothing. Especially dressage or sailing.
Conveniently, the diving was on the Sunday evening a few hours before the men’s 100 metres final so there was an almighty buzz in the Olympic Park. We arrived early and mooched around the various venues, enjoying the sunshine, throwing wry glances at the big screen where that odious toad Murray was losing his mixed doubles tennis final.
Of course it was all corporate advertising overkill in the park, yet everyone’s mood was so unremittingly upbeat you couldn’t help but feel good about the place. The eyes of the world were going to be glued to the Olympic Stadium in a few hours when Usain Bolt took 9.63 seconds out of his busy partying schedule to take 41 strides; before that we were going into the Aquatics Centre which was about 60 strides west of Bolt’s running track.
So, ladies 3 metres springboard diving was the competition. £90.00 was the price of the ticket. Twelve competitors had five dives each. Sixty dives. £90.00. At £1.50 a dive, this was expensive splashing. So it goes.
The electronic scoreboard would give us the name of the diver and a description of the dive she was about to attempt. The obligatory “berk with microphone” would read this out to us in between encouraging us to “make some noise”. The diver would step up on the board, get some spring going, launch herself into the air, throw a few shapes, and swoosh into the drink causing as little of a splash as possible. The seven judges would quickly throw their marks out of ten onto the scoreboard, and we were ready for the next diver. Bounce-spin-splash-applause-score. Sixty times. Hmmm.
It was graceful, somewhat balletic, quite interesting. You’d have your work cut out though convincing me to ahem, spring for another diving contest. Still, it was the Olympics, Once in a lifetime, Blah-blah-blah. Just a pity that each “Blah” cost £30.00.
In the end a Chinese girl won, another Chinese took silver, and a Mexican held off the noisily-supported Italian girl for the bronze. “With all the will in the world, Diving for dear gold, When they could be diving for pearls”, indeed. Then we had the medal ceremony pool-side. The flags were hoisted, the jaunty Chinese anthem was played, and we all filed happily out of the Aquatics Centre to go home to watch Bolt prove again that it’s his world – we are merely lucky to live in it.
If its Friday morning, then it must be men’s wrestling. 55kg (a small weight for a wrestler, a huge weight for a chicken) and 74kg (big, bad and dangerous to know in any form) were the categories. The action was taking place in the ExCel Arena down in the Docklands. The previous day Katie Taylor knocked Fifty Shades Of Bray out of a repressed Russian in the ExCel, and the huge complex was miraculously still intact after all the buck-lepping and whooping the celebrating Irish did. Which was nice.
Whereas the diving suffered from an excessive price tag and a lack of activity, the wrestling scored a knockout on both fronts. £20.00 for over two hours entertainment? No need to “take the change outta’ that”.
There were three mats laid out, so there was three bouts played out at the same time. The competitors marched on to the beat of “Whoo-ooo-ooo-oo-ooo Barbra Streisand”. They climbed onto their mat, bowed to the ref, assumed the position, and tore bald-headed into each other without any of this “Crouch, touch, pause, take steroids, engage” pussyfooting.
They grappled with gusto, jousted with joie de vivre, attacked with abandon. It was marvellous entertainment. I got chatting to a former wrestler, now a referee, from Pennsylvania who gave me the inside scoop on the scoring, the skills, and the moves. The close combat occasionally resembled two duffel coat-wearing drunks wrestling over a fallen chip in the laneway outside Joan’s Cafe, but when we got down to the quarter-finals and only one mat was in use it was easier to appreciate the nuances of two men wearing man-kinis trying to horse each other out of a circle marked on a platform of rubber.
The arena announcer was hollering it up a storm and kept referring to wrestling as “the oldest sport in the world”. And there I was thinking Luis Suarez getting “the bird” from opposition fans was the only sport that had been going around since time began…
It was obvious that the geographical strongholds for wrestling are east of Greece, especially in the former Soviet republics and in Iran. It was the presence of so many Iranian competitors that led to the most welcome attraction of an olive-skinned beauty a couple of rows to my left frequently hopping up and shaking it to “Barbra Streisand” in a manner that would most definitely have the brothers in the Islamic Republic in a hot funk. I’d wager that there’s nowhere in the Koran where supporting “the oldest sport in the world” while dressed and dancing like someone from “the oldest profession in the world” is given a free pass.
(Train)ing In Vain!!
The Olympic flame is burning bright at Olympic HQ, Stratford; there’s friendly fires at a host of other venues scattered around London and beyond. So it came to pass that at 8 o’clock on the morning after the Opening Ceremony I was seated in a grandstand in Horse Guards Parade, right next to Downing Street, a hundred yards from Buckingham Palace. I was watching the first round games in the beach volleyball. Me. The Olympics. Beach volleyball. How Green Is My Valley, eh?
The transformation of this very British corridor of power into an Olympic venue was startling. There were 17,000 seats in the stands, and there were 5,000 tonnes of sand, shipped in from Surrey, in use as the playing surface for this most idiosyncratic of Olympic sports. That’s 1,679 billion grains of sand in case you were wondering. Blimey.
It was early morning. It was Saturday. It was the Olympics. It was beach volleyball. Everyone was ahem, up for it. Even the sun had risen early to cast a warm eye on proceedings. Which was nice.
The actual four games played (two women’s, two men’s) were kinda’ incidental. It was all about the accompanying razzmatazz. The loudmouth on the loud-speaker was giving it the whole “Lets wake up David Cameron with a roar from the Downing Street Stand” schtick. He was orchestrating Mexican Waves in the crowd. He was introducing The Horse Guards Parade Dancers who strutted, gyrated, conga’d around the sand in their bikinis between points. He screamed approval when the Benny Hill theme tune was played as the team of rakers (“Lets hear it for the Horse Guard Parade Rakers”) ran on to sweep the sand. He wanted our attention, our applause, our love. He got on my wick.
Still, the whole spectacle was a good laugh. Was it sport? Was it Even Better Than The Real Thing? I’ll get back to you on that. First, I’ll have a closer study of the photos I took of the Russian and Chinese ladies teams before deciding. I may well be a while…
Onwards to Wembley on Tuesday night to be one of over 70,000 people in the crowd for the Britain v. Brazil ladies football game. Walking up Wembley Way towards the hallowed stadium, newly kitted out with its’ attention-grabbing arch, is surely one of the great sporting strolls.
As at the beach volleyball, it was airport-type security at the entrance gates. The people doing the checking were unfailingly good-humoured and polite – a pleasant change from the grumpy little Hitlers you meet at most airports.
My sister and I were seated slightly to the right, behind one of the goals. Insert your own chauvinistic gag about the danger of being in seats to the side of the goals at a ladies football match. Again, we were (ill)treated to a stadium announcer who really, really wanted to hear us “Make Some Noise”, and whose world would have been incomplete if he failed to orchestrate a Mexican Wave every three minutes. So it goes. (By the way, how old skool is it to refer to The Wave as The Mexican Wave??)
There was a fair clutch of Brazilians in the stadium giving it some Samba-action. However, they were out-numbered by the butchers apron-wavers who got to shout a little louder when their side scored (in the goals right in front of us) after 90 seconds. Ho-hum.
The Brazilian team featured Marta in their ranks. She has been named World Player of the Year five times. She was wearing number 10, of course. Had she and her svelte team-mates won the game I was ready to roll out the searingly obvious “Marta & The Muffins” headline. Alas, the Brits hung on to win 1-0. Well, you would expect a good performance from Britain – after all they had home advantage and the pick of not one but three countries…
The standard of play was more than reasonable, if not quite West Germany v. France in the 1982 World Cup (we’d have to wait for the Canada/USA semi-final for that). Both sides tried to pass the ball around and use the wings as much as possible. There was little or no play-acting or haranguing of the referee. And most controversially – the players actually seemed to be enjoying playing football, in contrast to those vile Premiership creatures with their foul language, horrible cheating, and vicious snarls at the camera. Ladies, take a bow.
Admittedly there were lapses that brought a smile. The Brazilian left-back took a throw-in early doors that was such a foul throw she could easily have been booked for it. The ref said “play on”. Later, Britain were taking a corner when a second ball was thrown onto the pitch by an over-enthusiastic ball-girl. The ref saw the second ball, decided it was inconvenient to stop the corner being taken, so play resumed with two balls on the pitch. Howard Webb, please take note.
The very evident enjoyment that the players were getting from the game on the pitch was reciprocated in the stands. The atmosphere (in spite of the incessant grating chants of “GB, GB, GB”) was top-notch. It was a sweet relief to, for once, attend a game of ball played in a non-poisonous, non-hate-filled environment. A beautiful way to watch “The Beautiful Game”. Respect.
Sport being played with honesty and honour – wasn’t this the ideal of the original Olympic Movement? Wasn’t it the dream of beach volleyball that occupied the minds of Herakles, Pierre De Coubertin, and Dr. Pat O’Callaghan at their inaugural meeting in Hayes Hotel, Thurles in 1884?
Knees Up Shun Fujimoto!!
Listeners, you may have heard a rumour that the Olympic Games are taking place in London right now. For want of something better to do, I flew from Farranfore to Stansted on the Monday before the Opening Ceremony (which was taking place on the Friday) – plenty of time to see how our noisy neighbours were getting their ducks in line…
Stansted was my first encounter with the wine and orange-clad volunteers who were everywhere in the city helping visitors around the great metropolis. Their politeness was unnerving. The Irish default setting – “Beware of friendly Brits” – was thrown awry. The volunteers were genuinely courteous and helpful. And they were everywhere. Which was… nice?
The Blimp was the next sign that something mega was taking place. From miles away, on the bus in from Stansted, you could see The Blimp hovering over East London. The capital hadn’t seen such a brightly-coloured, jumbo-sized, expanse of puffed-up air since Neil Ruddock donned one of those garish Crystal Palace away shirts in the 2000/01 season.
Upon arrival in Stratford you had to be impressed with how the the Olympic Park looked. When I was there a year ago some stuff was in place, but it still looked like a huge building site. Now however, the vast area containing the Olympic Stadium, the Aquatics centre, the athletes village, the velodrome etc. looked resplendent. Those Irish and Polish builders sure are good at meeting deadlines.
Stratford was heaving in the days leading up to the start of the games. The Westfield Shopping Complex, beside the Olympic Park, is ginormous. They should run the marathon around its’ miles of aisles instead of on mundane roads. Westfield occupies more land mass than eighteen of the countries competing at the Olympics. It has a higher GDP than 194 of the countries. It is notoriously B.I.G.
The shopping wonderland was rammed on my one visit. Competitors and officials, sporting tracksuits and laminates, abounded. A shop called “Victoria’s Secret” was operating a “one in, one out” policy at the door, and the queue stretched for half a mile down the corridor outside. Whatever secret Victoria had, a helluva’ lot of people seemed curious to find it out.
I had a notion to join the female-heavy line, but opted instead to go to Primark to buy myself a pair of slippers. Now this was more my kinda’ hang-out. There were gluttonous hordes streaming towards the tills weighed down with jeans, t-shirts and all manner of booty. “Primark, Get Set, Go” seemed to be the order of the day. And before you ask – no, I didn’t get the slippers I craved. Ho-Hum.
Now, if you drew a Venn diagram of Boris Johnson and me, the intersection would be miniscule, but I gotta’ applaud the right wing buffoon for the way the transport in the city was nowhere near as chaotic as expected. Opting to walk on a few occasions though was rewarding enough too. A trio of Malaysian cyclists whizzed past me on the Lea Bridge Road; the owner of the eel and pie shop in Leytonstone was being interviewed by a Japanese tv crew when I ambled by; some South African mountain bikers asked me for directions on the Greenway near the Oympic Park. Everyone was feeling “Very Olympic”.
Speaking of “feeling Olympic” – I walked by the little cafe across the road from Stratford police station which featured on “Have I Got News For You” a few weeks ago. The cafe had traded for years under the name “Olympic Cafe”. Alas, as the Olympics is now a shameless, bullying, greedy, corporate, big business, whore of capitalism its owners were warned they had to change the name or else some angry Lithuanian shot-putters would call around to do a spot of er, re-decorating.
The cafe owners changed the name. The sign above the door, as shown on “H.I.G.N.F.Y”, now reads “LYMPIC CAFE” with a dash of paint doing a so-so job covering the “O”. Alright, seeing this sign wasn’t exactly sharing a box of chicken nuggets with Maria Sharapova or relaxing in a sauna with Usain Bolt, but it gave me a little thrill anyway. So it goes.
Suitably Olympified, it was time for the opening ceremony. And in fairness that was OK too; not quite “Anarchy In The UK” nor “Pretty Vacant” either. It was entertaining, unexpected, bewildering and joyous, even if the “Bond” and “Bean” segments weren’t deserving of such gushing praise. It was so mad-cap and mad-“Tap” in parts, I expected a miniature, replica Stonehenge to make an appearance. At the end of the day, you gotta’ say “Jolly Good Show, Chaps”. It was time to let the games begin.
ps. Quite a cull of literary heavy-weights in the past week or so. Vidal, Binchy and Houlihan all suffered the cruellest editorial cut. No prizes for guessing who will be most sorely missed- the final whistle has blown on The Greatest Ever Sportswriter. R.I.P.