Diving's not just about falling from a high place. Indeed, the 3m springboard isn't even especially high. A bouncy blue plank stretches out across the water, dwarfed by the 10m platform looming alongside. You walk out, you push down, and then you leap up into the air and twist like crazy on the way down in the hope that the judges will give you marks. That's essentially how the event works. And that's what I watched for four solid hours yesterday afternoon.
Everything took place up one end of the Aquatics Centre, so anyone sat overlooking the Olympic sized swimming pool had a somewhat diminutive view of proceedings. The afternoon kicked off with a warm-up session, which essentially gave carte blanche to all the athletes to climb up the steps of their choice and hurl themselves from the top. The high and medium platforms were popular, all good practice for whatever events the competitors might be taking part in later in the week. They queued to ascend, and waited patiently at the top, then raised their arms before leaping into the blue. Meanwhile the springboard posse gathered en masse on three lower boards, in parallel, to prepare for today's matter in hand.
One especially important element of the whole up/down cycle was the humble towel. Divers made sure they were damp before ascending, then rubbed themselves down at the summit before hurling their towel down to ground level. Mostly they hit the tiles on the edge, but sometimes the towel landed in the water and floated there until its master descended to collect it. And then round again - lob, collect, lob, collect - until the warm-up finally closed and a volunteer went round to grab all the spare towels left draped over the rails. Seriously, a big thing in diving, towels. Never be without one.
At 2pm athlete number 1 climbed the steps, solo, for the first competitive dive. The crowd hushed - utterly and completely across the entire Aquatics Centre, so quiet that you could have heard a man drop. He stood on the tip of the board, then bounced and flipped in accordance with the precise form of dive posted up on the display board. The idea is to excel and then hit the water cleanly, which he didn't quite, so the judges marked him down on his performance. There are seven judges marking out of ten, then the top two and lowest two scores are deleted, and the remaining three scores totalled and multiplied by the numeric difficulty score for each type of dive. Being the first diver this performance placed him automatically in first position, and we all applauded, but his top spot wasn't to last. There were 58 other divers to follow, each with six different dives to make. That's 354 consecutive kersploshes. It was going to be a very long afternoon.
Here's how the springboard dive cycle works: » previous diver leaps into water (to varied levels of applause) » next diver ascends steps (while very brief snippet of Adele, or other mainstream artist, plays over the PA) » scores from previous diver flash up briefly on big screen, and the crowd strains to look » the lady announcer reads out the name of the next diver, and the four-digit code for their chosen dive » if British, there are manic cheers of "come on Jack!" or "come on Chris!" (especially from Chris's Mum in the front row with the big Union Jack) » umpire blows whistle, then silence (but less silence as the afternoon goes on) » diver positions himself (backwards) at tip of plank, or takes a bounding run-up » diver leaps into water (and repeat)
At first the crowd would applaud anything, then as the afternoon wore on fewer people applauded for less time, not unless the last dive had been especially good or especially British (or both). As novice spectators, alas, it was very hard for us to judge each dive on its true merits. Often we'd applaud wildly a dive which the judges then decreed was merely mediocre, or fail to cheer for a dive worth high sevens or even eight. According to one of Monday's competitors, China's Ruolin Chen, ‘The crowd here are all very excited, they will give you good support if you dive good or bad.’ And so we will, lady, because we don't actually understand what we're clapping.
But occasionally it was obvious. The South American diver who slapped his head against the board on the way down, then left clutching a bag of ice - he obviously scored badly. The diver whose downward trajectory made every coach sitting by the poolside rise to their feet in fear of an imminent mega-splash - he obviously scored badly. The pre-adolescent Hong Kong boy who looked like he was at least six years younger than everybody else in the competition - he scored more for sympathy than for technical excellence. And China's Ka Qin - every one of his dives was so good that before long he was beating everyone else by 19 clear points.
On and on and on it went, for six 40 minute rounds, with barely a pause between each. By the end of the four hours many of the competitors coming round felt like old friends - the Venezuelan with two strips of black tape covering his tattoos, the American with a screeching girl fan in the audience, the blond Russian who wouldn't look out of place in the next Bond movie, all of them. And of course it was Ka Qin who won, but Britain's Jack Laugher managed a very creditable fifth place to the delight of the crowd. The entire Mears family were visibly overjoyed too, especially Mum, because son Chris beat the cut for today's semi-finals by coming 14th, and earned himself an Olympic team place as a bonus. Welcome to Stratford's palace of watery dreams, with only five months to go until all this is for real.