I went to the Olympics again yesterday. This time I went to ExCel to watch the fencing. I think it's time I told you about some of the sports I've seen.
Fencing - the venue: ExCel There are seven Olympic events taking place at ExCel, mostly the compact indoor knockout sports such as table tennis and weightlifting. Each has its own dedicated section of the exhibition centre, with spectators corralled within until their session finishes. Prepare to be trapped inside with banks of temporary toilets, restricted food options and one drinking fountain. It's not that bad, honest, but after six hours it's not exactly luxurious either. All spectators enter via ExCel's western end, through a security zone where the slalom takes longer than the scan. Exit is from the eastern end, with those travelling to Central London directed to Prince Regent DLR and those for Stratford sent to Pontoon Dock. The latter is a ten minute walk, if you're fit, and several less healthy members of the crowd were cursing they'd been sent this way by the end of it. On this way out you pass (without warning) through the London Pleasure Gardens, where a motley collection of stalls and bars is attempting (and entirely failing) to make money from passing spectators.
Fencing - the event: Men's Individual Foil heats and quarter-finals Fencing's one of those events that people only notice at the Olympics, and then not much because it gets drowned by the bigger sports. Hence the arena at ExCel was filled by thousands of people who weren't entirely sure of the rules of what they were going to see. A useful set of videos run at the start of each Olympic session, outlining the basics, but once the action starts you soon realise you've not taken enough of them on board. It took me some time to deduce that fencing is a "first to score 15" sport, which I could have read in my information leaflet except the grandstands were all bathed in darkness. In contrast the floor was lit up like the set of Tron, with a brightly coloured piste in each corner of the floor. Throughout our six hour session we got to watch four simultaneous fencing bouts, which didn't make for easy viewing. If a cheer went went up, you'd likely not know why. If some incident made a quarter of the crowd gasp, your eye was probably elsewhere. Things were easier when Team GB took to the stage, as the partisan crowd cheered them on to the exclusion of all others. Alas our top medal hope Richard Kruse crumbled quickly, and other plucky Brits weren't far behind. Instead we transferred our support to various international swordsmen of note, notably the dark horse Egyptian, swishing and parrying their way to success. Things would have been much easier to understand if there'd been a commentary, but that wasn't possible unless you paid ten pounds for an electronic gizmo. I'm sure London 2012 are dead proud of their radio-earphone service, but they completely failed to promote it apart from a single illegible poster in the services area and one brief sentence in the warm-up preamble. I thought the little purple boxes the programme sellers were clutching were Cadbury chocolates, and by the time I'd worked out otherwise it was too late to be interested. So I spent six hours in a mostly-baffled crowd, applauding politely, enjoying the spectacle. If you'd have been watching online, with commentary, you'd no doubt have felt closer to the action.
Archery - the venue: Lord's As cricket's not an Olympic sport, Lord's gets to host the archery instead. It's a most impressive venue, not least because the grandstands have been erected on the pitch at the Pavilion End. On a sunny morning you really wanted to be in the southern stand, because those in the northern stand were having to stare into bright glare. I was very fortunate with my seat which was directly in line with the firing archers, unlike at the fencing where I'd been shoved right up in the far corner in need of binoculars. I also got chatting to the random strangers sat on either side, one a Mum with appreciative kids, the other a serial Olympoholic. It was interesting watching the number of empty seats fluctuate across the day. With an "early" 9am start, many people took some time to arrive and the first archers played to a reduced crowd. Numbers built until almost all the upper seats were taken, although it looked like the army had been brought in to fill two dozen at the front. I was surprised how many people drifted away during the morning - maybe four hours of repetitive shooting was too much for them, but that's knockout sport for you.
Archery - the event: Men's and Women's Individual - 1/32 and 1/16 eliminations Normally it's two batsmen stepping out from the Pavilion End, but for the Olympics it's two archers. They emerge carrying their bow, and a spare bow just in case, and two white-suited MCC gentlemen open the wicker gate so they can proceed onto the pitch. Each stands at the firing line while their coach stands several paces behind, with a telescopic viewfinder for keeping track of line of fire. A quiver of fresh arrows is brought out for each round, that's three shots at target, which in this case is located directly 70m across the cricket square. Shots fire at 200kmh, which makes the arrows very hard to see, so the camera pointing at the bullseye is invaluable. It's amazing how many times the competitors managed to score 9 or 10, which we rewarded with applause or a cheer respectively, while anything below a 7 earned a dismayed sigh. The match swiftly equated to a game of mental arithmetic (9, 9 and what will beat 10, 7 and 8?), a subject at which the American commentator proved less than competent. Top seed Im Dong Hyun, who's the world record holder yet legally blind, sailed through against a competitor from San Marino. The crowd contained more than its fair share of South Koreans who waved plastic flags every time he won points, which was often. Other winners included the young, the middle aged, the fit and the obese - there are few athletic barriers to archery success. Definitely my favourite sport so far. [ten photos]
Basketball - the venue: Basketball Arena It's the white marshmallowcasing up the top of the Olympic Park. And it's an entirely temporary arena, due to be dismantled and sent off to the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow ready for 2014. Impressive, then, how much it looks like a proper sports stadium inside, and what a good view most of the seats seem to have. The seating's divided into "us" and "them", with VIPs, players, coaches and high-cost ticket holders in a lower ring, and everyone else higher up. The stands are fairly vertiginous, however, and if you've been ticketed on the top row that's a hundred step climb. Don't expect to come here for a quiet time. Events are marshalled by a loud master of ceremonies who revels in getting the crowd to interact or sending round another Mexican wave. Music also plays a strong part, with a DJ ready to fire out tunes throughout the pre-match warm-up or during gaps in the play. I think the idea is to stop spectators from getting bored, especially those who can't cope with silence for more than a few seconds. Breaks between the quarters are filled by on-pitch entertainment, generally talented kids doing streetdance (and that's in no way as corny as it sounds).
Basketball - the matches: Turkey v Angola, USA v Croatia Only twelve countries get to take part in the Olympic women's basketball tournament, but it still takes an age to complete. They're not necessarily countries you'd expect to see either, and that's certainly the first time I've ever had to stand for the national anthem of Angola. Never mind the geography, feel the quality. These were teams with considerable talents, and considerably tall women too. With players up to six foot five in height, it clearly helps to be lanky, although it's not essential. More important is the killer instinct when throwing a ball, and it's astonishing the accuracy with which players can hit a hoop only 45cm in diameter. This was fast and furious end-to-end stuff, which kept the crowd loud and animated at all times. Turkey were always ahead in the first match, much to the delight of the Prime Minister who was watching from somewhere in the stands. Alas Michelle Obama didn't come to see the USA's women, she came the next day to see the men, but her girls needed little encouragement. Croatia stayed within striking distance until the fourth quarter when the game slipped away, a few too many missed chances, a few too many muffed shots. Not that you care. These are merely the preliminary rounds of a competition Team GB has no hope in, but when you're a spectator in the hyped-up cauldron of an Olympic arena, somehow which team wins briefly matters.