diamond geezer

 Sunday, September 09, 2012

I went to the Paralympics on Friday.
I had a Day Pass for the events at ExCel.
And that's four more Paralympic sports ticked off.

Ah, the ExCel Day Pass, one of the bargains of the Games. For only £10 you could wander around a giant exhibition centre for twelve hours, popping in to watch four different sports (including several medal sessions). They might be some of the more obscure Paralympic sports, but that's not a bad thing if you want to see the true spirit of the Games. And it was unreserved seating throughout, pretty much, which meant I got some excellent close-up seats for a change in a variety of arenas.
One grump - the lack of information about precisely what was taking place in each arena. On turning up at each spectator zone there was nothing to say what event was underway, nor what might be up next, nor how long it was until the next action. I knew to turn up at the Table Tennis at half past twelve for men's gold medal matches because I'd checked online, whereas all everyone else had was "Table Tennis 10:00-15:00". The central information booth only had photocopies of photocopies of photocopies of something over-general, plus a few specific printouts sellotaped to a board with all the key information in tiny type. It's as if the Games Makers at each Paralympic venue have been left to their own devices regarding how they provide session information, and some do a brilliant job, and some are rubbish.

Boccia - South Arena 1
In this little-known game, competitors who aren't especially mobile (or coordinated) play a ball-throwing game that's similar to bowls or petanque. Each player throws six balls - one player red, one blue - with a final score equal to the number of balls closest to the jack. I'm not sure I'd have worked the rules out by myself, so I'm indebted to the lady sat on my left for explaining all. In the games in front of me, both players were in wheelchairs and in need of help to move around, but still threw brilliantly to gain tactical advantage. In the game to my right, however, the players were so disabled that they couldn't even hold a ball. They had to knock the ball instead, using a stick attached to the top of their helmet, so that it rolled down a tubular ramp aimed by an assistant. Again, it was amazing how often the balls rolled to nigh exactly the right place. The judges performed all their directions and scoring in silence, using gestures and signals and coloured bats, which added to the unfamiliarity. But very tense, if you allowed yourself to get into watching it, and about as far from running a 100m race as you can imagine. Serious disability sport.

Wheelchair Fencing - North Arena 2
You might be imagining white-clad folk in wheelchairs whizzing up and down like knights at a mediaeval joust. The sword-wielding bit's true, but these athletes are going nowhere, their wheelchairs carefully bolted to the floor before competition begins. There are a lot of preparations - indeed the entire event's more set-up than play. Is everybody sitting the correct distance apart, check. Are both players wearing their heavy white conductive aprons, check? Does the coloured light flash up when someone scores a hit, check. Let's play. I got to watch the women's team quarter finals, which meant four simultaneous tournaments taking place within the same arena. Most of the audience were cheering on the British girls, despite them being invisible from our side of the arena except on the big screen. Trounced by Hong Kong, they were. Let's never speak of it again.

Sitting Volleyball - South Arena 2
This is ordinary volleyball, but with the levelling factor that every player competes with "at least one buttock in contact with the floor". This means it can be played by athletes with any number of legs - indeed the British men's team displays almost every different possible combination. Some walk onto the court, some shuffle, others crawl - then you'd hardly notice the difference when the game gets underway. Rallies are swift, the ball sometimes high in the air, sometimes dangerously near the ground. Thwack, lob, lob, thwack, pat, pass, lob, thwack, bounce, cheer. There's much yelling to team mates, a lot of co-operation, and plenty of backslapping when a point goes well. It is amazing to watch a team of six manoeuvring into position without standing up, and the physicality probably explains why this is a game for fired-up youngsters. Our hyped-up commentator was so busy enthusing the crowd that he completely failed to mention we were watching the wooden spoon match. We thought we were cheering Great Britain to glory, whereas in fact we were battling China for eighth place in the overall tournament. Straight sets defeat, but hey, the crowd went away loving it.

Table Tennis - North Arena 1
Played at elite level this is a fast and furious sport. But a tiny table in a huge arena doesn't make spectating easy. We had four finals matches to watch in two classes, so it was hard to know where to look. The scoring was complicated to unravel too, with simultaneous points in simultaneous games in simultaneous best-of-five matches. The broadcast cameras focused on the match between China and Germany, but that was pictures without words because the commentators weren't allowed to say anything while any game was underway. I was glad I'd had my London 2012 Commentary Radio (an over-ear mini plastic device tuned into arena-specific channels at every Olympic venue) because I could listen in to the audio description nobody else could hear. I think their price has recently been slashed (they're only £5 now), and they double up as FM radios after the Games have finished. Transmission carries far enough that I can listen to commentary from venues in the Olympic Park while sat at home in my living room! Commentary Radios were available from certain programme sellers at various venues, but dear LOCOG, these were appallingly marketed. Sorry, I know I'm offering this top tip too late, but I wish I'd bought mine earlier.

Photos: [boccia] [wheelchair fencing] [sitting volleyball] [table tennis]

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