diamond geezer

 Saturday, August 04, 2012

I went to the Olympics again yesterday.
This time I took my Dad to the Dome to watch the trampolining.
This time there were medals.
Let me tell you about some more of the sports I've seen.

Trampolining - the venue: North Greenwich Arena
You might know it as the O2, but during the Games that brandname has been airbrushed away in favour of the entirely neutral North Greenwich Arena. The venue's owners must be both loving and hating hosting Olympic events, because footfall is huge, but they've not been able to host any other events for weeks. The restaurants inside are still open, indeed they're still open to non-ticketholders, but all potential diners have to pass through airport-style security before their aperitif. Here as everywhere else the Games Makers are magnificently cheery. One even insisted on taking a photo of me and my Dad each sporting a pink foam pointy hand (sorry, that's for the family album only). The last time we were both here, back in 2000, we sat on the ground while millennial acrobats tumbled above. For 2012 instead we sat in the gods, while matchstick acrobats tumbled below. The banking in the arena is steep, but the view down's pretty good so long as you're not sat behind an American in a comedy hat.

Trampolining - the event: Men's Trampoline
The Olympics even offers medals for bouncing. Trampolining's been in the Games since 2000, with the men's event on one day and the women's on the next. The entire competition takes place in one session, with sixteen qualifiers performing two routines each, then the best eight battling for glory in a final round. No British trampolinist made the grade, so the crowd were able to be successfully unbiased through the entire two hour afternoon session. Each routine has to contain ten skills - that's ten consecutive bounces after an initial series of springs to gain height. It's all over very quickly. A minute on the trampoline is all each athlete needs, with the crucial key moves expressed in twenty seconds flat. The trampoline's massive, although the target area in the centre is only about the same size as a front door which isn't big when you're descending at speed. Indeed, not everybody made it. Some competitors edged too close to the edge and crashed and burned, their coaches holding out a safety mat to break the fall. At this level of competition one mistake destroys your score, and off home you go. But when it all works, the athleticism is amazing. Double somersaults, even triples, combined with spinning flipping outstretched spins. We didn't need the ten quid commentary gizmo to know when an athlete had done well, indeed its purchase seemed pointless given that each video replay came with full description. It soon became clear that China, Russia and Japan would dominate the event, especially the young Chinese gymnast with the unintentionally comic name of Dong Dong. He smashed the qualifying round and levitated through the final before walking off, grinning, with gold. And so it was that Dad and I ended the day standing for the national anthem of China, and we can now tick off "watching an Olympic medal ceremony" on our list of life's achievements. [seven photos]

Hockey - the venue: Riverbank Arena
At the top end of the Olympic Park, where there used to be a pentecostal church, bus garage and traveller encampment, that's where the venue for London 2012 hockey is located. It's a huge open-air arena, with a subsidiary practice pitch located alongside that only aerial photographers spot. The most striking feature is the bright blue pitch, coloured so that the ball shows up better, surrounded by an even brighter pink perimeter. Sunglasses may be required. The view all the way down the Park is equally spectacular, if you're sitting high enough, with the Aquatic Centre, Orbit and Stadium poking out above the top of the southern grandstand. There's zero protection if it rains, as it did partway through my visit. At the first hint of falling water the entire crowd reacted by rooting in their bags for waterproofs and brollies, though thankfully this didn't last long else anyone sat behind an over-sized golf umbrella would have cursed. If hockey inspires locals to sporting glory, this is one of the venues that's being retained, shifted across the A12 to its permanent location at Eton Manor.

Hockey - the matches: Spain v Australia, Netherlands v Belgium
The stands weren't full when the first match in the session began, partly because the Arena's such a long walk up the Park, but most probably because bully off was at 8:30am. Spain and Australia came out for the shaking of hands and their respective anthems, then spread out across the pitch for the match proper. The accuracy with which these men could hit and receive was impressive, else the ball would regularly have flown off into an unmarked space and the game would have been mostly stop and start. With each thwack of the stick the playing surface threw up a fountain of water, convincing proof that the blue pitch wasn't painted grass but some artificial skin. We spectators had little idea of the relative abilities of the teams, but the five nil whitewash soon proved that Australia were the more talented side. Belgium versus the Netherlands was a much tighter match, and also supported by considerably more spectators from the respective countries. BestMate and I were sat amongst a smattering of Belgians, mostly families, cheering loudly but never raucously (except when their lone goal was scored). The Dutch were more in evidence, both in colour and in voice, with entire banks of seating seemingly coloured orange. Even when it rained, out came orange ponchos and up went orange brollies to maintain the illusion. As this second match neared conclusion the Belgians substituted their goalkeeper with a forward, so desperate were they to pull back into contention, but that backfired when they conceded a further goal and the final whistle saw them three one down.

Handball - the venue: Copper Box
It's not a thrilling name, although the venue is a box covered in copper so at least it's descriptive. From the outside it doesn't look much, which may be why they've erected three giant mirrored letters out the front to liven things up. But inside it's a riot of colour, thanks mainly to the banks of seating whose colours seem randomly arranged like the pegs in a giant game of Mastermind. The surrounding walkways are compact, and also brightly signed, with a food concession in each corner for spectators to sneak off to during competition. The balcony round the pitch is easily accessible from the front entrance, with a great view for spectators in wheelchairs, while the media get to sit further round at their own bespoke desks. Be warned, it's not quiet in here, with a warm-up guy intent on whipping up the audience and various blasts of music at opportune moments. There's a great atmosphere, which bodes well for the legacy phase when the Copper Box is turned over to the local community. It's to be the only permanent indoor arena retained in the Olympic Park, combining sporting facilities with a gym and café, and is (though you'd never realise now) ideally situated for Hackney Wick station.

Handball - the wooden spoon match: Team GB v Argentina
I've seen several team game matches at the Olympics, but only one involving the host nation. Great Britain versus Argentina in the men's handball was a match heavy with unspoken subtext, although in the wider context of the Games nothing more than an obscure sideshow between the two weakest teams in Pool A. The crowd were wildly partisan throughout, even from the moment the two teams strode in from the changing rooms. Flags erupted from the stands, cheers rang out around the arena, and armchair sports fans offered shouts of encouragement to the GB team. Hopes were high at the start of the match, not least because few present realised we'd won neither of our previous matches. Things looked fairly close to begin with, as every British attack was applauded, and our goals raised the roof. Handball's a very end-to-end game, with players throwing and bouncing the ball around the edge of the D-zone before either hurling at goal or losing possession. It soon became clear that we were doing the latter more than the former, and the Argentine team edged into a slim but persistent lead. That didn't stop the cheers, and the crowd's increasingly over-optimistic hopes. The fifty-something couple behind me never stopped urging Our Lads on ("Come on Team GB!") or offering advice ("defend, defend!"), despite their vocal input having zero impact apart from contributing to the overall hubbub. By the second half the margin between the two teams was unassailable, but the flags still waved and the encouragement remained strong. It struck me how much the country has united behind Team GB, resolute in unflinching support, blinkered by the quest for medals. I can't get into it myself - I lack the euphoric empathy needed to be swept along by Olympic competition. So when the match ended and we were 32-21 down I wasn't downhearted, nor indeed disappointed, merely pleased to have attended another amazing Olympic event.

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