Monday 6 August 2012

London 2012 - great gymnastics, crap ticketing systems and a strange obsession with lists

I was a strange child. I had an unusual interest in lists. List of British monarchs. Lists of countries. Lists of capital cities. And lists of Olympic Games host cities and medal winners. I can still recite the host city of every summer Olympics from Athens in 1896 to London 2012, including the extra celebration held in 1906 in Athens, and which was out of synch with the usual four year cycle.

I have never worked out quite why I had a special obsession with the Olympics. I was reasonably good at athletics as a teenager, reaching county standard before I discovered drinking and going out, but I never liked team games, doing anything I could to avoid them at school. My current theory is that this strange passion was something to do with travel and the long list of countries that march in the opening ceremony. This is because my other fixation was maps. None of that Ordnance Survey jolly hockey sticks stuff, but maps of different countries, poring over how close Bucharest was to Sofia, how far Vienna was from Istanbul and where exactly is Surinam.

Sitting in my shared bedroom in my little seaside hometown, where nothing much happened and where it was cold even in the summer thanks to the "cooling breeze" (for which read howling gale) from the North Sea, I would dream of one day traveling abroad. My horizons were somewhat limited. I thought of Switzerland as being particularly exotic and wondered if I'd ever visit. Well, I never have been to Switzerland (at least not yet), but I have been to some pretty wonderful parts of the world. My other desire was to participate in the Olympic Games and in moments of reverie, I would imagine myself crossing the final hurdle, approaching the long jump run-up or preparing for high jump take-off, even to the extent of doing a slow motion version in the living room when no-one else was around. It never happened, but 2007 saw the Olympic Games awarded to my home town of the last 24 years - to London - and although (sadly) my chance of competing appears to have gone by, I could at least attend and experience the atmosphere of an Olympic Games.

Applying early on for tickets, I was desperate to see some of the athletics - perhaps Jessica Ennis in the Heptathlon, some of the hurdles events (my favourite), perhaps some of the exciting swimming finals and maybe Handball - a sport I have come to enjoy through my time in Israel. No such luck. I got tickets for Wrestling (August 12th), and nothing else, although most of my wrestling was with the frankly crap ticketing website where I spent hours selecting tickets listed as being available only to find that after hours of waiting for the "15 minutes or more" for confirmation of my purchase, that the bloody tickets didn't exist. But all was not lost as I was invited to see some of the gymnastics finals on Sunday August 5th. Result. And, after many hours of trying, I secured tickets for the women's volleyball. I was going to the Olympics!

We'll come to how it was,  but first I have some early memories of the Olympics. I think I remember the 1964 games in Tokyo (although I was only 4 - so I can't really can I?) - but I do remember the fantastic (best ever?) theme music from the 1964 games - Tokyo Melody. Composed by a German(!), I am told it is still used on Japanese television for major events. I still love it, and here it is...

I also have memories from Mexico City in 1968. My neighbours were a little "horsey" and as they had no television, came to our house to watch the Olympic show jumping. Not my thing at all and I remember being annoyed that we had to watch this instead of the weekly Tarzan TV series with Ron Ely! I also have vague memories of David Hemery winning the men's 400 metres hurdles and a very young Lilian Board being devastated at "only" winning the silver medal in the women's 400 metres. I have a musical memory too - the theme tune for the TV coverage - "Mexico" recorded by Long John Baldry. You can listen to it here

My memories of Munich in 1972 are overshadowed by the brutal murder of 11 Israeli athletes and officials by Arab terrorists and the appallingly poor handling of the situation by the German security forces. Shamefully, the International Olympic Committee refuses to mark the anniversary of these murders at every subsequent Games. Before the terrorist murders, Mary Peters had won the Pentathlon for the Uk, very narrowly defeating the then West Germany's Heidi Rosendahl and East Germany's Burglinde Pollak.

But what of London? Its been "stupendous" to quote a friend. Starting with the torch relay which I saw at St. Paul's Cathedral and then again at Millennium Bridge where wheelchair sportsman Ade Adepitan carried the torch across the river to south London, there have been many emotional moments for me - the absolute thrill of watching the opening ceremony on TV and the longing to have been there; chatting on the tube with one of the managers of the fleet of drivers employed to make sure the athletes get to the competitions on time (it had never occurred to me to think about how this is organised) and meeting a lovely Caribbean lady from Croydon at the volleyball at Earls Court who told me she had travelled to Cardiff by herself to see the football and had spent hours on that damn website trying to get other tickets, and of course seeing the competitions themselves.

I felt nervous and excited at the O2 Arena (renamed North Greenwich Arena for the Games - sponsorship issues and all that). I so wanted Israel's Alex Shatilov to win the floor exercises and despite doing extremely well, a coupe of very minor mistakes held him down to sixth position behind the flawless demonstrations of Chinese, Japanese and Russian gymnasts. There was agony in the women's vault when one of the Canadian athletes injured herself on landing and was unable to complete her second vault. There was also ecstasy from the tall, blonde Romanian gymnast who took the gold medal with a very big score to the obvious displeasure of the sour faced runner-up!

But none of this compared to the breathless tension of watching the men's pommel horse. The auditorium was awash with Union flags and thousands of people just willing Louis Smith to win the gold for Britain. He was the last of the eight competitors to perform and the wait was pure torture. More heartbreak as one of the Hungarians came off the horse and had to remount to continue his routine. The younger British gymnast Max Whitlock performed out of his skin and took an unexpected lead as the fourth of eight men to perform, just about bringing the house down with the roar from the crowd. And then we had the experienced Hungarian gymnast - Krisztian Berki who performed faultlessly with a combination of hand stands, flairs, scissors and assorted speedy and unbelievably difficult twists and turns to easily head the field. Fantastic. And worrying for the Brits. A big group of Hungarians chanted "Hungaria, Hungaria" and made more noise than their numbers would have led us to expect.

And then Smith took the platform. Deafening roars from the crowds. Flags waiving. Then silence. His routine was stunning, technically the most difficult of all we saw and attracting the highest tariff in terms of scores but making it very difficult to execute. A few cheers as he progressed and some clapping, but for perhaps one minute the crowd sat in terrified silence. A great dismount. A massive massive roar and then the score came up. The same as the Hungarian! Surely they had tied and it was a gold medal? But no, the rules defer to the best marks for execution in the event of a tie and the Hungarian did marginally better. Silver not gold. A groan and then rapturous applause as the crowd saluted Smith's achievement and also realised that Whitlock had got the bronze and two Britons would stand on the podium.

The medal ceremonies took place directly after each of the finals and we soon saw two Union flags, flanking the Hungarian flag of the gold medallist as we stood for his anthem. Very moving and emotional but more so for me was the awarding of the medals to the background of Vangelis' Chariots of Fire theme. There was something very British about the moment...

And then a mad dash across London to Earls Court to collect the volleyball tickets and to watch the games. This was my first time at a "real" volleyball game and I wasn't disappointed. Fast, furious, noisy, physical and demanding total concentration I could easily become addicted to this sport. There seems to be a great deal of ritual surrounding the game with much high-fiving, synchronised sweeping of the court during time-outs and at changeover at the end of a set and near hysterical celebration and chanting from the fans. Both my teams lost...Turkey went down 3-0 to the USA as did Serbia to Brazil, but both teams but up a better fight than this would indicate. Completely out of character, I found myself cheering, groaning and taking part in a Mexican wave as the evening progressed. Most entertaining of all were the Brazilians who burst into song and dance for just about every point their team won and also the young Turkish man who rallied his team's supporters with chants of "Turk-ee-ay. Turk-ee-ay". It was over too soon, but I still had my wrestling tickets yet!

Who would have thought that the strange child in the cold northern bedroom would one day sit in not one but two Olympic venues in one day and witness real live Olympic competition, not to mention traveling to places a little more exotic than Switzerland (which I still intend to visit)? The strangeness persists a little - I like looking at lengthy lists of results on the Olympic website...

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