Sunday 12 August 2012

London 2012, part 2: "Mon-ten-egro, Mon-ten-egro", ball games, wrestling and a posh drunk on the train.

So maybe the website wasn't so bad after all - I managed to get tickets for the women's Basketball semi-final at North Greenwich Arena (O2) between the USA and Australia and then the women's Handball final between Montenegro and Norway at the Basketball arena within the main Olympic park, hurrah! Securing tickets for an event in the main Olympic Park was a real thrill - I had been feeling left out, wanting desperately to see inside the Park whilst the Olympics were still on and here I was with a ticket for the final night (not counting the closing ceremony)!

We will return to this, but first the women's Basketball semi-final. Wow. Basketball has never really grabbed me, but I was certainly gripped by this match. Where did they get so many extremely tall women from? Several were more than 6 feet tall, one was 6 feet 5 and another 6 feet 7! The Aussies led early on but were eventually downed by the Americans after a thrilling, furious, aggressive match full of feinting,"time-outs", personal fouls (boooohhhh!!!) and some frankly bonkers supporters! I loved Liz Cambidge of Australia who was the top scorer for the match and according to my daughter advertises vitamins in Australian TV (!), was taken aback by her team mate, a 6 feet 5 inches Madonna lookalike (the singer, not the nice lady in the religious paintings) with legs so long that her shorts looked like a t-shirt dress and loved to hate Diana Taurisi, a brilliant player in the US team, but (in my not very well informed opinion) was unnecessarily aggressive, pushing and shoving her opponents even when they weren't in possession.

After the match I travelled across the water to Excel using the cable car and enjoying fantastic arial views of North Greenwich Arena (O2 to most people), of the Thames and of the new developments around Excel on the other side. By this time it was after 8pm and the streets around Excel were crowded with people coming to and from the venue as well as people like me - strolling and enjoying the atmosphere, stopping off at the pop up eateries for dinner or snaffling ice cream like me!

The Basketball was great but nothing compares to the handball final in the Basketball Arena. Actually getting there was a thrill - entering the Olympic Park, being so close to the main stadium, walking amongst the thousands of visitors from all over the world, being helped and directed by the "games makers" volunteers. And they really did make the games, helping everyone, smiling, joking and cajoling the huge crowds in order to make everything move smoothly.

After worrying that I wouldn't see the park in all its glory, I was not disappointed. The Basketball Stadium - very simply in its design but very effective, a white box with "golf ball" surfaces, the fantastic curves of the velodrome and the aquatics centre. But the highlight was being able to watch the men's 5000 metres final on the big screen in the area called "Park Live" together with thousands of other visitors. If the roar inside the stadium hadn't been so huge (and we could hear it several hundred yards away), then Mo Farah would have heard us cheering from our patch of grass by the screen. Every time he moved closer to the front, thousands of supporters cheered, screamed and waived their flags in support. But this was nothing compared to that final terrifying lap where he took the chance, took control and held off his opponents to cross the line first for his second medal of the Games. Mad cheering. People crying. Almost hysterical but a moment not to have missed.

And not too long to recover before the start of the Handball final. I first saw handball in Israel where my friend Barak plays for one of the leading teams. Its a great game, easy to follow, very fast but skilful and again, very physical. Montenegro versus Norway. The Norwegians were the reigning Olympic and World Champions. The Montenegrins were in their first Olympic tournament representing a country that had never won a medal in any sport. The stadium was Norwegian wall to wall. They had even drafted in some Danes carrying posters saying "We are Danish but tonight we are Norwegian". Well, I had no choice did I, but to become a temporary and honorary Montenegrin? This boosted their fan numbers by many percent, but I am not sure they really needed me. A few minutes after the game started, three extremely glamorous and excitable Montenegrin women arrived, sat in the row in front of me and set up a continuous chant of "Mon-ten-egro, Mon-ten-egro", dancing for every point their team won and somewhat winningly one of them turned around and said "I wish I understood what is going on"... Well the Norwegians won, but only just, 26-23, and I don't care how much the Norwegians celebrated or how happy the Vikings in the audience were, I don't believe anyone was happier than the Montenegrin team as they were presented with their country's first ever Olympic medal, jumped onto the podium and did a little celebratory dance. I went home happy.

Thirty minutes later on the packed tube home, there was a real party atmosphere with rambunctious celebratory French passengers, friendly atmosphere and unfortunately a posh English woman so drunk that when she first spoke I didn't realise which language she was slurring. Nothing worse than a posh drunk. Her dear husband was somewhat embarrassed as she shouted that she thought it had all been great, that it compared to the "Jean Michel-Jarre concert at Docklands daaaahling except I was freezing my bollies off then". Delightful. She sounded as if she had been on the Bollie to me but sadly lost some of it when hanging her crimson face through the window between carriages making strange noises at the people in the next carriage. High spirited perhaps, or just full of spirits I was glad to avoid a cleaning bill by getting off at the next stop.

I loved the Handball and also enjoyed the freestyle wrestling at Excel - somewhat different to those staged bouts that used to be televised on Saturday afternoons when my mum would be doing the ironing in front of Word of Sport or Grandstand, whichever it was. This was serious stuff and a real "Olympic" sport dating back to ancient times. The mat was graced by wrestlers from most of the "stan" - Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan not to mention Azerbaijan (OK so its not a stan but it sort of fits) as well as Cubans, Canadians, Ukrainians, Turks, Americans and Japanese. I hadn't realised how technical this sport is or how quickly the lead can change or a both come to an unceremonious end with  one contestant being thrown and pinned to the ground by his shoulders. Gold medals for Japan and USA, two medal ceremonies and that was it, my Olympics over.

Writing this watching the closing ceremony at home, I can't believe the 17 days have passed so quickly, so peacefully and so excitingly. I don't want it to be over or London's mood to be lost. So, the plan is to  see if the Paralympics website is any easier to deal with and to take Portuguese lessons as soon as I can...its only four years to Rio in 2016!

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