07 August 2012

Olympics Week One Ramblings

Olympic rings at Wimbledon
I spent the past week on vacation in London. I had the good fortune of having family in the city which meant a free place to stay. It also happened that the Olympics were in town. In my 8 days I managed to see handball, tennis, beach volleyball (x2), basketball, athletics (aka track and field), water polo, cycling, and the triathlon.

The games have drawn up plenty of chatter ranging from cheating badminton players to the improbable comeback win in the women's 400 IM. Seeing that I was in London, I felt the need to join the useless chatter with some observations that are bound to cross heavily in the unsubstantiated territory often occupied by writers like Tom Friedman.

London is Empty

The government warned of massive delays in crowding. Citizens were told to take vacation to avoid the looming mess caused by an influx of hundreds of thousands of visitors. It seems that the scare tactics worked to some extent as London was not very crowded at all. Reports in the local papers indicate that shopping in high traffic areas is down and it is estimated that many Europeans skipped the games fearing crowds.

Crowded London during the men's cycling
I biked around the Hyde Park area and had no trouble getting on with the cars. The tube was generally full with a mix of games attendees and Londoners, but it was rarely so crowded that train cars were over-packed. The Stratford station (location of the Olympic Village) was a bit of a mess, but that is outside of the city and expected when hundreds of thousands of people are trying to get in throughout the day.

Ticketing is a Mess

To prevent counterfeiting and illegal sales of tickets, a lottery was held for the UK. Some people got tickets and others didn't. For whatever reason, access to tickets for all people is not equal. The disbursement of tickets is skewed towards UK residents and much trickier and limited for all others. With family living in London, we were able to circumvent the system by having them order the tickets on our behalf.

Worse has been the gaping sections left open by press, delegates and Olympic teams. In each event, at least one full section was reserved so that delegates could drop in. Problem is that many were not there and an otherwise full stadium was marked by the blemish of a near-empty section. Public complaining led to the organizers releasing more tickets for the sections after delegations indicated how many tickets they would use for an event.

The new tickets were made available online only. Try going to the box office to buy tickets and you are met with instructions to go online. If you are not a UK citizen, you are sent back into the terrible system and limited access. If lucky enough to be from the UK, you get to go through a system that has you reserve tickets and then confirm their availability. In a matter of minutes tickets available to evening swimming can go from available to gone.

It becomes a bit like gambling where losing is the norm. However, a pair of small successes yielded tickets to athletics and beach volleyball.

The Olympic Village is Huge

When entering the Olympic Village attendees are lulled into a sense of confidence that the worst is over. After a sweaty train ride over, walking through the crowded station that leads into a chaotic mall area, security, ticket scanning and a stroll across a giant bridge you have made it to the village.

The giant stadium is right in front of you and you are flanked by the swimming pool and the water polo stadium. Alas, your tickets are for hockey in the riverbank arena. "I made it," you think as you notice a sign pointing you in the direction of the stadium with small type "25 minutes."

In front of the Copper Box.
The Olympic village is massive. It is a good 10 minute walk to the Copper Box (handball) and then much further if you want to see basketball, BMX and the velodrome. On the bright side, young people with oversized black backpacks attached to signs saying "beer" are plentiful and provide a quick pit stop for the walk.

I love walking and enjoyed getting around, but when running late for an event it was not much fun to cover the distance.

There are Athletes From Other Countries

The US bubble of Olympic coverage is most apparent when not in the United States.  The English papers give plenty of space to their athletes, but they can only say so much given the level of success relative to the US and China. That means more time showing other athletes and teams. Events I enjoyed the most did not involve US athletes. The Hungarians chanting the entire match during water polo and the entire crowd urging on Angola to upset Russia in handball were two highlights. These events may not have even made it on to NBC's woeful coverage which is sad from the perspective of being a sports fan.

Beach Volleyball and Gender

Beach volleyball has garnered some attention in regards to the women athletes. There was the debate over whether they could wear more clothing, the issue of photographing their butts, and the general concerns about discussions focusing more on looks than athletic ability.

All of that was on full display the past week. Teams opted for spandex in the evening matches when it was quite cool. Though the dancers had little choice. Huddled up behind the score boards between breaks, the entertainment for the fans wore bathrobes to stay warm in the mild London weather.

When it was their turn to perform, the fifteen or so girls wearing throw-back bathing suits and bikinis walked out accompanied by three men in board shorts. A short and rather simple performance took place as the audience watched and cheered along. I swear that there were more cheers for these sections than the actual event. I can say for certain that the female dancers at the basketball game were a bigger hit than Lebron, Kobe, Carmelo, Durant and the rest.

These dancers and the reactions are what are taking place in-between the lines and helped to further drive home the wide gender gap. A good sign of the issue being resolved will be the lack of need for attractive women to dance around for the entertainment of men while there is a break in action.

No Shortage of Support

A hack of a segment from Fox News questions patriotism at the Olympics. A commentator and host discuss the issue well away from London. Maybe they should ask people who actually went to the Olympics.

Every country was well represented, including the US, at the Olympics last week. Flags were everywhere, face paint was adorned and chants filled the air. The USA chants were plenty and loud, as were chants and songs for other countries. Maybe the two forgot that other countries compete in the games and have their own fans as well.

The Atlantic takes the ridiculous assertion head on:
What's especially crazy about all this is that after Gabby Douglas won the gold medal in the women's gymnastics all-around, she stood waving up at the crowd clad in a red, white, and blue jacket with USA written on the back. Later during the medal ceremony she wore a gray jacket with an American flag patch on the shoulder, stood atop the podium, and listened to "The Star-Spangled Banner" as an American flag was hoisted up above her. Even if that weren't all true David Webb's commentary would be nonsense, but the fact that it is all true adds to the comic ambivalence about factual accuracy that characterizes so much of what people say on Fox News. 
What other enterprise would turn Olympic gold for America into an opportunity to make Americans anxious and upset about allegedly waning patriotism? It's a poisonous approach to news.  
One challenge is that fans are spread out. At the USA basketball game there were plenty of US flags across the stadium, but chants were hard to start because fans were spread out. The smaller venues were better equipped for countries to show their pride in unison.

Let's also not forget that one of the most iconic and enduring images each Olympics is an athlete draped in his or her flag after winning a medal.

Olympic Volunteers Rock

With their purple tops and khaki pants, the thousands of volunteers at the Olympics are impossible to miss. Though it is not the bring colors that stand out as much as their presence, helpfulness and enthusiasm.

They sing, dance, cheer, give directions and overall make the Olympic experience better. Without them it would not go so smoothly and fans who are unsure what is going on would be entirely lost.

London should be proud by the corps of volunteers who work hard to make the event special for all in attendance.