While I was watching the 2008 Beijing Olympics my then 13 year old daughter Bríd, declared that she would like to go to the next summer games in London. It seemed like a good idea and, reckoning it is likely to be the nearest the Olympic Games will ever be to Ireland; I agreed to bring her to the London 2012 games. Thankfully we both have survived the intervening years, and I have now fulfilled my promise.
Securing tickets was troublesome. Eventually I landed tickets for mens Volleyball in Earls Court on Sunday and womens Basketball at the Olympic Park on Monday. Any accommodation problems we might have had were solved by an invitation to stay my friends John and Julie Gilligan and family. With all our ducks in a row, as it were, Bríd and I headed off to London last Friday.
We arrived into a London city that was just three hours away from the opening ceremony. There were Olympic Information volunteers to be seen at everywhere in the airport. It was obvious however, that there was an air of nervous anticipation in the city.
The volunteers were anxious to help; even when they could give no practical help. To paraphrase the old joke; “Why did the old lady cross the road? Because the Olympic volunteers thought they were being helpful and carried her across.”
Our taxi driver was anxious too. He was worried about road closures and traffic jams.
It appeared to me that most of the 27 million or so Britons who sat down to watch the opening ceremony did so with a feeling of apprehension of what London 2012 would bring. The opening ceremony allayed all their fears. It was a triumph in morale boosting and reassurance for the organising committee.
Saturday morning was a beautiful morning. It was reminiscent of the type of summer mornings we used to have in Cork during the last century. As we were not too far from Hampton Court we decided to head up and watch the early stages of cycling road race.
We found a viewing spot at that roundabout near Hampton Court which gave us a good view of the cyclists. They were leaning to their right to negotiate the roundabout. As they whooshed passed us, they leaned to left and exited the roundabout.
The entire episode took about 20 seconds. A cavalcade of support cars, vans and ambulances followed. Once they passed the show was over.
The crowd which had been three or four deep broke up and began to about their daily business. We headed back to “Base Camp Gilligan” to pick up the race on television. We watched the race develop during the nine circuits of Box Hill then headed over to Hampton Court Way to watch the peloton zip past (again) before another enormous and cheerful crowd. After they passed we dashed back to TV for the final 10k. Team GB with new Tour de France champion, Bradley Wiggins were a disappointment for the locals. Nevertheless, it was a great achievement for the organising committee who got almost 1m people out to watch the race, and the vast majority of them only saw 20 seconds action.
Bríd and I headed to Earls Court on Sunday while the Gilligans headed to Olympic Park to see Basketball and Hockey.
I had never seen a live volleyball game before last Sunday. It is a very entertaining game which requires teamwork, tactical knowhow and courage. Here are a few facts I bet most people do not know. Volleyball was first played in 1895. It was designed by PE instructor, William Morgan as gentle game for older members of the Massachusetts YMCA. It was originally called “mintonette” but changed to volley ball in 1896. The name became one word (volleyball) in 1952 and has been an Olympic sport since 1964.
We saw two games; Argentina v Australia and the USA v Serbia. The Arena looked to be about 85% full. Argentina always had the Australians at arms length but, as is befitting an Olympic Games competition, there were some very brave and courageous efforts from players on both sides. Argentina won by three sets to nil.
The second game was more competitive and of a higher standard. The USA defeated Serbia by three sets to nil. I would think that Serbia, even though they lost, have a better team than Argentina. Four teams from the group will qualify for the quarterfinals. From what I saw, expect the USA, Serbia and possibly Argentina to make the quarterfinals.
We arrived back at the Gilligan house about 10pm and swapped notes on our experiences of the day. We felt we had had a great day but they were adamant we should withhold judgement until we experienced Olympic Park. They were correct.
Nothing – not Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium with the roof closed, not Croke Park not even the new Yankee Stadium – can compare with the enormous complex that is Olympic Park. It is huge. It takes 40 minutes just to walk from the entrance gate to the opposite side. The place is about the size of Tralee (including Blennerville) with massive sports arena, restaurants, shops and other buildings dotted all over the place. I cannot be sure but I suspect there was up to 160,000 people in the complex on Monday.
When we arrived about 11.30 and the entire place was agog with excitement. Our games were not due to begin until 2.30 so we explored as many of the public places as we could get to.
The Basketball arena is amazing. It is a temporary structure which will be dismantled after the games. It was full (15,000 people) for the first game of our two-game session. Australia played France. It was a ding-dong struggle with Australia making the early running then being out played by France and falling 11 points behind midway through the third quarter.
Australia then regained the initiative and reduced the gap to one point by the end of the third quarter. With four seconds to go France held a three point lead. France were awarded two free throws and scored on point to make it a two point game. Less than a second later France was awarded two free throws and also missed one. That left Australia three points down with 3.2 seconds on the clock. Australia had no option but to try a “Hail Mary” shot from inside their on half of the court. The buzzer sounded while the ball was in mid air. Everyone watched as it hit the back board and dropped through the hoop. Draw game. A huge roar went up from the 15,000 in the arena.
The comeback had knocked too much out of Australia and France pulled away to win the game by five points in overtime. The excitement also knocked a lot of the life out of the crowd for the second game in which Russia defeated Brazil rather easily.
It was almost 8.30 before we left Olympic Park. The competition was still in full swing in most of the arenas. The volunteer stewards were still working flat out too. We left the greatest show on earth to the cries of “safe journey home”.
All good things come to an end. We arrived home last night with a stack full of Olympic memories. The Olympic dream fulfilled its promise. More importantly, I fulfilled my promise, that’s priceless.