Whistle-stop Olympics: Goodbye Personal Space

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Richard Browne goes to London and gets crushed, patronised and watches men hit each other with sticks.

Britain has smashed these Olympics. 22 golds at the time of writing, and with events involving boats and horses still to come today, that number could well rise.

Can I say that I have been a part of one of British sport’s greatest triumphs? In that I was in London for two days last week, was inside neither Olympic Park nor the Velodrome and saw no British competitors in action… well, maybe a very small part.

I was fortunate enough to be offered the opportunity to watch fencing – the men’s team Sabre – in the ExCel Centre. GB did not enter a team into this one, but it was fascinating nonetheless.

To the sport!

After watching Thursday night’s action on TV, which primarily consisted of Britons setting world records in the Velodrome, Friday morning came around and brought with it the daunting task of travelling across London during rush hour. Not just rush hour, but Olympic rush hour.

North London – where I had been staying – showed a few signs of the biggest sporting event on earth being in town, mainly the pubs advertising their live coverage. Those signs grew in number as the strands of the Underground drew us closer to the centre of the web.

The latter stages of Highbury and Islington to Stratford were something else. I had been on busy buses and tubes before, but with Stratford being the main station for Olympic Park, personal space was not so much put aside but thrown out of the window.

I did survive, perhaps due to my humming ‘My body’s nobody’s body but mine’ throughout the journey. And there was even a sighting of the main Olympic stadium itself, with a yoga-esque twist of the neck to peer out the window.

Breathing space recovered, we had made it to the ExCel Centre, home of such events as boxing, table tennis, weightlifting and fencing.

Warm up

The ExCel is a mightily impressive building, but I don’t study architecture so can’t tell you much more than that. The fencing arena was equally pleasing on the eye, four pistes of different colours for the competitors to face each other across. It is hard to describe: something of a cross between Star Wars and Guitar Hero will have to do.

The seats were largely taken up, or at least the reasonably-priced ones. Those places costing £45 or thereabouts were virtually full, those costing £450 markedly less so. Not that surprising really. It is interesting to note how the doom-laden stories of empty seats have disappeared amidst GB’s goldrush.

The arena announcers – as in, those people who introduced the teams and their members (three, plus one reserve) – were apparently so clued-up on fencing that their knowledge was “second to none”. They highlighted the world champions Russia as being the favourite for gold, and tipped China to have few problems in seeing off Romania in the quarter-final.

Unfortunately we were not allowed much more time to hear what the experts (or misguided fools, as the forthcoming results would suggest) had to say, as our ‘host’, a man who presumably was found in children’s entertainment, spend the periods between fencing patronising the audience to a gold-medal standard. “Clap your hands and stamp your feet really loudly so the fencers will come out for us,” he said, clearly forgetting that international fencers are not Santa Claus.

A storm of swords

Anyway, eventually that man left centre stage and the teams started their campaigns for glory. Sabre is the most rapid of the fencing disciplines, with points scored by both the tip and edge of the sword and the target being everything (bar the hands) waist up on one’s opponent.

Tactics are still important, and footwork even more so, although what we all really wanted were some flunges. That’s a flying lunge, by the way, which looks better than it sounds.

Directly in front of where we were sitting, South Korea steadily build up a lead over Germany. In the other matches, Romania gave China many problems and Russia dismantled the USA, while Italy and Belarus remained toe-to-toe throughout.

Korea, Romania and Russia won their matches simply enough, but Italy slipped several points down and looked beaten. Aldo Montano refused to accept defeat however, and his solo comeback won the crowd over to the Italians’ cause. His sudden-death victory that took his nation into the last four was greeted rapturously.

Our host sentenced us to death by Mexican wave; then the semi-finals were under way. Romania defied the predictions again, seeing off Russia with a flourish, while Italy could not mount a second last-gasp comeback against Korea.

In the end, Korea won gold as Romania ran out of steam at the last and Italy took bronze. But by that time I was on a train to Edinburgh, as we did not have tickets for the evening session’s medal matches and I was eager to return to chilly Scotland after baking in London’s summer heat.

The finish line

How can I sum up my brief encounter with London 2012? The quality of sport on show was as high as would be expected, with healthy doses of tension and drama despite no Britons in the competition.

Even the ‘Travel Armageddon’ many predicted could not spoil the experience. Yes, it was busy, but London is busy every day. And the ‘Games Makers’, the volunteers who pointed the way to buses and trains with foam fingers, were enormously helpful.

It was a pleasure to have been even the tiniest part of this event. Now bring on more GB medals and more Boyle madness/genius.

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