Sunday, August 17, 2008

Beijing — Day 2 Basketball

We’re already old pros at this. We got up, hit the buffet and did the bus/subway combo to get over to the Beijing Olympic Basketball Gymnasium at the Wukesong Sports Center. A short walk from the train station (which by the way was Line 1 which, as logic would have it, was the first subway line built in Beijing. It shows, especially compared to the much newer lines just completed for the games. Lines 1 and 2 look like they are straight out of the 70s and not in a good way. They also have that old basement smell, ugh.) got us to the spectator entrance and security.

Before we get to the security check, because let’s face it — I’m packing large with my camera and all and at this point in our trip was feeling a little anxious about what might really happen when I get to the check point — I need to describe what it’s like outside the venues.

Every 20-30 feet or so, there are people selling small trinkets, mostly Olympic and Chinese flags, temporary face tattoos (which happen to be more Chinese flags), red headbands and sometimes mascot imprinted stuff like… flags. Basically lots of flags. Most of them seem pretty bored and will be standing there lazily waving their flaggy goods. Others, however, have fully embraced the capitalist attitude and are hyper aggressive. They step in front of you waving their goods at you (that sounded bad) and usually following you a bit, unless the crowd is large enough so that they can quickly focus their market-driven attention on someone else. We just hold up our hand and say, “No,” until they give up.

The other group of people we’re seeing more and more are the ones selling tickets. We were told before we got here and have seen several signs warning about how seriously ticket scalping would be punished. When we left the handball venue the other night, we walked past a subway entrance that had a decent representation of security, police and army personnel on one side and a huge sign warning about scalping, while the other side was literally lined shoulder-to-shoulder with Chinese people waving around event tickets. A lot of business was being done.

Outside the basketball arena, there were fewer people selling tickets, but they were there. Inside, we talked to a handful of Americans who have been taking advantage of the scalping to get into events. A couple people we talked to didn’t even have event tickets purchased before the got to China and have relied completely on scalped tickets to get in!

We’re not really looking to add more events, although we’re going to check a couple “sources” to see what’s available, but we will be seeing if we can upgrade our tickets for the Bronze and Gold medal women’s basketball games. After being in the arena and seeing where our current tickets will put us, we will be looking to do some bartering.

Today though, we bypassed all of that and reached the security checkpoint. Going through security has actually been very easy so far. The volunteers manning the checkpoints are polite and intent on keeping the flow of people moving smoothly. They do only let a couple people through the metal detectors at a time so that each person can be scanned with the walk-through detector, checked with a hand-held wand and have their bags go through an x-ray machine. Being that this was my first attempt with my camera gear — and I brought all of it, no sense in going small — I was apprehensive. My worries were unfounded. No one even blinked. In two minutes, I was through the machine, wand and x-ray and waiting for Angie who once again had to empty out her bag for a more thorough inspection (she’s carrying a lot of stuff).

The exterior of the basketball arena is kind of normal looking, compared to some of the other venues we’ve seen. The original plan, according to what I’ve read, was to have the entire exterior surface of the building to be giant video screens. It was going to either be too expensive or take too long to complete, so they covered it instead with undulating, perforated metal strips. Eh. The plaza outside the arena is also fairly bland. I guess we’re not really here to be wowed by the venue, right?

Inside the arena, unlike the handball court, the concourse went all the way around. There was only one souvenir stand through and the stuff they were selling wasn’t what I was expecting. I was hoping for, you know, event related stuff — jerseys especially. Nope, they had lots of towels, crystal things, mascot toys, books, but nothing that was tied to either basketball or the venue. Missed opportunity. If the souvenirs you can buy are the same arena to arena, chances are you’re going to buy the two or three things you want and then not buy anything else. Maybe this whole capitalism thing hasn’t sunken in all the way yet.

The arena itself is about the same size as KeyArena. Same capacity and similar setup with a lower bowl and upper bowl separated by a suite section. The upper bowl looks a lot more steep than the Key and the lower bowl is a little more flat at the bottom. The middle section of seats is at a great angle — unless someone was standing we had a clear, unobstructed view. This won’t be the case in the near future. At row 17, there is a concrete wall separating the permanent seats from the temporary bleachers near the court. It looks like the entire section of lower seats can be removed depending on the event. The wall itself is short enough to not pose a problem. The metal and glass section above the concrete will be a problem. There is a thick metal bar right at eye level held up by vertical supports every other seat or so, with thick, dirty and scratched glass in the open areas. I understand that they needed something there to keep people from falling over the wall when the lower seats are removed, but there was some extraordinary poor planning when it came to executing where the tube and glass section sat. We’re going to try and move our seats for that game, I think. It’s not just that taking photos will be out of the question, simply watching the game itself will be screwed up.

A good third of the seating is sectioned off for media, dignitaries and other athletes. With as much of the seating blocked off as there is, I’d estimate that a full house may only reach 12,000. For the most part, the blocked off sections stayed empty the entire day. There were only ever a handful of press or photographers present at any one time. The only time the athlete section saw any action was during the China/Czech Republic game when most of the Chinese men’s basketball team showed up. That sent the crowd into a tizzy. When people saw Yao Ming come in, there was a huge roar from that end of the building and a mob ran down to get as near as possible to him and his teammates to take pictures. All day long up to that point, there had been a line of volunteers sitting at the end of each row in the athletes’ section, even though the section was also roped off. It didn’t make any sense why they needed to be there until Yao showed up. It was like a thin, blue-shirted wall against the masses.

Another thing we saw right off were the sections of Chinese people who were being led to cheer. It was pretty obvious during some of the more poorly attended games. You would have sparsely populated seating and then a full section, all of them armed with thundersticks and pom poms. They were mostly indiscriminate about for whom they cheered, but they were very enthusiastic.

First game: Spain vs Mali

We had a couple of Americans on our left, Ken and his son Kevin from Green Bay, and an elderly Chinese woman and her daughter on our right. We chatted quite a bit with Ken and Kevin. Of course, as soon as they identified themselves as coming from Green Bay, any other Americans, us included, started asking questions about Brett Favre. I’m sure they are probably getting sick of talking about Favre. They were the first Americans we’ve gotten to talk to since we started our trip, so we kind of talked them to death a little bit.

At the beginning of each game, the players are introduced one at a time and form a single file line at the free throw line in front of their bench. The faced us because the flags for all the countries competing in the tournament were ringing the arena above and behind us. Something I hadn’t noticed before is that each player uses a number by position and not by choice, meaning the same position on each team has the same number. After each team is introduced, the national anthem for each country is played. The arena is has one of those ring video screens around the top of the suite section, again just like KeyArena, and the scoreboard itself has 4 massive video screens at the bottom with a small ring video screen under it, along with eight smaller screens at the top. During a national anthem, computer animated flags for that country are displayed on all these screens. It was impressive to be suddenly flooded with the color of each country as it’s anthem was performed. After the anthems, the teams trade small gifts from their homes with each other as a sign of good will. Once they both go back for one last pregame huddle, the starters come out to center court, each player shaking hands with the refs and then with the other team. Then it’s all left to the jump ball.

As the game began and Mali showed that sometimes being at the Olympics might have to be enough — they were really, really bad — the older Chinese woman next to me was getting more and more irritated. Every time Mali missed an easy basket or lost the ball on a bad pass, she would groan or spit out some line of Chinese that didn’t really need a translation. The two of us started to have a conversation of sorts, expression our exasperation at Mali’s futility. There would be a missed, open layup and we’d look at each other and shake our heads. She obviously knew basketball and was thoroughly unimpressed by Mali and Spain. I think, like us, she was there to see some good basketball.

As it became painfully clear that Mali was totally outmatched, even by the mediocre Spanish team, the Chinese crowd started to cheer for Mali more and more. Any time a Malinese player looked like she had a chance to do something positive, the crowd would start to make some noise and then either groan when she failed or cheer when she succeeded.

A word, or several, about the timeout and halftime entertainment: the Beijing Dream Dancers, followed by the Beijing Dream Performers. The dancers were split into two groups: an eight-woman Chinese group that did most of the performances; and a larger group of Caucasian women who did more of the later games (I say Caucasian, because they weren’t necessarily American. I think they might have been Eastern European). The Chinese group performed several times during each game. Over the course of 6 games, they wore the same costumes once. Picture lots of long hair being whipped around, bare gyrating mid-riffs and loud dance/techno music. Oh, and smiles, smiles, smiles. The dancing itself was a mix of the normal arena dance team moves and not-so-arena-like traditional Asian dance moves. The other group likewise was a mix of the normal stuff with what I would call Russian or Eastern European traditional dancing.

The Beijing Dream Performers were all men and were either what I called the Shaolin Basketball Troupe or more standard cheerleader types. The Shaolin group came in and did that kind of mock martial art fight dance thing, which was impressive, but did it while working in a basketball and dribbling. It was a little odd. Under the title of Dream Performers was also a group who did the circus dunks off a trampoline.

The last group of dead time performers were the mascots. Now most people think the Olympic mascots are cute. That may be, but seeing them in action as people in mascot suits jumping around, throwing t-shirts, doing the hand-to-the-nonexistent-ear I can’t hear you thing, well, it was disturbing.

Anyway, Mali lost horribly. We chatted and/or grunted with our seatmates, and then the Aussies showed up.

Game 2 — Australia vs Russia

Oh boy, did the Aussies show up.

We’ve seen 8 Olympic matches so far — 2 handball and 6 basketball — and I can say with confidence that no one does being a fan like the Aussies. The Germans were impressive during handball and the Chinese have overwhelming numbers for everything else, but the Aussies have a presence that can’t be denied or ignored.

We ended up sitting with of a small group, including LJ’s cousin, that was relatively calm compared to the one massive group who sat behind the Aussie bench. They have to have made it on the broadcast, because they were full on decked out with wigs, costumes, flags, face paint, blow-up kangaroos — you name it. Several big strapping guys were dressed up AS the team, complete with unitards and blond wigs. Now I know the players don’t necessarily like the unitards and I thought I had read that they were ditching them for normal basketball shorts and jerseys. Maybe later, because they’re still in them. Unfortunately for the rest of us in the stands, so were these guys… and they were going commando. Commando.

All I can say is that they grow them big down under.

Aussies! — 2

Next to me (now between me and the elderly Chinese woman) was a young Aussie woman (I don’t recall her name, sorry) who was sporting a couple flags. In front was LJ’s cousin and a couple of her friends. All of them had on the Aussie colors. We ended up on the big screen 3 or 4 times because of the flags.

Ah, getting on the big screen. The Chinese are CRAZY about getting on the big screen. They go nuts when they get on and go to great lengths to get noticed by the camera people. It was a lot of fun to watch how excited some of them got, especially the very young kids and the older folks, and if whoever got on the screen actually did something like start dancing the rest of the crowd cheered like mad. The biggest cheers actually came when non-Chinese got up on the screen and either danced, like one Latvian guy did, or held up a Chinese flag. During the China/Czech game, that happened and the place erupted. An American guy sitting about 10 seats away from us had an American flag draped around his shoulders and was holding up a Chinese flag. The place went freakin’ nuts.

Back to the game.

We were sure to tell the Aussies around us who on their team we were cheering for and why. They of course agreed that LJ and Tully were brilliant, and that Penny and Snell were pretty good too. Once the game got underway, any of you who watched it know that it went from bad to ugly for the Aussies pretty quick. The Russians have always been accused of sandbagging in the early rounds to mask their game and to ambush their opponents in the later rounds. It certainly felt that way today, at least in the first half.

Becky Hammon, when she finally came in, took control and was hitting everything. The Aussie fans kept up their chants and cheers, but it didn’t seem to be helping much. It was about this time that the fairly large contingent of Russian fans made their presence known, chanting “Rus She Ah, Rus She Ah” (Russia pronounced as three, distinct syllables — something the other Eastern European fans did for Lat Vi Ah and Bel Ah Rus. I guess there’s something to be said about having a country name with three syllables ending in “ia.”). The Russians weren’t as garishly dressed as the Aussies, but they were flag waving fools to be sure.

Anyway, Russia was up at the half by 12, mostly on the shoulders of Hammon and Abrosimova.

Angie and I intended to yell “Brick” at Becky Hammon during any of her free throws. We totally blew our chance. She had two free throws in the second quarter and we were too busy watching the crowd or chatting with our neighbors and didn’t realize we missed our opportunity until she’d already shot the second free throw. There will be a next game.

The issue of Hammon getting on the Russian team came up with the other, non-US fans. They may not have known the specifics, but they all thought it was fishy at best and wrong at worst. They were mostly irked that she was the reason Russia was doing as well as they were. No short, blond, gum-smacking American on the team and the Aussies would be in control.

Well, even Becky couldn’t hold the whole game, especially when she ended up being benched most if not all of the third quarter. The Aussies came out and destroyed Russia in the second half 50-28. All of the Aussie big guns went off, including Snell who was red hot from the outside. All our attention was on LJ and Tully, but Snell came out firing. After the game, we got a chance to see some of the Aussie players up on the plaza and I talked to Snell a bit. I told her she needs to send a game tape of this game to the Phoenix coaching staff and tell them “See what I can do with some playing time.” She laughed and agreed.

After the game, LJ’s cousin took us over to LJ’s parents and we got to say hello to her mom, Maree who recognized us from the Storm games they’ve come to. All the Aussie fans congregated outside the arena in the plaza and were having a great time. There was a news crew from Australia there talking to the guys in the unitards. Chinese people were mobbing any Aussie in costume and wanting to get a picture taken with them. It was a little comical that any foreigner who had a flag or even the slightest bit of home color on them — face paint, shirt, flag, whatever — instantly drew a crown of Chinese wanting to get their photo taken with that person. The Aussies, who were be far decked out more than anyone we’ve seen, literally had Chinese lining up for photos.

Later, when some of the players started filing out to find their friends or family in the group, I thought they would get some attention from the Chinese. Not even a little bit. It was flag man with the tights for a souvenir shot, not Penny Taylor or Suzy Batkovic. As I said, I went up and talked to Snell a bit. I said hello to Screen and Suzy. We waited around until Tully came out and talked to her a bit too. I asked her what Jan Stirling said during half time and Tully smiled and said “We all needed to kick ourselves in the butt a bit.” As we were talking to her, I noticed Becky Hammon coming out.

She was alone — no other Russians came out through the plaza — and I think was meeting her family up there. She was pretty upset with how the game went and was talking about how the rest of the team wasn’t paying attention to defense or what she was telling them when she was in. I asked her about being benched when she was the one who really sparked them in the first half and she just shrugged and said she couldn’t do anything about the rotations. She left with her family, both knees covered in huge bags of ice.
We also spotted Lucianne Bertieau, a player who was at a Storm training camp a few years ago but didn’t make the team, or was on the team for a very short time (I can’t remember which year). She was there to see a friend play and had her 8-month old daughter with her. She says that she’s quit playing basketball now that she has a daughter.

Game 3 — Korea vs Latvia

For this game, our seats were down much closer to the court and were much nicer and cushy, although the leg room was still pretty tight. We were again sitting next to Americans, this time on both sides. There was a couple from New York next to me who were WNBA fans. Next to Angie was a mother and son from Seattle. They were a couple of the people who didn’t have all their tickets purchased ahead of the games and were getting them on the street as they went. Angie talked to them more so I’ll let her relate their story.

With the ladies next to me being big WNBA fans, it was almost like sitting at the Key watching a Storm game. Sarcastic comments were flying about the refs and horrible calls — and I do mean horrible. There were several out-of-bounds calls that were flat out missed, including one right in front of us and a ref in which a Latvian player bounced the ball fully outside the line. No call. They would allow body blows under the basket but call hand checking out on the perimeter. It was a mad house. MAD HOUSE.

This was actually a very important game for both teams. Win and you’re into the medal round. Lose and you’re out. Both the American and Chinese coaching staffs were scouting the game. Before the game started, Angie stood up (we were within about 2 sections of the athletes’ section where the coaches were sitting) and yelled for Coach Donovan. Angie had on a green Storm shirt with a big logo so she’d be visible. I think it was Dawn Staley who saw Angie and pointed her out to Coach D. All four coaches waved to us.

The game itself was dominated by the Koreans in almost every way early except for free throw shooting. If the Latvians hadn’t been getting to the line as often as they did, they would have been blown out. The Koreans are excellent shooters and were playing really tight team ball. The Latvians, not so much.

We were excited to Sung Jun Min playing for the Koreans. The season she spent on the Storm was mostly wasted due to injury and very little playing time. I can see now what Coach Donovan saw in her when Anne signed her. She is a strong court leader and besides her shooting was in there scrapping for rebounds and setting up plays.

The Latvians made a push late in the game, probably realizing they were playing themselves out of a chance for a medal, but couldn’t overcome the Korean lead.

Fan-wise, there were a few, vocal Latvians. There were more Koreans of course and they were pretty loud. The interesting thing about this game and crowd noise was when the Chinese started to boo during Korean free throws. It was the first boos any of us had heard and it was a little shocking.

The other thing that we really noticed during this and the next game, more so than before because we were in much better seats, was the amount of seat hopping that was going on. The Chinese seemed to think that their tickets were more of a suggestion than any real indication of where they were supposed to sit. If they saw an empty seat in a better position than where they currently were, it was a rush to see who could get there first. The ushers, who were plentiful, checked tickets every time we left our section or left the seating area for the concourse. Let me be more specific. They checked OUR tickets. They weren’t checking everyone’s tickets. I can tell you we’re looking at this experience a lot differently.

On the one hand, the Chinese officials are trying to control everything, but they actually control very little. There seems to be a game going on in which the rules are plentiful and carry heavy punishments if broken but are only enforced if you are really obvious about breaking them. The goal of the game is to see how far you can go before getting noticed. If you can do something, everyone around you sees that and start doing it too. Before the officials can react, it’s too late to do anything without going overboard. With so many outside eyes watching, overboard isn’t an option. So, you have blatant ticket scalping going on under the No Scalping signs. You have 5 ticket checks to go through to get to your assigned seat only to find three people pushing each other out of the way to take your seat.

After the game, I went down to right behind the scorers’ table and got the attention of the Chinese woman doing the public address work in Chinese and asked her if I could get a shot of her and the guy who was doing the English version. She thought it was a little odd, but I explained I was trying to take in the whole experience and wanted to get their photo since they were a big part of the games all day long. While we waited for the guy, who turns out to be the announcer for the Cleveland Cavaliers, she asked me questions about where I was from and how our stay in China was going so far. She had never heard of T-Mobile, my magenta overlord and client I work on most at the agency. Anyway, after finishing an announcement, the guy came up, was a little perplexed why anyone would want his photo and posed for me.

Game 4 — Brazil vs Belarus

Brazil got their first win and even though Belarus is still going into the medal round, I think they are going to get swallowed by whomever they play. They looked really bad. Brazil looked relieved to win a game. Who knows what might have been if Iziane hadn’t taken herself off the team.

Game 5 — China vs Czech Republic

They kick us out of the arena after each pair of games, so we waited out front once again. The crowds started piling into the plaza, eager to see their national team play. The Chinese people that we’ve seen at the events are almost giddy about their national team. Lining up outside to get in, scores of people were having their pictures taken with the basketball arena in the background to prove they were here. Again, any foreigner with a flag was getting stopped. I got stopped by a group of guys who may have thought I was a pro photographer since they were eyeing my camera and wanted to get their photo taken with me.

Inside, it was a sea of red. When the Chinese national anthem was played, the whole arena sang, some of the Chinese around us sang the song with a lot of force and emotion. This is a huge deal for them. Then Yao Ming showed up, as I described earlier, and the crowd went crazy.

They had one main cheer they did. It was a call and answer. One person would start and say the call phrase and the crowd would answer “Cha Yo.” I’m not sure what it meant, but it was going on all game long, sometimes in small groups and sometimes with the whole arena in unison. I felt a little sorry for the Czech players who had to face that. It was impressive and had to be daunting.

The Czech team didn’t really have a chance and, although they made a push at the end, got rolled by the Chinese.

During this game, we were surrounded by Chinese with some Aussies there to cheer for their “9th state” as they called New Zealand and an American guy from San Diego. This is his seventh Olympics, and he’s another one who is relying on street tickets to get into events. He was also an old hat at the seat hopping game. Once the China/Czech game was complete, he made a beeline for some new seats a little closer to the action for the US/NZ game.

Game 6 — USA vs New Zealand

I’m almost sorry to say this was the most boring game of the day. New Zealand played well to start, but the US steamrolled them. Angie and I both were pretty exhausted by 12 hours of basketball. She fell asleep and I was nodding off.

About half the crowd left, especially once the US got up by 20+. In terms of fan presence, there were a lot of Americans there, but very few were dressed up or waving flags. I’m going to keep an eye on that to see if there might be a trend. It definitely seems so far that just about every other country is perfectly comfortable being as nationalistic as they want to be, but not so much with the Americans we’ve seen. It will be interesting to see if that holds out with other events.

After the game, we yelled for Sue who gave us a wave. We found a taxi and headed for the hotel. 15 hours total from start to finish, our longest day yet (I’m writing this Monday morning).

I shot 2700 photos — about 40GB. I’ll try to post some highlights, but I’m already two days behind now. I knew this would happen, but with this kind of quantity and no days off it is inevitable.

Day 3 brings us a bike tour of the Hutongs near the Forbidden City and a semifinal women’s soccer game tonight. More basketball tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

Great report! As for the guys in the bodysuits - a little background here!

Patrick said...

tip for handling the vendors...

say Boo Yao (pronounced boo yow)

it tells then you don't want anything in a nice way.

norwester said...

Yes, great report. We were only able to view half of the Russia-Aus game (it wasn't even streamed online), so we weren't able to see Becky take over the game. We were able to see the important part, though: the Aussies dominating.

The crowd shots on the broadcasts I've seen are not numerous. We've been looking for you and Angie in the crowd, though.

Thanks for the report. I can't imagine how exhausted you were by the end. Thanks for enduring. :)