Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Beijing — Day 4 Diving and Basketball

Today was another full day of Olympic action. We've settled into a good routine in the mornings and are able to get ready and get out pretty quickly. Our first event today was the Men's 3M Springboard semifinal at the National Aquatics Center, aka the Watercube, on the Olympic Green.

Finally the Olympic Green!

I've been dying to get in there since we got here, but as I wrote previously access is restricted to people who have an event ticket for one of the venues on the green. No ticket, no entry.

We got a shuttle from the hotel and got there really fast, so we had a little more time to walk around before the diving began at 10 am. No cars or buses are allowed on the Green, so we had to get out a good half mile away or so at the main entrance. Yes, the main entrance is a half mile from any of the venues. The park itself is maybe 2 miles long or so. It has it's own subway line with 4 stops. We decided to good ahead and catch the subway and go farther up than the arenas and walk back so that we could look around.

The complex has a total of 9 sport venues, pavilions for the broadcast companies including the huge broadcast pagoda next to the Bird’s Nest, pavilions for all the major Olympic sponsors, concert areas, fountains and tons of sculpture. We didn’t have a lot of time, so we didn’t do much more than walk back from the subway stop to the Bird’s Nest and Watercube. One other piece of information you need to fully paint the picture is how hot it was this morning.

It was jungle hot, as in watch out for the anacondas and poison blow darts Amazon hot. And if it were any more humid, we would have needed snorkels. A walk that took us about an hour ended up leaving both of us… moist.

Anyway, the center of the Green is a wide median with streets on either sides and then additional walkways outside the street lanes. Many of the sponsor pavilions are on this median. We crossed over to the side with the Bird Cage and started walking towards it. We noticed that this side had an sunken area that was about 2 stories deep that ran parallel to the main median and streets. There are more sculptures down there — we saw one that caught our eye that looked like drips of liquid mercury with one drip caught just as it was landing. When we got down there to take a closer look, the vertical drip was actually a rabbit. I have no idea why it is a rabbit. There were no explanatory plaques or info anywhere. There was also a McDonald’s down there, a performance area and additional large art installations.

Back up to the main level, we found a cross street that gave some great angles on the Bird Cage and Pagoda broadcast building. We did some tourist poses. Pretty much any time we stop to take pictures, people ask me to help them with their cameras and/or to use their camera to take pictures of them and whichever landmark they are interested in. As I wrote before, the Chinese people seem to love getting their photo taken in front of stuff. With the Bird Cage, I can understand since I did it to. They tend to take it to crazy town level though. There are wall posters in most venues that show a group of people having fun at the events. I think it is meant to encourage people to be courteous to others — one of those Chinese mass behavior modification efforts. Chinese people are constantly getting their photo taken in front of those posters. They do it in front of pretty much anything that has any possible tie to the Olympics. I chalk it up to them being totally new to this whole big event thing and to being honestly proud to have the Olympics in their city. It’s still pretty comical at times.

Once we got to the base of the broadcast Pagoda, I was finding it hard to get a good angle to shoot it. There is a lot of crap around it and it’s heavily guarded. We thought we’d try to find the NBC booth since the Today Show has been broadcasting live. We found it, and even though we were there during normal show hours, nothing was going on. Of course, 8 am in the morning Beijing time is not really normal broadcast hours in the US. We are 12 hours ahead of NYC. Duh.

On final approach to the Bird Cage, I noticed a large walled off area right outside the plaza around the stadium. On tip toes, I was able to see that it was the warm up track and field. I’m not sure why they would wall it off. All it did was make people come over to look and half climb the fence.

The Bird Cage itself is a huge building. It basically is a full-size stadium with an exposed superstructure. You’ve all seen it on TV, I’m sure. Up close and personal, the beams are truly massive and seem to twist and roll in ways that don’t seem architecturally sound. One of the really cool things about it is how the sunlight bounces around. I hope the photos I took accurately show what I mean. There’s almost a facetted look to it. We came in on the side in shadow. I took a few shots and decided to walk around to the sunlit side to get some shots over there. Did I say this building was huge? It took almost 15 minutes to walk around. Since we’re going to be back here for at least one more day (we have track and field one morning), I didn’t get too crazy with the Bird Cage photos. We did decide that on one of our remaining free days we would come down to the Green and see if we could buy some scalped tickets so we could get in for a night event and see how it all looks at night. We almost don’t care what the event is and may not go to it. I just want to get in at night.

On to the Watercube. This has to be one of the most unique buildings in the world and is certainly one of the most amazing Olympic venues. It certainly puts the basketball arena to shame. By now, everyone has seen what it looks like from the outside — a grid of interlocking, irregular bubbles. Inside, that theme is continued. There is a main wall next to the entry way leading into the seating area that uses the same bubble shapes, but is made up of flexible plastic and has to be inflated with air.

There are also interior water walls and reflecting pools that keep the interior much cooler than other air conditioned buildings we been into. Everything is designed around the bubble theme. There are bubbles in the counters at the info booths. The walkway is configured to undulate like a wave. The seating includes blue seats at the bottom with white seats at the top. In between the white seats start from the bottom in a random pattern increasing in frequency as they go up, like rising bubbles in water. It is by far the most thoroughly thought out building we’ve seen so far.

Men’s 3M Springboard semifinal

The seating area inside the Watercube is really relatively small. I would put it at 7500 or so max. One side of the seating is set aside for media, photographers, TV cameras and all the other specialized sections for dignitaries and athletes (that rarely get used except for final rounds). For the diving competition, only one end of the building was being used, so I estimate a quarter of the seats were being used. The seating is very steep and Angie and I found ourselves 3 rows from the top. You can’t get much more nose bleed than that. For the most part, the building was very cool due as I said. Unfortunately, none of that refreshing coolness reached the top of the stands. The seats were small, full of people and it was stifling… for an hour and a half. More of the moist.

While we weren’t surrounded by Americans like we have been previously, we were surrounded by other English speaking nationalities — Canada and Australia. The Canadian group was fairly large and all related in some way to one of the Canadian divers, Reuben Ross. They all had t-shirts that had their relation to him on the back — Reuben’s Cousin, Reuben’s Brother, etc. Unfortunately, he did fairly badly. He didn’t come in last of the 18 divers, so they had that going for them. He came in 17th.

The competition itself was fairly straightforward. There were 6 rounds of dives with 18 divers. There wasn’t much of a pause between each round, so the competition continued at a fairly even pace. Not ever having been to a diving competition and only having seen it briefly on TV, I was a little underwhelmed. Most of the dives looked the same. I get that a back 3.5 somersault is harder than a front one, or doing a twist one way might be harder than doing it the other way, but when you have 18 divers all doing some slight variation of 3 somersaults with a pike thrown in, it gets a little repetitive.

That repetition did help us in spotting the good dives in later rounds. It started to become more obvious when the dive was good or not after having seen 60 versions of them.

Since we had a late night at soccer last night and mixed in with the hot, close quarters, I started to nod off a bit. I know, how can you fall asleep at the freakin’ Olympics? I fought it, I really did.

Things started to perk up in the last couple rounds. One of the Chinese divers was so far out in front that the lower placed divers weren’t even besting his score after they completed an additional dive. His place in the final was set early on. Others’ positions were more up from grabs. If I remember correctly, the 4-12 spots changed sometimes fairly dramatically round to round. One of the American divers, Troy Dumais, had a lock on the top 4 spot through most of the competition. He had a couple bad dives at the end and fell almost out for qualifying for the final. The other American diver, Chris Colwell, did the reverse. He nailed his last two for some big scores and pulled himself out of the basement and into the final round.

All of the divers tried to pull out the stops for their last dives and a couple really nailed it. The leader, He Chong, went last and popped the highest score for any dive of the day. He could have fallen backward off the springboard and lost his speedo on the way down and would have still gotten first place. Instead, he let the other divers know he was boss. He wasn’t the only one who really uncorked one, which left me wondering why some of these divers couldn’t have performed better on their earlier, easier dives. If you can pull of a 90-100 score on your final dive, why are you hitting 70 point dives early on?

The one thing that I need to mention was the music played at the end of each dive. Right as the diver’s feet passed through the surface, the music would start blaring over the speakers. At first, it seemed like the person manning the iPod was trying to find music related to the nationality of the diver. That ended pretty quickly since there are only so many pop music songs which evoke Finland or Ukraine in some way. Unfortunately, the next playlist on the iPod was disco. Apparently, Dmitry Sautin is a Dancing Queen in his spare time. Angie, who was also nodding off, mused that they do the music that way to keep people awake.

So our grand plan was to leave the Watercube, catch the subway to the final stop on the other end of the Green, check out the main souvenir store that is supposed to have everything in one place (the arena-based souvenir selections SUCK), and then try the massive McDonalds for lunch.

Right.

First off, the line for the subway extended all the way up and out of the station, which meant there were several thousand people ahead of us. We decided to walk. Did I say the place was 2 miles or so long, maybe longer? Did I mention how hot and humid it was?

Once we got to the store and McDonalds, our normally people-loving attitudes were right out the damn window. Then we find out that the line for the store is being measured in hours. Forget that. So we head to the McDonalds. The ordering counter was maybe 50 feet long with a register every couple feet. The mob of people was 10 deep. After standing there, being pushed, jostled, getting cut in front of and sweating like Nixon in a televised debate, I was ready to initiate an international incident. And on top of that, the menu was limited to just a few items, none of which were localized in any way. Feh.

We ate outside and needed to find a cab to get us over to the basketball arena on the other side of town. Of course, we discover that no cabs are allowed at the back entrance to the Green and we have to all the way back to the main entrance. Since the last subway stop was nearby, we went down there hoping that the crowds weren’t too bad. We were able to get a seat before the masses got on, so that was decent. We’re getting pretty used to the subway here, so we were able to navigate around and get to our cab in about a half hour.

Now, as I wrote previously, our tickets for the night’s games included one session of two games with us sitting behind a metal bar and glass panels. Unacceptable. We had talked about finding some better seats via the scalpers and did a quick walkthrough of them before going in. They all had tickets for the first session and not the second, so we went to plan B — seat hopping.

I’ve described the process before. The Chinese seem to have no regard for what their tickets mean. An open seat in a better location is on open invitation. At times, upwards of a third of the people in a given section don’t have tickets for the seats they are sitting in. We decided to give it a try for the second session, which included the US/Korea game. Before that, we had Belarus vs China and Australia vs Czech Republic.

Game 1 — China vs Belarus

Again, the Chinese crowd was really into the game. The flags were everywhere and the Cha Yo cheer was almost non-stop. The Chinese women did really well, although they had some rough spots that I think a more skilled and talented team will do better at exploiting than Belarus did. The Belarus team looked out of their depth a bit. They were fouling like crazy and could not keep the ball under control. Add to that inconsistent shooting and they never really had a chance.

The interesting thing about this game was that Donna Orender was sitting just a few seats away from us. Someone with a USA Basketball shirt came down and got her after awhile and I didn’t see her come back.

Game 2 — Australia vs Czech Republic

Damn. Talk about a statement game. The Aussies dominated the Czech. The Czech team only had 27 points after three quarters. Truly amazing defense against a mediocre offense.

The bigger story is, of course, Penny Taylor going down with what looked like an ankle injury. I don’t know if the broadcast picked up her scream, but man did we ever hear it.

She got fouled under the basket and let out a little yelp with the foul — the Aussies were already up pretty big and about half the Chinese fans left after the first game so it was fairly quiet — and then let out a scream when she came down and suffered the injury. They don’t show any kind of replays on the big screen (in any venue we are discovering), so it wasn’t clear to us what happened. All I know is that she was down for a long time and had to be helped off.

A couple of the Czech players were standing over Penny while the trainers worked on her. One reached down to either pat her or offer a hand. LJ came over and really bitched the Czechs out, telling them to leave her alone and back off. She was pretty steamed the rest of the way and took it to the Czech team. Don’t piss her off, even if it seemed like they were trying to be nice.
Even without Penny, the Aussies easily handled the Czechs. In the stands, the Aussie contingent was still large, but a lot more subdued. Even before Penny’s injury, they weren’t nearly as loud as they were during the last game. Maybe they are saving it up for the next rounds.

Game 3 — USA vs Korea

Ok, so we got back into the arena (they kick us out between sessions), and went to our ticketed seats. As we sat there strategizing where we might go — we were thinking about moving back a couple rows and offering our seats to anyone who we had taken seats from — and spotted that the mid-section usher was gone from his post. We looked around and though to go for it. We kicked it down into the cush seats at about row 10 or so. Just to be extra bold, we went for the aisle seats at mid-court. We sat there nervously for about a half hour. Our plan in case we were challenged by the actual ticket holders was to play dumb like we misread our own tickets and move to nearby seats. We decided on where we’d move to ahead of time so it didn’t look like we were searching for open seats, not that the Chinese who do this really care about that.

The game got underway and so far, no problems. We actually made it to the half before the two people with tickets showed up. Luckily for us, there were still 4 empties right next to us in that row, so we just moved down. We made it the whole game with no problems. It wasn’t until the period between games that the rest of the actual ticket holders showed up. By that time, most of the people in the seats in our immediate area were seat hoppers. We ended up moving sections, but still in the lower area. We made it through the second game as well. The next round of games has us up in the nosebleeds. There won’t be any easy seat hopping for that situation. We’ll have to go the scalping route and plan on getting to the arena earlier than normal so we can work the line.

The game itself was a lot of fun to watch. The US was rolling and was able to do what I thought might happen once Korea got to play a really good team — slow down their shooters. Korea has some great shooters, but not much else. Their defense isn’t all that strong and they don’t have anyone who can really play center or power forward. Given that, Fowles had a monster night. Leslie was on the verge of doing so, but got into foul trouble. The US as a team put on a solid show and easily won the game.

A couple of in-the-stands items.

For a short time, Candace Parker’s mom was sitting in front of us. She had to move because she was in the wrong section. We tried to get her to take the seats next to us, but she didn’t and moved over with a group of Americans on one side who included a lot of coaches, including former Storm assistant coach Heidi VanDerveer, and other players’ families.

The trend I was watching concerning how demonstrative US fans are at the games continued. There were many more US fans at this game, but still no where near the rabid support we saw from the Aussies. A few flags were waving, but no organized chants. Are we so afraid of being seen as rude or arrogant? Angie and were yelling like we normally do — at the refs, for some of the players, normal stuff — and we were getting looks. I’ll keep watching how this plays out as the games get bigger leading up to the Gold medal match (if the US gets there).

Speaking of yelling things, I kept having to stop myself from yelling stuff about the Storm. I also had to stop myself from heckling Leslie and Milton-Jones when they were complaining about calls or imagined calls to the refs. The uniforms are different, but the anti-Spark conditioning is strong in this one.

The US men’s team came to watch, although I didn’t see Kobe. He might have been there since my view was partially blocked. A crowd of Chinese came down to take photos, but there were only half or less than how many came down with the Chinese men’s team showed up the other night.

Game 4 — Russia vs Spain

Finally, a close game… well most of the way.

Spain really came out hot, but Russia outlasted them and was able to dig themselves out of the whole in the second half and win handily. Unlike the last game we saw, the Russians played Becky Hammon as a starter instead of an off-the-bench shooter and gave her tons of playing time. She was really the difference in the game overall. The looming US vs Russia game will be very interesting indeed. I don’t think the Russians have the bench to hang with the US and they are very inconsistent. I think the US will find a way of capitalizing on the Russian’s rough shooting spots.

In the stands, I think we may have found a group who could give the Aussie fans a run for their money — Russian fans. They were out in force and making a ton of noise, all game long. It’s too bad these two teams won’t be facing each other in the next round. Seeing the Aussie fans go mano y mano with the Russians would have been a lot of fun (when the game means something, the final pool play game wasn’t really in doubt).

Well, tomorrow is our first day off from Olympic events, so we’re heading up to the Great Wall.

1 comment:

norwester said...

Cripes about the heat and humidity. And the size of the lines!

It's an interesting observation about the US fans being more subdued. I wonder if it is that sensitivity to being seen as the proverbial "ugly American." But I'm telling you, when I've traveled internationally, if there's a group of tourists blatantly flaunting the rules, it's usually not the Americans. I don't know quite where that rep comes from. Jealousy?

I loved your description of the cube. That's one of my favorite venues, as seen on TV. It was neat to hear about the areas we don't see during competition.

Penny: ankle sprain. Expected to be back for the Gold Medal game. That's better than LJ (for Storm fans, anyway): ankle surgery post-Olympics. Buh-bye Championship (or at least that's how I'm preparing myself).