Friday, August 22, 2008

Beijing Day 6 — Athletics and Basketball

Our plan for today, since we again had tickets for a venue on the Olympic Green, was to go to the souvenir store first thing to hopefully beat the crowds. Neither of us was invested in the track and field events, other than being there and being in the Bird’s Nest, so if we missed a little at the beginning that would be okay.

The challenge for the morning though was the rain. The torrential, non-stop rain. If the previous days had been so humid that we felt like we were stepping into a sauna every time we went outside, today we were stepping into a water hose set on clear-out-the-protesters. We didn’t have any rain gear.

Our tour company gave us a ride to the venue, so we asked the driver to find someplace along the way where we could get a poncho or something (assuming that the no pointy stick rule for the getting into the venues would negate umbrellas). He found a small, hole-in-the-wall “supermarket” (about a quarter the size of a normal-sized US convenience store) and got us a couple ponchos. We had been seeing just about everyone on a bike wearing these big sturdy looking rain coats that covered them and their bikes. These were not them. They were basically plastic tissue paper with arms, a hood and snaps. Usable enough, except the Chinese are a very small people. Mine didn’t fit.

So we get to the Green and after running to and getting on the subway, we make it up to the Beijing Superstore.

It’s not open until 9, and it’s 8:15. It’s still raining like mad. There is about a 3 foot awning in front of the main doors and that’s it for cover.

We haven’t written much about the overall condition of the venues or city for that matter. The best two words I’ve come up with to describe the Olympic Green and all of the venues we’ve seen is hastily completed. There was clearly a get it done and screw the quality mentality involved with the construction of these places. Up to this point, the most annoying half-done feature of the parks has been the walkways. The pavers are very irregular, aren’t set flat in the ground, are loose, tend to rock when you step on them because the ground underneath them isn’t level. We’re constantly tripping or catching our shoes on them. Other things like the paint jobs on the buildings were slopped on (in lots of places, you can see tons of overspray on the sidewalk next to the buildings or find paint spills every where). One of the more disappointing things I saw was how dirty and dingy the Watercube is already. Once you get up close, it looks like the construction grime wasn’t cleaned off in places, especially inside where everything is translucent or white. None of this stuff is a deal breaker and understandable to a degree given the scope of what they tried to accomplish. But, I’ve been left asking if this is supposed to be the crown jewel in such a huge national effort why wasn’t there more attention paid to the details and quality issues?

Such as drainage. As in there is none. The area in front of the Superstore was a lake several inches deep. We pretty much had to walk through it, wet feet be damned. People started using the rope barrier stanchions as stepping stones to try and get through. It wasn’t just in that spot either. There was standing water every where. We gave up after awhile and tried to find spots that weren’t up to our ankles at least.

Anyway, we ended up standing under the little awning for 45 minutes or so waiting for the store to open. Luckily, there weren’t many people there until right before the doors opened, so we weren’t to crushed together.

We met and talked with Iris from Bristol, England. She was very excited about the day because she is good friends with one of the athletes on the Dutch Water Polo team, who were facing the US in the Gold medal match later in the afternoon. She described how the team’s goal was more to prepare for 2012 in London rather than medal here in Beijing. They were surprised to find themselves in the final and guaranteed a medal. As it turned out, we discovered when we got back to the hotel room after basketball, that the Dutch beat the US and won the Gold. While we of course would like to see the US win, after hearing Iris talk about her friend and the Dutch team, we are very happy that they were able to pull off the victory and that her friend was able to get the Gold to cap off her career. Iris, if you’re reading this, remember to send us an email if you ever come to Seattle.

The store staff were really slow in opening the doors. By the time 9:00 rolled around, there were about 50 people outside, most of whom were in the rain. People started banging or pushing on the doors. The building is temporary, so the whole wall tended to move when someone pushed on a door. Once the guy with the keys showed up and let us in, a number of Chinese went directly to the info booth and really started laying into the staff. We left that alone and went foraging.

Finally, an opportunity to spend money on stuff. We did pretty well, although the stuff we were looking for specifically didn’t seem to exist, so we found other stuff we liked. First thing, of course, was umbrellas… with the mascots on them.

After some successful shopping, we headed back to the Bird’s Nest. Once we got close, we found that the way was blocked because they had sectioned off part of the street to serve as the track for the Women’s 20K Walk final. I can’t imagine a more miserable day to have this kind of event. We had no way to know who was in the lead or even in most cases which country the athletes were from. Not all of their uniforms were very clear. What was clear was when the Chinese walker came by. The “Cha Yo” chant would start as soon as the crowd saw the red tights and yellow shoes.

We found our way around the track and around the Bird’s Nest (of course our entry was on the opposite side of where we were — we hit almost 10,000 steps this morning by 10 am). Our seats were in the top level so we climbed — no escalators — up and up and up.

Inside the superstructure, it feels very open while at the same time closed off to the rain. The cross-hatch design you see in the building’s shell is continued as a graphic element pretty much everywhere. Any place there are tiles or pavers, they are set in a that same random-like angular pattern. There are large panes of thick plastic panels set in the handrails along the edge of the walkways printed with the pattern, in red. There is red everywhere. The underside of the seating is painted red. The concourse is red. Everything, red, red, red. Even in the dim, overcast light, we could see that when this is lit up, the red really glows.

Inside the stadium, the superstructure covers most of the seating so we weren’t in any danger of getting rained on. The only people who were getting wet were in the expensive seats or in the press area. Half of the lower bowl was marked off for press. We could imagine, from the sight lines, that the Opening Ceremonies would have been great to watch from just about any seat. Our only problem was that we near the bottom of the top tier and there was a line of equipment ringing the arena, covered up with grey tarps. They must have been used for the Opening Ceremony or perhaps will be for the Closing. Today, they mostly obscured what was going on directly beneath us — the Decathlon long jump.

At the same time, we were watching the last of the 20K walkers enter the stadium, the prelims for the women’s high jump (groups A and B going at the same time on side-by-side high jumps, the men’s javelin throw and the decathlon long jump). Not having been to a track meet since high school, it took a little while to get the flow of things and make sense of it all.

I tried to sit back and take it in.

We were too far away to really see the individual athletes when they were doing their thing and had to rely on the big screens to see the reactions when an athlete succeeded or failed. The screens themselves were incredibly massive, maybe 50 feet tall and a hundred feet wide. There are similar screens on buildings around the city playing Olympic coverage during the day.

Because it was raining, the entire infield and track were wet with standing water in places. There were towel crews who attempted to dry off the spots that the athletes used to plant their feet — at the end of the javelin throw track for example. They also had this push machine that had a towel around a big drum. It looked like the towel would pick up water and deposit it somehow into a catch basin in the back. It took two people to push it and they were mostly using it on the long jump track.

The crew taking care of the javelin competition had a couple of remote controlled cars to retrieve the javelins and carry them back to the throwing area.

There are lots of birds in the Bird’s Nest.

The seat numbering seems to change venue to venue. We’ve seats that start low on the left and get higher going right and visa versa. The seats in the Bird’s Nest seemed to do both, with the high numbers meeting in the center of a section. It was a little confusing to come up the stairs to two rows on either side that started with seat 1.

The Chinese are sending a lot of school groups to the games. We’ve several at any of the day events we’ve gone to and there were a lot at this event today.

After watching the action for about an hour, I started getting the hang of keeping up with the separate events and how they were being displayed on the big screen and on the smaller displays on the field. Each apparatus or track had it’s own display that showed who the current athlete was, what their standing was, what attempt this was and how they did on previous attempts. Like the diving competition we saw earlier, the pace at which the rounds happened was fairly quick with little pause in between. The only time things tended to bog down was when someone had to go two or three attempts.

There are a lot of distractions that the athletes have to deal with. There is often music being played on the PA. The announcers were covering the action in English and Chinese (and I’m sure because so much was going on, the two announcers kept stepping on each other’s time). Along each track or approach to an apparatus, there are staff, cameras, signs, equipment for other events and a host of other things. I never really got a sense of how much crap there was littering the field by watching this kind of thing on TV.

We left before a little earlier than the when the session ended to try and get a jump on the taxi competition. It’s been getting harder and harder to get a taxi outside the venues after an event. Today, we tried spot after spot and had no luck. We finally gave up and decided to walk out a few blocks to find another main street and try there. We ended up having lunch before finally being able to get a cab.

We got back to the hotel room and took a nap in preparation for the late night of basketball. We got to the venue about an hour before the doors opened so we would have enough time to work the scalpers and try to get better seats. The tickets we had were for the upper deck and we would have been about half way up that section. It took us about a block or so before we started seeing scalpers. At first, most of them were holding baseball tickets. The baseball fields are right next to the basketball arena and closest to the subway we just used.

Once we got up to the basketball scalpers, capitalism started to happen.

Now, the two of us were a little nervous about doing this. As I wrote earlier, there are signs everywhere forbidding it and there are police and army soldiers patrolling the streets often. No matter. As soon as it became clear that we were looking at the tickets the scalpers were holding up, we became the center of ring of people want to make a deal.

At first, we kept seeing tickets that were just as bad as ours. It took a couple times before the scalpers understood we were looking for the good stuff. Soon, this one bald Chinese guy took over the negotiations and made it known to the other scalpers that we were his to deal with. Any time someone new would come up to us, he or his helper would shoo them away. He would go out to his crew and come back with tickets to which we would say yes or no. We were having a hard time getting him to understand that we wanted two tickets together in the A level.

While he was out trying to round up suitable tickets, a Chinese couple came up to us, speaking pretty good English and dressed a little too much like tourists wanting to know if we wanted to buy tickets. I got a bad vibe off them and said no. Before our bald friend came back, they left so I never found out if they were cops or not. But if even I could sense they weren’t right, I’m pretty sure they were fakes.

He kept trying and we kept saying no. Meanwhile, another guy showed with exactly the tickets we wanted and seemingly for a price we were willing to pay. That made bald guy pretty mad and after some quick Chinese, the new guy wouldn’t talk to us.

Then a Korean guy showed up and said that he had friends willing to sell tickets if we could wait. I told him to hurry since baldy was really working his contacts. The Korean’s friends showed up and their tickets were as bad as ours, again. Sheesh.

After standing there for a good 10 minutes waiting, trying to communicate what we wanted and feeling like we were about to get screwed, negotiations got underway and it was a non-starter. Once we got down to business, they wanted 2500 Yuan for each ticket, which is five times the face value. No freakin’ way. As we walked off, another guy came up with two tickets that seemed legit. I asked how much. He said 2000 each. We said 1500 each. He said yes.

As Angie was counting out the money, I saw baldy making a bee line for us. I told her to hurry, hurry. I wanted to get this transaction completed before baldy could butt in. Just before he got there, the money was exchanged, the new guy counted it and we had our A level tickets in hand.

All we had to do was get past the ticket check and we were good. Sure enough, the scalped tickets scanned and we were in the plaza. Success! Our first attempt to buy scalped tickets. We ended up paying three times face value, but when you break it down we paid about $200US for each ticket. That’s it for the semi-finals at the Olympics. Hopefully, we can repeat this again for the finals.

Once we got inside the arena, we discovered that the seats were really good. They were on the end which had the US and Australian bench. We were just about on line with the benches, maybe a little behind them, so the basket really wasn’t a visual distraction. And, I was in great position to yell brick at the Russians.

Game 1 — USA vs Russia

Beijing Day 6 — Basketball USA v RUS — 10

The crowd was not on our side.

There were a ton of Russians in the stands. They were congregated in a couple groups with the main on at the top of the lower bowl behind the US bench. There was another smaller ground down in front of us and then numerous small groups around the arena. The main group pretty much made noise the whole game. They were a mixed group, but their combined voices were big, deep and booming. I’m sure you all heard them on the broadcast.

Beijing Day 6 — Basketball USA v RUS — 149

Along with them, the Chinese crowd was definitely pro-Russian. The US was getting no love beyond the indiscriminate golf claps the Chinese give everyone. That was not so surprising as the Aussies who were also pulling for Russia. I can understand the Communists banding together, but come on now. The Aussies and the Americans are like half-brothers. Family. Blood. Give it up, at least a little bit.

No, it was left to the smattering of Americans to cheer for Team USA. There were, finally, some “U S A” chants, but they really didn’t start until the Russians had gotten rolling and were dominating the air with their incessant “Rus Si Ah” chant. As I’ve written previously, the Americans have been conspicuously quiet and reserved when it comes to supporting their team, at least compared to the rampant nationalism we’ve seen from every other group. Tonight, it was almost a defensive measure and because they Americans stayed in their assigned seats (funny that we’re the ones following the rules in a police state), we couldn’t get any real volume. Well, “we” being the whole group. I had some volume.

After listening to the non-stop heckling coming from the Russians and boos from the Chinese, I felt no hesitation in going after the Russians during their free throws. Like a road game in the WNBA, the arena tended to get very quiet for the home team. In this case, for the Russians. I was 50 feet or less away from the foul line on our side.

On the first Russian free throws, I cut loose and scared the crap out of every Chinese, Aussie and Russian sitting in front of us. And oh yeah, the Russian player missed both free throws. I can’t claim credit for the Russians’ 50% free throw shooting, but their percentage has been in the 60s or 70s for the rest of their games at the Olympics. I’m confident in saying I got those first two and maybe one other miss later on.

The Chinese around us thought it was funny and applauded when it seemed to work. I actually got dirty looks from the Aussies and down right evil looks from the Russians. I actually had one Russian stand up and tell me to be quiet. My irony meter exploded since at the time he was saying that, 50 Russians were chanting a section away from us. I told him that as soon as they were quiet, I’d be quiet.

The game was frustrating to watch, at least early on. The US was playing very tight and hesitant while the Russians seemed to be getting the ball into the middle at will. Lisa Leslie was really stinking up the joint. She was being dominated by Stepanova at both ends of the court. Finally, Coach Donovan brought in Sylvia Fowles and things calmed down. The US kept the Russians within reach with rebounding and second chance shots and three-pointers.

Beijing Day 6 — Basketball USA v RUS — 116

During the second half, the Americans clamped down on defense and started to hit the bunny shots they had been missing in the first half. On the Russian side, Becky Hammon got decent playing time, but was taken out of the game by the US guards. Becky was able to work over her opponents from the other countries, but the US players know all her tricks and I bet they wanted to put a little something extra on this one.

Beijing Day 6 — Basketball USA v RUS — 57

The result? US beats Russia and fairly handily at the end.

Game 2 — Australia vs China

We came ready to cheer for Australia. We even bought an Aussie flag to wave, but to be honest we were a little disinclined to do so after the cold shoulder we got from the Aussie fans in our section. We decided that we were there to support our players, current and past and would do so now regardless.

It’s a good thing we decided to not be pouty about it because as the tip-off loomed closer, the rows in front of us filled with the big Aussie group we’ve seen at the other games.

The first thing we noticed about the Aussies, being this close, was how much beer they drank. There were maybe 30 Aussies sitting in front of us, maybe a few more. They were ordering so much beer, that the arena staff started bringing it down to their seats by the tray load, 20 at a time. There was literally a non-stop rotation of 20 beer trays coming down to our section the whole game. With what individual Aussies brought down themselves, we figured that nearly 300 beers were consumed by 30 or so people. I thought for sure they would get cut off, but nope. The beer continued to flow.

At least they didn’t stand the whole time like the Russians were. The Aussies stood at appropriate times and stayed seated during game play.

This game was much more one-sided that the US and Russia. The Aussies took out the Chinese pretty easily. It really wasn’t much of a contest. I’m not sure if that is good or bad for the US in the Gold medal match. Russia was a tougher opponent than the Chinese and I think it might have been a good wake-up call for the US. The Aussies really haven’t been tested yet. They look extremely focused and if the US makes too many mistakes, like the 20+ turnovers they had against Russia (Leslie, I’m looking at you), Australia is going to have a field day.

I talked to Penny Taylor’s husband a bit and he said she was doing really well and should play in the final. He said she probably could have gone in this game but wanted to rest the ankle and “let the other girls pick up for her.” He also said something that made my blood run cold.

He said LJ isn’t coming back to the US. I said that sure, she needs to take care of herself first and get her ankle taken care of, but she might be able to make it back for the playoffs if the Storm makes it out of the first round. He kind of did an “Um, yeah, maybe.”

I don’t want to read anything into what he said, but I kind of can’t help it. He seemed like he was backpedaling a bit when I acted like it was just a matter of time for her to come back after the surgery healed. I could be wrong and he was pretty drunk. I don’t want to start anything, but I felt what I felt. I’ve been worrying for the last year or so that if Australia wins the Gold in Beijing, LJ would retire from the WNBA. This surgery and his reaction did nothing to dissuade me from that worry.

One way or another, we’re set for the final game. Angie and I need to work the scalpers once again to avoid sitting in the nosebleeds. We now have a Chinese flag to wave during the China/Russia Bronze medal match and I plan to enlist as many Chinese as a I can in doing brick for the Russians.

At the end of this game, the Aussie fans started chanting, “We want USA, we want USA.” Be careful what you ask for. I hope.


Lara said...

I caught part of the 20km walk and couldn't imagine trying to participate in an event in such a torrential downpour. The commentators were talking about how uneven and how many seams were in track. They seemed surprised that more of the racers weren't stumbling.
As for LJ, well she has accomplished everything in the W. Multiple MVPs, DPOY, championship. She can win championships in Russia, play with her best buddies, be spoiled and make mucho more money. And if I remember, the schedule is easier as far as not playing so many games in such a small period of time. We'll see.
In the meantime, GO USA!

Speedforce said...

Glad the scaplers came through for you. Even though there are rules against it, well, it is China. Rules are more like suggestions... ;)

Scott said...

People keep saying that the national sport is ping pong. I disagree. It's finding ways to break the rules and stick it to the man.

Anonymous said...

The camera flashed to a couple of Aussies cheering for the Americans a few times. It looked to be LJ's mum and dad. Do you know if they were in attendance during the American/Russian game, Scott? I thought it was odd to see people draped in Australian colours clap for Team USA.

Anonymous said...

BTW I love reading your blog. I had planned on going to Beijing myself but my wife couldn't get time off of work at the last min.