Checking water polo off of the list
08.18.2008 89 °F
I don't like to be two days behind on my blog, but a lot has happened over the past 48 hours so I've been hard-pressed to find enough time to sit down and hash this out. Right now I'm sitting in my mom's office in Shanghai, having flown down from Beijing this afternoon. She and my dad don't have wi-fi (or Internet access period) at their house, so I have to come here to get on-line. Fortunately they live five minutes away by foot from the school where my mom works...but still.
Saturday was yet another beautiful day in Beijing: blue skies, low humidity, and a gentle, refreshing breeze. Having returned from tennis very late the previous night, I slept in and then caught some Olympics coverage on TV. My cousin and his family not only get the local TV coverage (CCTV, which is the state-run communications company) but also various American channels. NBC's coverage comes through on AFN, the Armed Forces Network. Since it's a military operation, they can't show commercials - so when you're seeing commercials for VISA, McDonald's, Coke, or whatever, we're watching public service announcements geared towards members of the military. Some of them are overly militaristic, some are interesting, and more than a few are downright bizarre.
In the mid-afternoon Peggy, her mom, the two younger boys, and I drove down to the Olympic Green for men's water polo. These were among the tickets that I purchased on-line from CoSport last November, and I remember being interested in water polo even though I knew very little about the sport. The matches were taking place right next door to the handball venue and unfortunately not at the Water Cube, but the smaller space made for a cozier environment. Spain and Montenegro were in the first match - Montenegro had a fairly large cheering section on the other side of the pool, but there were some Spaniards scattered around as well.
It was obvious from the beginning that water polo is a pretty violent sport, with a lot of thrashing, holding, and kicking. You can only imagine what happens underneath the water. Something interesting that I noted was that the referees aren't actually in the water themselves - rather, there's one on each side of the pool running up and down. I suppose it works OK, but it's kind of weird to watch. Another cool bit of trivia is that each quarter starts with the two teams lining up at their respective ends of the pool and then sprinting to get the ball, which is sitting in a life preserver that floats in the middle. The BOCOG organizers decided to be cute and play the theme to "Jaws" during each sprint, and I read that the water polo players initially were taken aback by this musical serenade.
The most exciting match was the second one, featuring Hungary versus Australia. Even though I had very little familiarity with water polo, I knew that it's a big sport in Hungary. I think it was at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne when Hungary and the Soviet Union faced off in a match that took place just days after the USSR had invaded Hungary. It was vicious - you may have seen a famous picture of a Hungarian guy with blood streaming down the side of his head. Anyway, there were two large sections of Hungarians who shouted cheers in their exotic-sounding language. I spent a few days in Budapest in October 1993 and remember being flummoxed by the words that seemed to be 15 or 16 letters long. Hungarian is completely unrelated to the languages of neighboring Slavic countries - rather, it's part of the Ural-Altic family that includes Finnish and Estonian. To demonstrate, the main cheer that I heard was "Hajra Magyarorszag," which I think means "Go, Hungary!" The reason I know how to spell it is because it was printed on the back of the shirts worn by many of the Hungarians. When pronounced, it sounds likes "HOY-rah mah-dyar-OHR-sahg." Very interesting, indeed.
The Hungarians jumped out during the first two quarters and looked like they were going to sail to an easy win, but Australia came back in the second half and ALMOST tied. It actually went down to the final 20 or 30 seconds, which made for an exciting match. For some reason water polo is very popular in Central and Eastern Europe. Hungary is landlocked, with the Danube River and Lake Balaton being their main waterways, but people there are into it. Gotta give it to those Aussies, though - they are definitely a sporting nation, especially in the water. The final match pitted China against Serbia, and even with an extremely vocal hometown crowd I knew the Chinese would be outmatched. They were smaller than the Serbians and obviously less experienced. Still entertaining, though.
After we left the water polo venue, I decided to head off on my own and explore the Olympic Green (Peggy took her mom and the boys back to their house). Just getting there required a significant effort, first with figuring out where to exit, then walking on a pedestrian overpass that crossed the Fourth Ring Road, weaving through throngs of people to get to the entrance on the southwestern end of the Green, and finally getting past security. The Olympic Green is closed off to the public - to gain access, you need to show a ticket for an event held that same day, even if the venue isn't on the Green itself. Security, security, security. Kind of sad but necessary, I suppose, especially these days. While waiting in line I struck up a conversation in Spanish with a middle-aged Chilean woman who was wearing a Brazil tank top. She had been in China for over two months and was flying back to Santiago the following day. Can you imagine how long that would take?! The poor woman had to go through Sydney and said that the only other option would be Frankfurt. Crazy.
Even after having been to about ten Olympic sessions, none of them had been at venues on the Green. So I definitely wanted to check it out, especially after having seen shots of the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube. They certainly didn't disappoint. It was about 7pm by the time I got through security, and the Bird's Nest was lit up in red - there were already tens of thousands of spectators inside for the finals of the men's 100m (which I didn't realize at the time). Right across the wide plaza is the Water Cube, which lit up in blue just as I was walking past. Truly amazing. The fencing hall was just north of the Water Cube and seemed pretty spectacular as well.
I spent about an hour and a half wandering around, soaking up the atmosphere, and enjoying the temperate weather. A bunch of corporate sponsors have custom-built pavilions to the northwest of the Bird's Nest, and I checked some of them out: Omega (the watch company and the official timekeeper of these Games), Bank of China, China Mobile, Volkwagen, etc. Mind-blowing to think about how much money they fronted, all with the hopes of capturing the attention and spending power of the Chinese middle and upper classes.
At the northwest corner I found the Olympic Superstore, where I jostled with overzealous shoppers looking for pins, t-shirts, hats, and all sorts of Olympic kitsch and tschotckes. Most of the stuff was tacky, though a few items were actually appealing. I resisted the urge to go crazy and limited my purchase to pins and a couple of shirts. Afterwards I did the unthinkable and went to the enormous McDonald's across the way for a burger, fries, and Sprite. You already know, Gentle Reader, that I am very much opposed to the fast food industry - if you haven't already read it, you must pick up a copy of "Fast Food Nation." Well, in defense of myself, I was hungry and there was absolutely nowhere else to go on the Green aside from the generic refreshment stands that sell the same stuff. As I believe I mentioned earlier, the food at the venues is dreadful and definitely a missed opportunity for BOCOG. If you order what's listed on the menus as a "hot dog," you get a vacuum-packed, thick, short sausage that has a nasty smell to it and is pockmarked with globules of fat. It must be tasty to the Chinese, however, because they eat it.
A linguistic sidenote: the term for hot dog in Chinese is literally "hot dog" ("ri gou"). It's like "perro caliente" in certain Latin American countries. I can't remember what it's called in Paraguay, but I recall having a great laugh about that with my friend Venisha when we hit the Shell station in Asuncion back in late December 1998. Only days before we almost got thrown in jail on New Year's Eve for crossing into Brazil without a visa. But I digress...
As I left the Olympic Green in search of a taxi that would take me all the way back to my cousin's house, I couldn't help but feel a little sad to see my second Olympic experience come to an end. There was still more than a week of competition left, but I would only get to watch events on TV or read about them on-line. Being the Olympics geek that I am, I already am thinking about Vancouver 2010 for the Winter Games...only a couple hours north of Seattle, after all!