Our Olympic travels are over

I can’t believe it’s already Saturday! I know it’s been too long since I posted last, but hopefully this will explain why. Essentially, the last few days in Beijing were incredibly busy, then we flew back to London and immediately went back to work. I’m glad that we’ve got Monday off (bank holiday) so I can spend some time catching up!

Sunday Rowing

There were just seven races on the Sunday of the rowing finals. They were the lightweight boats, quad sculls and eights.

Lightweight Mens Double Sculls — GB wins! It was a close race, but GB was ahead pretty much throughout and kept it strong through the end.

The father of one of the guys in the boat was sitting just a few seats away from us in the bleachers, and he just broke down in happiness when his son won. Annie’s photo is from here.

Women’s Quad Sculls — GB takes silver. This was always going to be a tight race, since the Chinese boat has become incredibly fast in the last few years. The top boat for both GB and China’s women’s squad is the quad.

GB led for most of this race, but China was nipping at their heels the entire time. In the last five hundred or so, China put through a massive push and just got them by the line. The girls in the GB boat were clearly devastated. We managed to say hello to Annie Vernon later that day and it was clear that she was extraordinarily disappointed. I just hope that in the coming weeks and months they realize just how much they accomplished by earning a silver.

Women’s Eight — GB takes fifth, USA wins. The USA boat was simply a rocket, taking a lead and never relinquishing it. The GB girls had a hard time. Two of the girls from the boat got ill and had to have substitutes for the final. So while it’s probably not what they wanted (they got bronze in the 2007 World Championships), it was a good performance considering!

Men’s Eight — Canada takes gold, GB the silver, and USA the bronze. This was always going to be a tight race between Canada and GB, and it was. Both of them won their heats with very fast performances, going straight to this final.

Unfortunately GB couldn’t quite make it in the end, and I know they were very disappointed. (Though they weren’t the flagship boat for the men’s squad, they were convinced that they could win.)

A friend from Thames Rowing Club has an older brother in the boat, and he swum out to them as soon as they came across the finish line. Unfortunately for him, he had forgotten that he really didn’t know how to swim! It had to be the slowest doggy-paddle I have ever seen

Monday events

Monday was our busiest day by far. We started out with Triathlon, then had Weightlifting, and ended the night with Athletics. We were up at 6:30am and didn’t get home until about midnight.

Triathlon

The venue for triathlon was absolutely beautiful. It was held on and around a reservoir quite a way out from Beijing, and the day was very bright and sunny. It was an interesting event to watch. While the entire swim and both “transitions” happen right in front of you, most of the bike and run portions are out on the roads. The event organizers had a couple of huge TV displays for the crowd, which worked quite well. Monday was the women’s triathlon, which was won in quite convincingly by an Australian woman.

Weightlifting

Unfortunately, we were only able to get tickets to the B final for the 105+ kg men, so it wasn’t quite the drama you have when everyone is competing for medals. That said, the weights these guys were lifting were incredible! While we had “nosebleed” seats, in the weightlifting hall that didn’t really mean anything and we still had a great view.

Athletics

Athletics was fantastic, and I look forward to getting more tickets for this in London in 2012. It kicked off with women’s discus, which was won by the USA!! (On her first throw, by the way.) Shortly after the discus got started, the women’s pole vault kicked off. We also saw Bolt run in the heats of the Men’s 200m, and the semi’s of the women’s 100m hurdles and 400m hurdles. Other finals included men’s long jump, mens 3000m steeplechase, men’s 400m hurdles and womens 800m.

It was difficult to keep track of all the events going on at the same time. Occasionally they interfered with each other a bit. One long jumper was getting the crowd to clap for him as he jumped, but that caused about 2 or 3 false starts in the 200m heats as runners heard the claps as the starter’s gun! (Oops). There was also quite a bit of a kerfluffle in the women’s pole vault, as Brazil couldn’t find her pole. (How does that happen?) The Brazillian woman literally stopped the competition and got all of the judges involved until her pole was found. That couldn’t have been fun for anyone.

All of the events were great, but the women’s pole vault took the cake for me in the end. It happened right in front of us, and was a great event. The Russian woman who has set the last few world records set a new Olympic record and won the gold. But she decided to keep going and try for a new World record. Her last few jumps actually happened after everything else was done for the night; everyone that stayed was staying just to see if she could do it and on her third try she set a new World Record of 5.05m! (Photo is from Annie here.)

When everything was all over, thousands of people spilled out onto the streets and it was an absolute pain in the ass to find a taxi. But we finally did, and made it home around midnight.

Tuesday — Men’s triathlon

The only event we had on Tuesday was Men’s Triathlon, though it meant that we didn’t get much sleep between a late night on Monday and an early triathlon start on Tuesday.

The conditions were nearly identical to those on Monday: sunny and hot. The men’s race seemed to be quite a bit closer than the women’s. The main pack on the cycle portion included about 50 of the 55 competitors, and there were numerous lead changes on the run. (The women’s lead pack only had about 20 cyclists, and the eventual runner started the run in first and just extended her lead.) At one point a GB competitor was in first on the run, but fell back and finished about 12th or so. But he’s only 20 so will certainly be back and better… In the final straight there were four guys all literally sprinting to the line which was extremely exciting to watch!

After the event was over we headed into town to get a few last shirts and other gifts at the Adidas shop in the center of town and then went back home to pack. And that pretty much wrapped up our Olympic experience.

In closing…

While I may post about the Olympics in the coming days/weeks, it will probably only be to post photos. I think I’ve said just about everything possible about the trip! I just hope it’s been at least a little interesting.

Saturday rowing finals — Fun, exciting and messy

The only event we had on Saturday was rowing. It included the A finals (and medal ceremonies) for the men and women’s single sculls, double sculls, coxless pairs, and the men’s coxless four.

Photos for everything can be found by clicking here.

The big race

The most exciting race of the day (for us) was the final of the women’s double sculls. Our friend Elise Laverick was racing for Great Britain with her partner Anna Bebington. It was going to be a tough race for them; while they had beaten most or all of the crews at some point or another, a couple of them had posted really strong times in the heats and reps earlier this week.

Elise and Anna seemed to get a good start, and were well in the mix in the first 500 meters. Some of the other boats seemed to take a bit of a push in the second 500 meters, which pushed them back to about fourth. But in the second half of the race China started dropping back and Elise and Anna really started going strong and put themselves in the lead pack. The last five hundred was incredible, and all three medallists (New Zealand, Germany, and Great Britain) crossed the finish line within ~2 feet of each other (0.22 seconds). Elise and Anna put in a massive effort in the last 250–500 meters to close the gap. Perhaps the best part was that in the last 500 it was clear that the top three boats had really separated themselves from the rest, and were going to be on the podium. We found out later that Elise/Anna were the quickest boat in the last 1000 meters of the race.

I was lucky enough to get tickets to the “friends and family” stand for both rowing finals days. Each country’s supporters group together, and it seems the Commonwealth countries (GB, Australia, New Zealand, etc.) have particularly big contingents, though the US group was pretty big, too. Life in the stands is fun, since so many people know each other from various rowing-related activities and events. But it also gets really messy… for the cost of one pint of beer in London, you can buy eight from the Olympics concessions stands. One GB support or another seemed to bringing a box filled with beer cups up to the stands every few minutes or so. That got interesting…

Luckily we got to meet up with Elise after the race. (Anna had to go to drug testing, which was literally taking hours. She wasn’t done until three hours after they got in.) That’s where I snapped this picture.

Other great races

Michelle Guerette from the USA took a surprising silver in the women’s single sculls event. The Belarus sculler (who had won the last three world championships, I believe) was pushed to bronze. It was an amazing performance for her, and she put in a huge push in the last 500 meters to put herself there. She was featured in a New York Times feature article on rowing earlier this year, so it great to see her success match some of the coverage of her.

The Great Britain men’s double scullers also took bronze. While Australia looked awesome in the event, Matt Wells and Steven Rowbotham look great and took bronze in style.

In a great race, the Great Britain men’s coxless four took gold. This boat has been the “flagship” of the mens rowing squad since 2000. While GB was in the pack, they weren’t leading for most of the race. They stayed near the leaders and put in one hell of a massive push in the last 250 meters to win it. The leaders up until that point (Australia) seemed to crumble once their lead was lost, and ended up losing by about half a length. It was particularly cute when the four did their row-past after the medals ceremony and the sister of the stroke-man (Andy Triggs-Hodge) jumped the fence and swam out into the lake to congratulate her brother.

The men’s single sculls race was as fascinating as ever. Alan Campbell of Great Britain got a great start and was leading early. But the lead switched several times until Olaf Tufte of Norway crossed the line first, with Czech Republic in silver and Mahe Drysdale of New Zealand in bronze. Mahe was predicted to do better, but I heard through the grapevine that he had a bit of a stomach bug earlier this week, which couldn’t have helped. Alan probably could have done better as well, but he had several weeks out of the boat this year for knee surgery. That Alan got into the A final is one hell of an accomplishment after that!

Friday wrap-up

Friday for us was Gymnastics and Beach Volleyball day.

Gymnastics

Our first event was the Women’s Gymnastics Individual All-Around Final. Since it started at 11am, we managed to get there with plenty of time to spare so that we could experience a bit of the Olympic Green before going in. Since it had rained the day before, the skies were clear and the bright sun made it VERY hot outside.

We had nosebleed seats, just 4–5 rows from the top of the arena, but because it wasn’t terribly big, we still had great views of the action. The American women were predicted to do very well, as were the Chinese women. All of the 24 competitors were but into four groups for the four “stations” (vault, uneven bars, balance beam, and floor exercise). The Chinese and Americans were in the same group along with the Russians.

The first two events for the Chinese/American group went okay, with no girls clearly winning. But after the balance beam the eventual winner, Liukin of the USA had a BIG lead, something like 0.4 points above the next (Chinese) girl. The floor exercise was okay for the Chinese girl, but went very well for both American women. Liukin took the gold and Shawn Johnson the silver.

It was actually pretty difficult to watch gymnastics effectively. There are four events going on simultaneously, so it was good that the top girls were all in the same group. But the worst part was that spectators had so little information. The scoreboards just showed the total points for the top three athletes, and little else. Even the scores that were displayed after judging each event were only shown for the briefest of moments, in some cases literally seconds, before they were cleared to display the name of the next competitor. In the end I had to hand write the scores down so I could figure out who needed what to win. Spectators at home miss the spectacle, but have so much more and better information!

After gymnastics we made our way to the Olympic Green “Super Store” where we managed to find a few things (pins, flags, etc.) that we’d been looking for. Though it was a huge space, there was still a good 20–30 minute queue to get inside!

Beach Volleyball

As my previous post mentioned, this sport kicks ass. It’s a serious sport, with both technical ability and physical prowess/stamina required, but it’s also just SO MUCH FUN. A few reasons why:

  • Great action: There is a lot of back and forth, lead changes and the like. Though a lot of matches finish with one team winning two sets to none, it certainly doesn’t seem like that during the match. It’s much easier to stay interested when leads can change so quickly.
  • Quick matches: They rarely last more than an hour.
  • Lots of action: Little time in between points/sets, and when there are breaks in the action they’re short.
  • Perfect size court: Small enough that two people can cover it effectively, but big enough that it’s still possible for teams to find holes.
  • Entertainment: Organisers go above and beyond to make it fun. Dancers during the breaks (more scantily dressed than the athletes, by the way) and announcers that really try to rev up the crowd. Even the Fuwa’s get involved (the Beijing 2008 mascots). Simply an awesome time.

I HIGHLY recommend seeing it in person if you ever can. After that match we are definitely going to try and catch as many beach volleyball matches as we can during London’s 2012 Olympics!

Other stuff

Friday was also American food day… unintentionally. After the gymnastics we went to the Super Store, and by the time we came out it was getting really late and we still hadn’t eaten. The exit of the Super Store was about 10 meters away from the entrance to the McDonald’s. It has been about 3 or 4 years since I last ate at a McDonald’s, but then we go to one in Beijing. Oh, well.

Dinner was at the Hard Rock Cafe. It was just around the corner (in Beijing terms) from the Beach Volleyball venue and they served dinner late, which was good because Beach Volleyball runs late. So I also had a chance to get a really good quality hamburger in Beijing. We forgot until we were there that it was a Friday… because we were there so late an American-style cover band kicked off just after we sat down. If you follow me on Twitter (check it out here), you’ll have read that it became particularly surreal when they busted out with a Pink Floyd song.

I realize I’m posting this a bit late, but hope to catch up shortly with today’s (Saturday’s) action!

Wrestling Day

Thursday was wrestling day for us. Unfortunately, freestyle wrestling (the traditional US style) takes place next week, so we saw the Greco-Roman competition. We had tickets for the heats up to the semi-finals in the morning, and then the medal rounds in the evening.

It was surprisingly interesting. At first it was a bit difficult to work out the rules and scoring, particularly when neither of the wrestlers could flip each other. We managed to get a little brochure from the info booth that did a decent job explaining it, though. (I’d summarize it here, but doubt anyone is that interested.)

Future Olympics spectators take note: ALWAYS stop by the information booth before the competition! That’s the place where you can get brackets, race times, and brochures to explain the sports. Highly recommended!

The medal rounds were our first of the Olympics and were quite emotional. The ceremonies were immediately after the matches, and well done. Wrestling is a bit odd in that there are two bronze medallists. In the 84kg category ceremony, one of the bronze medallists (from Sweden) took off his medal and threw it to the mat just after he received it. Pretty poor form if you ask me, even for the most hyper-competitive of people. All of the rest went off without a hitch.

We saw the rounds and medal ceremonies for three weight classes: 84, 96, and 120kg. It was fascinating to see the differences in how each wrestled. The 84kg guys were really nimble, and there was a lot of action on the mat. The 120kg guys didn’t move nearly as quickly but were incredibly powerful. It was great to learn to appreciate a new sport.

As I write this, we’re on the train to the city to see gymnastics and beach volleyball. Gymnastics is supposed to be the women’s all-around final with an American girl as the favorite. Needless to say, we’re really excited! (And the rain yesterday cleared the skies… We can see blue sky today!)

Day 5 of competitions

Today was the fifth day of Olympic competitions. We spent the morning doing our tourist stuff and the afternoon watching some great rowing.

Tourists on the Prowl

Today we met up with a couple friends from Thames Rowing Club and their friends to tour the Forbidden City, eight of us in total. While it was a bit unwieldy to see the sights with that many people, we managed to work it all out.

The Forbidden City is really impressive. It’s a mammoth complex, and has a really rich and interesting history. I enjoyed just walking around the huge structures and plazas, imagining how life must have been five hundred years ago during the emperors’ time. The architecture is interesting, and the buildings are richly decorated.

We went through a few different exhibits that were recommended by the guidebook. While they were kind of interesting (museum-style presentation of old clocks, jewelry, artifacts and the like), I felt like they just filled the time and space. My favourite mental pictures are of the little courtyards and trees and buildings scattered away from the main buildings, but how they integrated into the city as a whole. While the gates, entrances, and plazas were certainly on a massive scale to impress, there was also a very human and day-to-day dimension, as well.

After our visit we caught a cab to one of the main shopping areas to walk around and grab lunch. We tried a duck restaurant which told us they had a table for us (we thought). But after going to the floor they specified, we realised that they didn’t, and in fact there was a massive queue on each floor for lunch. We went across the street to a different restaurant, which seemed a little dodgy at first but turned out okay.

At the Races

Lunch and finding a taxi afterword took a while, so we missed the first bit of racing. Luckily we just missed the C/D semifinals for the men and women’s singles, but made it just in time for the A/B semifinals. Michelle Guerette of the USA did really well in her single, and there were some surprises on the men’s side. Most of the usual suspects made it through to the A final, except Marcel Hacker. We heard later that his father passed away last week, and the funeral was literally the day before the first heats. That must have been a terrible thing to deal with on top of the Olympics stresses, so it was admirable that he made it as far as he did, considering. It looks like it should be an exciting final.

The GB men’s four was really great today. While they weren’t miles ahead at the finish, they just kept right on paddling back to the warm-down lanes while all of the other crews looked like they were dead. They’re clearly a fast boat, though they’ll have to prove that on Saturday in the final.

Perhaps the oddest final today was the C final of the Men’s Double Sculls. It featured two competitors: Iraq and the United States. The United States took it with a good margin, but the Iraqi crew clearly rowed their hearts out and got a lot of hearty cheers from the crowd. After crossing their line and getting their breath back, they raised their arms in triumph and it was clear that even though they were 14th out of 14 double sculls, they had achieved their dreams.

The scariest race today was the women’s eight. Five boats raced, and four of them went on to the A final. Essentially: don’t come last. The GB eight, which has two Thames Rowing Club members (Ali Knowles and Beth Rodford) was last at the first 500 mark. I’ve heard they don’t have the most consistent start, and it didn’t seem to go well for them today. But they dug deep and made up for lost ground. By the end it was still quite tight, but they crossed the line in third place and will be in the A final on Sunday. Both the German men’s eight and the German women’s eight lost their repercharge races, which has got to be a bit of a shock to their national rowing team.

Other stuff

Finally, our flatmate for the week arrived today, and that’s going well. We had dinner at a local restaurant and enjoyed chatting to someone who knows a lot about British rowing. Starting tomorrow we’ve got a bunch more events scheduled (wrestling, gymnastics, weightlifting, athletics and triathlon) so I have a feeling this week is going to fly by.