Olympic Diary (3)—Handball and diving are not interchangeable

The party atmosphere continued last night over at the Handball House, which has been renamed the Copper Box in an attempt to not stereotype it since they want to keep using it as a venue after the games. Fair enough. But it was designed for handball, and it’s perfect—the rafters aren’t too high, and visibility is great. Handball is like basketball—there’s passing and dribbling, and you try to get the ball in the net. Well, it’s kind of like dodgeball too, as Mrs W commented, although no one ever seems to get thrown out—but there are plenty of two minute cautions where the player has to go sit down and the team is down a man for that period. Kind of like hockey, in fact.

The nets are different from basketball, though. They’re more like football goals. Here’s a basketball net:

And here’s a handball net:


Another difference from basketball is that in handball you get to do things to a player from the other team that you normally wouldn’t be able to do (legally) in basketball. Picking him (or her) up and dropping them on the floor, for example. Except that sometimes you can’t do that, and sometimes you can, and I could never figure out what governs each. The one thing you clearly can’t do is whack them in the neck, even by accident—that not only gets you your two minutes, but also a hearty round of booing by the crowd. And there are Yellow Cards, but I have no idea if they serve the same function as Yellow Cards in football. It’s all very confusing.

But great fun nonetheless. It’s a very fast game played by usually very large people. Well, not everyone is large—each team seems to have one very short person who is presumably there to so the things that dedicated short people on large teams do, whatever that is. People are always bouncing off the floor, and girls with towel mops come on to the floor regularly to wipe up moisture, sometimes even while the game is in play. The goalie, when he has nothing to do, usually walks over to the bench as chats away to whoever is standing around—usually the alternate goalie. And the players play hard—I saw lots of taped knees and elbows, and the ref at one point sent a player off the floor to get a cut bandaged so he wouldn’t get more blood on the floor. Why hasn’t this game caught on in America? Probably because Americans would insist on wearing pads or something. I live on a continent that thinks of American football as “rugby with pads.”

It’s immensely popular in Europe. There are leagues around the continent, but especially in the Nordic regions, France and Eastern Europe, so the games we saw—Denmark and Serbia, and then Iceland and Sweden—were a treat. Admittedly, Denmark/Serbia didn’t quite have the pathos that the Serbia/Croatia game earlier this week had. But it was still entertaining. Serbia raced off to an early lead, but the Danes kept chipping away, and were ahead at the half. In the second period they built up a seven point lead at one point, but then, in the last five or ten minutes, Serbia, the much more aggressive team, mounted a furious comeback, and almost caught Denmark. But didn’t, and the Danes held on, 25-24.

Next up, Iceland and Sweden. Who would have thought Iceland would be a powerhouse in anything, but in handball they are, and it will be interesting to see how far they go. Both teams came in undefeated. It was initially a close match, but the Icelandic physicality eventually wore the Swedes down, 33-32. This was a much more aggressive and faster match, with the movement up and down the court much more fluid than the controlled tempo of the Danes in particular. And lots of fast breaks–those are really fun, just as they are in basketball. The Icelanders, if that’s what they’re called, are really good at those, and they got the crowd roaring every time. So Iceland is through as well—in fact, Iceland at this point is still undefeated, as is world-champion France. They’ll face off on Saturday—it’s a rematch of the gold medal game four years ago in Beijing. Sweden played well, but not quite well enough. But it’s interesting how different the strategies here were compared with Denmark/Serbia, which was a much more sedate affair.

And another big party—kind of like a basketball game in that regard as well. Lots of rock and roll (with the apparently obligatory We Will Rock You, which must now be the most played theme in history), a cheerful announcer, and a crowd of people dominated by folks whose native language is not English—in this case, predominantly Danish, but also Swedish, Icelandic and Serbian, with, I assume, the usual gaggle of other nationalities thrown in. This was our first visit to the Olympic Park, and it’s big, but the Copper Box seemed to be just the right size for what was going on.
The Park is quite large, as you can imagine, with most of the main buildings pretty far apart. And very few trees, reflecting the fact that it’s a new site, not to mention the interest in the security services in good visibility. The security presence, btw, is pretty unobtrusive. The only soldiers we see wandering around are in the venues themselves as part of the audience. The police on horses are a huge hit, predictably. There are some nice little parky areas, especially those with wildflower gardens, and along the river Lee, which cuts through the Park. We spent some time wandering there today, in fact.

And at one point, we went under one of the footbridges, and it turned out to have mirrors. So how could I resist?

And some of the buildings are stunning—the aquatic center, where we went today to see the Diving, for example is suitably dramatic and fluid. There’s not a lot you can do with a building whose constraints are predetermined—”we need a pool a diving area, and seating for tens of thousands of people”—but they’ve done a good job on it. It’s got wings. And the Velodome, where the indoor cycling events are currently taking place, is fantastic.

Today was the big test. Because the athletic stuff started, which means the main track and field facility opens, and another 80,000 people come into the park. It was certainly noticeable. But even though everything was considerably more crowded, there were really no problems that we could see—everything moved pretty smoothly. They really do have this under control, it appears.

So, off to Aquatics Center for the women’s three meter springboard diving. We were, once again, up in the rafters for the Diving. Or so we thought—we bought cheap seats, and were in row 52, and not looking forward to the slog up the stairs or the distant view, but what the heck. But we got there late, and as we came in one of the attendants said What section are you in?, and we told him, and he said How would you like better seats where you don’t have to climb the stairs?, and we said sure. So he shows us two vacant seats—right in the front row, directly behind the judges, at eye level with the diving board. I mean, directly behind the judges. So that’s where we sat. We assume it was because they didn’t want any vacant seats on the television views of the judges. Which means we may be on television on one of the 30 local stations that will be broadcasting the dives of each of the 30 divers from 20 different countries. If you see some good-looking old guy with binoculars directly behind the judges, that’s me. So we got to sit in some extraordinary seats. In karmic terms, this is either something we will pay for, or it’s compensation for some past indignity. Whatever.

It’s a completely different kind of event. Our first two events were team competitions—this one clearly is not. And what can one say? We saw a whole lot of really good diving, and some not so good. And it certainly has its tension. But it’s not quite the same as a team sport. And since these are events where individual concentration is critical, it’s a much quieter audience dynamic. This was the qualifying round, with 30 divers, and only the top 18 go on to tomorrow’s round. The two British girls made the cut, thankfully, and the crowd went wild, of course. The two Chinese divers dominated, but the Italian and Canadian divers were pretty close. What was surprising was the amount of just ordinary diving, although it was just a qualifying round. But still, most of the scores all afternoon were in the 6 and 7 range. There were only three near perfect dives, two by the Chinese girls, and one by the Italian. I’m hardly an expert, but I would have expected more 8s and 9s. But maybe that’s television—we’re so used to our frame of reference being defined by what the networks show us—and they clearly show us only the really good stuff. But that does distort our expectations.

Here’s how close were were–this is Jennifer Abel, Canadian diver, giving an interview right below us:

And since Britain won a couple of gold medals, the pressure is off. Really, the first two days of reporting were embarrassing in the media’s hunt for a winner. It’s turning awfully American in that regard, and I don’t like it one bit. And the pressure on some of the athletes—Rebecca Adlington in particular—has been extraordinary. She won her second bronze today, but the media disappointment is astonishing—and cruel. Get over it. The BBC is as big an offender here as anyone else in the British media. But there have been some surprise medals here and there, including by British athletes, which just reinforces the feel-good factor that seems to pervade everything here now. Britain won a bronze in men’s team gymnastics—the first for 100 years. That was a surprise. Then there’s the South Africa Gold in Men’s Lightweight Four Rowing—a race where Britain was in the lead for a while (although not as long as Denmark was), only to be clipped in the last seconds by a real surge by the South Africans. It was quite a race, and made my son-in-law very happy. As always, it’s the surprises that delight.

And the athletes are also a delight—except maybe for the American men swimmers. Actually being at an Olympics just reinforces how young most of these competitors are. None of the divers looks older than 20. Two of the swimming gold medals were won by 15 year olds, one from America, one from Lithuania. Lithuania? Yup. The Olympic Park is right next to a very large mall, and we, and everyone else who has been there, have been delighted by the packs of athletes, in their sweats, wandering around. Not just there—the other day there were five members of some team from Kazakhstan standing outside the coffee shop next to my office, chatting away. Just tonight in the mall we saw five Korean team members hitting up, or being hit up by, some presumably English girls (but who can tell, really?) some Brazilian swimmers posing with some other girls, with some prominent six-packs in display, a couple from Mongolia, and two Vanuatu coaches. They’re everywhere, and it’s been delightful. Someone in my office saw Usain Bolt at the mall earlier in the week. Pretty cool.

Actually, given the art form to which the British have developed self-deprecation, the fact that Britain has won any medals as all presumably comes as a surprise to everyone in the country. As it stands, ending the day we’re number four in golds, and number four overall with 22, and the first week isn’t even over yet. It’s mostly the usual—swimming, rowing and cycling, but athletics starts today, and there’s probably another couple to be gathered here and there, although not in handball or beach volleyball. As usual, the US and China are running away with everything, but Korea is number three in golds—I’m a bit surprised, but then again, as is so often the case, I’m probably surprised because I haven’t been paying attention. I’m rooting for the Germans in the women’s beach volleyball, by the way. Both Brazil and Italy look tough—but the Germans had the best body painting.

Categories: Sports, World

3 replies »

  1. Saw the Serbia/Croatia match. My first team handball match (was vaguely familiar with the individual version). Love your descriptions – as I was telling Carol while we watched: “Damn. A mix of basketball, hockey, and soccer – with some elements of lacrosse thrown in for – fun, I guess.” It’s like one of those sports you make up as a kid to suit the ball and players you have on hand. Really enjoyed it. Thanks for the great description of what it looks like live….

  2. Well, as far as I can tell, handball is a bit like Calvinball anyway. But that’s probably because I still haven’t figured out all the rules. That’s ok–I like mysteries. That’s why I sitll haven’t bothered learning the rules of cricket after fifteen years of living here. It just makes it more interesting to try to guess.

    By the way, Iceland did beat France, and the German girls are out at the hands of the other Brazilian team, who look awesome. Is it just me who finds the US beach volleyball teams here really irritating? I guess we’re supposed to. Part of the pro wrestling influence, no doubt.