At an arena in London’s Olympic Park, about 12,000 people sang songs by The Beatles and Oasis, stomped their feet and clapped their hands, rose up and down in Mexican waves and cheered displays by a group of gymnasts and the Crazy Dunkers, a troupe of trampolining French acrobats. Members of the crowd kissed, danced and played imaginary bongo drums on the big screens and heard about 150 short blasts of high-energy pop music.
Also in there somewhere were a couple of women’s basketball games.
The whole show (it’s nothing if not a show) was presided over by an American called Eddie, a stadium announcer, match commentator and master of ceremonies all rolled into one. Eddie has a deep “let’s get ready to rumble”-type voice and he knows how to use it. “We’re going to see some great basketball and most of all we’re going to have a great experience together, having fun and cheering on these wonderful athletes who have come so far and worked so hard to be here,” Eddie’s voice boomed ahead of the first game between Angola and Croatia.
In what has become a hallmark of my journalistic career, I prepared meticulously for the match by printing out background material and left it at home by mistake. I could just about remember that neither Croatia nor Angola had won a match at the Games so far. (This isn’t as bad as it might seem because, bizarrely, you get a point for losing in Olympic basketball.) I think it’s fair to say this match was not a classic, even though there were some nice bits of skill. Croatia built up a big lead and won comfortably.
But Eddie, assisted by English sidekick Andy, kept the crowd in high spirits. Yes, British people who had got up early on a Friday morning and travelled from far and wide in packed trains, and who were now sitting in a large windowless room watching players most of them didn’t know, were delighted to get involved in kiss cams, bongo cams and stomping along to Queen’s We Will Rock You. The Olympics seems to be bringing out the extrovert in a lot of people.
There certainly wasn’t any chance of catching a quiet nap. Silence is not golden at the basketball arena. No pause in play goes unpunctuated. This blog’s chief music critic counted more than 70 snippets of pop zapped out in the second match of the session, a classy and entertaining game in which Australia defeated Russia.
“Ladies and gentlemen, if you enjoyed this game, go ahead and tell your friends on social media. Tell them to snap up some tickets and come and visit us!” Eddie’s rich tones urged afterwards over more thumping music. “We hope that the session has entertained as well as inspired you to play and follow the wonderful game of basketball. Thank you!”
Outside, the park was much busier than earlier in the week. With the athletics starting in the main stadium, suddenly there were 200,000 people around instead of 100,000. It was manageable but you felt it wasn’t too far away from getting a bit uncomfortable. Did this prompt the organisers to suggest subliminally to people that things weren’t really that great so they should head home? How else to explain Radiohead, The Smiths and Joy Division coming out of the loudspeakers instead of the usual feel-good hits?
On the park’s main walkway, men in stripey blazers, straw boaters and tweed jackets accompanied by women in colourful summer dresses were taking a rather different approach to sport from Eddie and his gang at the Basketball Arena. These enthusiasts came from The Chap magazine, whose stated aim is to “take a wry look at the modern world through the steamed-up monocle of a more refined age”. They staged events such as the “tug of hair” (in which two teams pulled on the ends of an enormous handlebar moustache), sauntering and bowler hat tossing. The Chap stages its own Olympiad, which also features the cucumber sandwich discus and umbrella jousting.
Britain has moved ahead of France in the medals table and I can report another victory in the same vein. Two French people were tucking into pie and mash in the middle of the Olympic Park today without even a hint of disdain.