Genuine excitement

At the women’s football semi-final between Japan and France at Wembley on Monday, two super-perky people on the big screens were desperate to gee us all up at every opportunity. They smiled and shouted with the sort of enthusiasm once reserved for children’s television. They played a film with Hollywood stars telling us how great the Olympics were. They got members of the crowd to pose like Usain Bolt.
At half time, with Japan leading 1-0, they could hardly contain their excitement. “What a game!” they yelled. “Fantastic goal!”
There was a problem with this. It hadn’t been much of a game at all and the goal was anything but fantastic. A Japanese player poked the ball over the line after the French goalkeeper made a terrible mistake by coming off her line and getting only a slight touch on the ball.
None of this is any criticism of women’s football, by the way. I’ve seen plenty of atrocious men’s football games. (I grew up in Scotland.) It just wasn’t a great match at that point.
The atmosphere wasn’t helped by tens of thousands of empty seats. Strangely, there were fewer people in the stadium for the women’s semi-final than for the South Korea v Gabon group game in the men’s tournament the week before. (Remember that’s not even the South Korean and Gabon “A” teams, but players under 23 with a few older players thrown in.)
According to FIFA, there were more than 61,000 people in the stadium. That may be seen as a great number for a women’s game but it means Wembley was only about two thirds full.
In the second half, Japan scored again and seemed comfortably on course for the final. But then things changed dramatically. France upped their game and scored a great goal with just 14 minutes to go. Three minutes later they had a penalty! Suddenly and unbelievably, it looked like the game would be heading for extra time. But France put the penalty wide! (That’s the great thing about doing your own blog. You can put exclamation marks in your match reports. Those two are fully justified.)
France kept the pressure on and the closing minutes were thrilling. The crowd became a single living, gasping, yelling thing, responding instinctively to what was happening on the pitch. Four minutes of added time seemed to go on much longer as France tried desperately to get an equaliser. But they fell just short.
Japan were through and their fans celebrated. A woman in a red and white kimono near me waved a Japanese flag in delight. All round, Japanese fans were cheering, chanting and grinning.
If you get an electrifying final 15 minutes, you forget the dull 75 that came before. It’s fantastic. And you don’t need anyone shouting from a big screen to tell you that.

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Wenlock watch update: Shameless showboating

This blog was created to convey the London Olympic experience by fusing years of journalistic practice with the glowing white heat of social media and citizen reporting. It is, therefore, something of a surprise to discover that its most popular work so far concerns a mouthless mascot.
Yet is that not a perfect metaphor for life itself? Sometimes someone thrusts a mutant Teletubby into your hand and you just have to run with it. Inspire A Generation indeed.
Having broken the biggest story of the Games so far by revealing Wenlock’s shock no-show at the Olympic Park and following up with an exclusive report of a rare sighting, this blog has continued to keep a close eye on the feckless figurehead’s movements.
It pains me to say that the evidence is incontrovertible: Wenlock is a shameless showboating mercenary who turns up only when he sees a chance of money and fame for himself. (Some may argue that this makes him a perfect mascot for London in 2012, particularly its bankers and politicians, but this blog chooses to take a less cynical view.)
I can exclusively reveal that Wenlock was nowhere to be seen at Wembley last week at the South Korea v Gabon match. Nor did he deign to put in an appearance at the women’s basketball on Friday morning. In fact, once again there was no sign of him anywhere in the Olympic Park that day.
I also scanned television pictures of the men’s tennis final but there was no trace of Wenlock even at Wimbledon. (He may have feared being attacked by a disgusted member of The Wombles, well known for their work ethic and surely appalled by his work-shy foppery.)
But where was Wenlock only too happy to be seen at the weekend? At the Olympic Stadium, of course. Cavorting around on prime-time television as Britain won triple gold on Saturday and Usain Bolt took the 100 metres title on Sunday. Most shamelessly of all, he was also thrusting golden Wenlocks into the hands of Olympic champions. There can be no doubt that he has signed a lucrative image rights deal with the Olympic organisers and will be rubbing himself with cash as innocent children pester their parents into ordering golden Wenlocks from the London 2012 website. But Wenlock is nothing if not a thoroughly modern mascot. Not content with this barefaced commercialism, he took to Twitter to boast about it and secure yet more free advertising:

Even here, Wenlock cannot help but reveal his true colours. A fan responds to his tweet by asking if he will be at the canoe sprint on Wednesday. His response is no surprise to those of us who have come to know him well — nothing but snooty silence. (I think by now we can all imagine him glancing at his phone in disbelief. “Canoe slalom? Are you kidding? I don’t get out of bed for anything less than a 20 million TV audience!”)
One other possible reason for Wenlock’s elusiveness has recently come to my attention. I have been struck by how some female readers of this blog have leapt to his defence. Despite having been branded creepy and terrifying by a leading American expert, Wenlock is clearly something of a ladies’ mascot. One female friend of the blog has described him as “very cute” and “quite cuddly when I met him”. I was, of course, too polite to ask any more but I suspect Wenlock may be especially hard to spot during the day as he is still sleeping off some high living from the night before.
Surely it is high time that Wenlock explained himself. If he wants to prove he is not just a  ruthless glory-hunter, I challenge him to meet me at the women’s football semi-final this afternoon or the handball quarter-finals on Wednesday night. Rest assured he will not escape tough questioning just because he is a non-human. An exemplary precedent has already been set in this area…

Of basketball and bowler tossing

The Basketball Arena
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.

The Olympic effect

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There was a men’s football match in London yesterday. It didn’t involve big-name teams. It was between South Korea and Gabon. Not even South Korea and Gabon’s main international teams. And not even at a level of football played at major championships. These were under-23 teams, with three overage players allowed, just to make it all even more strange. It wasn’t a final, a semi-final or even a quarter-final. And no goals were scored.
How many people came to watch this obscure game?
Seventy-six thousand, nine hundred and twenty-seven. And they had a blast.
That’s the Olympic effect. Stick five interlocking rings on Wembley Stadium and announce you’re holding the Olympic football tournament and suddenly you’ll have tens of thousands of people streaming into a drab corner of northwest London on a Wednesday afternoon.
I was in danger of Olympic sensory overload as I walked through the crowds towards the  arch above the new Wembley with BBC radio’s dramatic coverage of Bradley Wiggins’s time trial triumph in my earphones.
South Korean fans were out in force, waving their national flags or sporting them as capes and headbands. (We’re a lot better with our Korean flags now, after last week’s bold attempt to revive war on the peninsula via a women’s football match in Glasgow.)
The new Wembley, by the way, is very swanky and I was in a particularly swanky bit. There’s lots of glass and gleaming black stone and fancy restaurants. The posh lavatories (they’re far too smart to be called toilets) have dispensers of Wembley-branded “luxury moisturiser”. My red seat in the stand even had padding. It was a great vantage point from which to observe a lot of people having a great time watching something not very important.
Mexican waves swept round and round all three tiers of the stadium. Thousands oohed and aahed as players missed chances to score. Chants of “Gabon!” went up ahead of a free kick, even though there were few Gabonese in the crowd. A couple in front of me did have a big, green, yellow and blue Gabonese flag but something about their pale complexions suggested they may not have been Libreville born and bred. It turned out they were from Kent and had just decided it would be more fun to support one of the teams.
Personally, I was torn, having a long and deep association with both nations. I believe I have spent a total of three nights in Seoul on two very brief work trips and I was once in a plane than stopped in Gabon for an hour or two. I concluded it was impossible to resolve these conflicting loyalties and decided just to enjoy the football.
This blog has already established an enviable track record in not producing match reports (there’s one here) but I thought it was an entertaining, open game (although that’s not how this guy saw it), even if the overall standard was patchy. I went with an American friend and we were both engrossed, although, to be fair, much of the time we were engrossed in trying to get a picture onto Facebook. The 0-0 draw means South Korea are through to a quarter-final against the British and Gabon are out.
For a lot of people in the stadium, none of that seemed to matter much. It was a chance to see Wembley, have a good time, dress up and wave a flag — any flag. I spotted the British, Swiss, Belgian, Cuban and Canadian colours in the crowd and I’m sure there were others.
After the game, we ended up in a packed sports bar nearby. When the men’s 200m breaststroke final came on the big screens, the crowd in the bar roared and cheered on the two British swimmers. “They can’t hear you, you know,” the barmaid said with a resigned smile amid the noise. I’m guessing they don’t have swimming on the big screens in the Wembley Tavern very often and I’m guessing it wouldn’t normally produce that kind of reaction. There’s that Olympic effect again.

Wenlock Watch: breaking news!

Having exposed what has quickly become known around the world as Wenlockgate, the scandal of the missing Olympic mascot, this blog is staying ahead of the pack with the latest news on this major story. I can report that Wenlock apparently re-emerged yesterday but serious questions remain about his welfare and wellbeing.
First, Wenlock’s Twitter feed twitched into life after several days of silence:

But expert mascotologists noted there was no evidence of Wenlock himself in the picture, raising questions about whether he had actually been at the rowing at all. The Twitter account later posted a picture of a bizarre statue of the fugitive figurehead but once again there was no clear sign of life.
Even if these tweets come from the real Wenlock, that still makes him about as active on Twitter as an empty seat at an Olympic venue, which has its own Twitter feed. Three tweets since the start of the Games is really not much Wenlock.
Later came the most exciting development of the day. One of this blog’s many correspondents spotted him in the Olympic Park and captured this undercover shot:
Wenlock was apparently posing with visitors in the park, a clear improvement on Sunday, when he was nowhere to be seen. But surely I cannot be alone in finding this picture deeply disturbing? It seems Wenlock has been cornered by Olympic “volunteers” and is about to be forcibly returned to a secure location.
Concerns mounted for the enigmatic girder offshoot even as this report was going to press when it emerged the London 2012 mascots’ official website had gone offline:
Surely the use of police uniform cannot be lightly dismissed. Is this a coded cry for help to Scotland Yard?
Among the other questions requiring urgent answers:
Was Wenlock stung into making a bit of an effort by this blog’s stunning exposé yesterday? Is he the world’s laziest mascot and just not capable of any more?
Is he a member of the Amalgamated Mascotworkers and Other Adults In Fancy Dress Union and bound by their strict restrictions on working hours? Is he not allowed to work weekends or is he protesting against his pay and conditions by working to rule?
Does he remain in the clutches of terrorists or criminals who let him out briefly in an effort to put the world’s media off the scent after yesterday’s scoop? Did he make a brief break for freedom before being recaptured, as the picture clearly suggests?
Did Sebastian Coe, the chairman of the Games organising committee, decide to run around in a Wenlock suit for a few hours yesterday just to get a break from all those questions about empty seats?
Any sightings of Wenlock, or theories about his bizarre behaviour, can be posted below or reported to dispatchesfrom2012 (at) gmail (dot) com. They will, of course, be treated with the seriousness and sensitivity this matter deserves.