Olympic Parklife and the House of Handball

In the days of ballooning budgets, lampooned logos, ticketing fiascos, stadium wrangles and security crises, the organisers of the London Olympics must have dreamed of days like this.
Spectators glide east to Stratford on modern trains, step into a station that is busy but not overwhelming, walk the short distance to the Olympic Park and pass through security in just a few minutes.
Once inside, tens of thousands wander around in the sunshine, entertained by buskers and bands. Under the bright blue sky of a warm summer’s evening, people picnic on grassy slopes and watch athletics from the Olympic Stadium on giant screens. Cheers go up as British athletes enter the finishing strait. When a long jumper claps her hands above her head to get the crowd involved in her run-up, people on the grass clap along even though they can’t be heard in the stadium.
Even the mocked mascot Wenlock has played his part, posing for pictures with children who line up to hug him. (Yes, this blog finally came face-to-screen with the hard-to-find figurehead and a post on this historic encounter will follow later.)
That was the Olympic Park yesterday. It was a bit like walking inside one of those utopian artists’ impressions or computer animations that property developers like to produce.
This blog offers no judgement about whether this is a wise use of £9 billion of public money (or more than £12 billion or even £24 billion, or whatever the true cost). Nor does it take a definitive view on whether we are victims of a massive marketing and brainwashing operation. It simply offers this earth-splitting conclusion: People were having a good time.
The same was true inside the House of Handball. Until a day or two ago, this was the Basketball Arena. But basketball has moved to a bigger home for its final games and handball has also moved up the Olympic property ladder.
Knowing very little about handball before last night’s quarter-final between Croatia and Tunisia, I undertook the kind of painstaking research that readers have come to expect from this blog. I consulted one of the world’s leading Olympic handball experts. Or, as she might also be described, a friend who saw her first game a few days ago after winning the tickets on a chocolate wrapper. The expert imparted many deep secrets about the finer points of handball, including “there’s a ball”, “they hold it in their hands” and “there appear to be no limits on fouling, apart from when the referee randomly decides that something is unacceptable”. All of these insights proved remarkably profound.
I felt quite at home in the House of Handball. They had just about the right mix between razzmatazz and sport. (Or maybe I an just more open to being blasted with loud music at 9:30 in the evening than I am at 9 in the morning, when I was watching women’s basketball.) Handball itself looked to this untrained eye like a cross between football and basketball, with a few rugby tackles thrown in. It’s a seriously tough sport. Players seem to end up on the floor a lot. “Floor technicians” (a.k.a. volunteers with big mops) wipe away the sweat they leave behind.
It’s also a fast, high-scoring game and the players are serious athletes, even if the Croatian goalkeeper with his splodgy green top and baggy track suit bottoms looked suspiciously like he had come straight from a spot of painting and decorating.
Last night’s match had pretty much everything you could want in a spectator sport — goals, skill, athleticism, sin bin suspensions, a red card and a close contest. Tunisia were a point ahead at half time but Croatia ended up winning 25-23.
As seems to happen all over these Olympics, the crowd stomped, clapped, cheered and yelled, even though handball has absolutely no tradition in this country. (Britain created its own men’s and women’s handball teams from scratch for these Games.)
Afterwards, as people streamed towards Stratford station, the Olympic Park felt quite different from the first Sunday. There was a certain tension then. Some of the volunteers giving directions sounded a little bossy. Now, the place has found its rhythm and everyone seems relaxed. We’ve done it, their body language seems to say. We’ve done this now, day after day, and it works.
Outside the station, a volunteer in a hijab sitting on a lifeguard-style high chair sang “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands” through a loudspeaker. Down below, a young guy with a Spanish flag delighted in shouting to volunteers: “Can I have your finger?” He meant the big pink foam hands with outstretched fingers the volunteers use to point the way. The volunteers cheerfully declined. But the guy and his friends found a small pile of their objects of desire by the station entrance, grabbed one and made a run for it. Their Olympic experience was complete.