London 2012 (08.08.2012) – Finished Last, Still a Personal Best

The Olympic Flag inside Olympic Stadium.

After being able to attend women’s basketball and table tennis during these Olympics, this morning shaped up to be the busiest (and albeit most expensive) yet in my role as Olympic Spectator. I crossed two more venues off my bucket list with a visit to Riverbank Arena, home of the field hockey competition, and the centerpiece of these Games, Olympic Stadium.

I’m not sure what has been more enjoyable: being able to buy tickets or actually going to the event. But being able to do both earlier this week only wet my appetite. Yesterday, I was at it again on the London 2012 Ticketing Website. I’ve even started following @2012TicketAlert on Twitter, which provided automatic updates whenever tickets became available on the website.

I’ve noticed a pattern in how tickets become available throughout the day. Usually, the tickets that were available at any given moment are those that have been returned to LOCOG and are being resold. That explains how some events look like they are still available even though the few tickets that were have already been sold.

But twice a day, once in the morning and again in the evening, LOCOG releases a mass quantity of tickets, and it’s during this time that you have your best chance to get tickets. So when the number of events available skyrocketed from eight to 135, it’s time to begin clicking. A colleague of mine equated it to how Wall Street brokers try and buy stock.

You can reserve up to four events at one time. But in the time that you go searching for four events, you’re already missing out on tickets. So I decide to just request a ticket for a morning field hockey game. While the system was actually finding a ticket to request, I browse other events. I’ve yet to go to Olympic Stadium and see the Cauldron, so when I see that the Wednesday morning session had tickets available, I had to go for it.

When I pressed “Request Tickets”, it resent the request for the field hockey ticket as well. After ten agonizing minutes watching the spinning wheel of death as the system searched for tickets, the next page appeared and there were tickets available for both field hockey and athletics.

I felt like I had won the lottery but then I realized that the two events overlapped each other. The field hockey match began at 8:30am and the morning session started at 10am. I couldn’t simply just delete an event since I requested tickets for both. The only way I could get rid of an event is if I went back to my shopping cart. But that would release both the field hockey and athletics tickets, and I wasn’t about to let go of the opportunity to finally enter Olympic Stadium.

So I buy both. £35 for field hockey and £95 for athletics. Definitely not the cheapest morning I’ve had here in London.

A Walk to the Land of Purple and Blue

Considering the price of the tickets, I certainly wasn’t going to pay for much else. When I get to the IBC to drop off my stuff, I grab some breakfast at the NBC Commissary. A coffee, a croissant and a fruit and yogurt parfait. Luckily, Riverbank Arena is literally steps away from the IBC.

It’s a temporary structure that will be taken down after the Paralympics, when the Football 7-a-side and 5-a-side competitions take place there. What’s unique about it? Well, take a look for yourself.

Riverbank Arena, home for Olympic Field Hockey.

It’s the first time that Olympic Field Hockey will be contested on a blue field. Many sports fans can compare this to the blue courts used at the US Open and the blue field use in college football at Boise State.

The stands were relatively empty when I arrived. I guess we can’t expect the sport-crazed nation of Britain to get up this early for an 8:30 start. A steady stream of spectators continued to enter the arena throughout the morning. But I’ll bet many of them didn’t have a ticket to athletics at 10am like I did. So I had to get as much of my £35 ticket to field hockey as possible.

The match itself was a women’s game between Japan and South Africa, a classification match to determine who finishes in ninth and tenth place in the standings. It wasn’t exactly a compelling matchup, nor were any medals at stake, but it’s the Olympics and as evidenced by the demand for tickets, any event is a hot ticket.

I enjoy watching field hockey. It’s one of those sports that you never see on TV but is very physical and competitive. I’ve had the pleasure of covering Syracuse field hockey, one of the best programs in the nation. Thus, I’ve already had an appreciation and decent understanding of the sport.

There’s definitely something different about watching sports in the morning. Instead of a beer, you have a coffee. You’re applauding and clapping instead of obnoxiously cheering. I would say that it was a pleasant experience. Sport in the morning definitely fills a void in the day, when most would be watching last night’s highlights on Sportscenter.

London 2012 organizers have also done a great job with the spectator experience. From the music to the volunteers, spectators like me have been treated to good vibes at every venue. At this game, whenever a team wanted to challenge a call and use the video referee, they’d play the Beatles’ classic song, “Help!”, a perfect choice for the situation.

And the PA announcers have been fantastic in explaining the rules of each sport, especially with those that spectators might not be so familiar with.

Listen as the PA announcer at Riverbank Arena explains how a penalty corner works in field hockey.

I did get to see one goal before the first half ended. But with the decathlon set to get underway at 10am with the 100m heats (which would be the only sprint event on the schedule in the morning session), I left my seat at Riverbank Arena shortly after 9:30AM, with the second half barely underway.

Turns out I missed a good game, with Japan coming back in the second half to tie the game and then winning off a penalty stroke in the second overtime period.

Citius, Altius, Fortius

I don’t remember the last time I was so happy to enter a stadium. I was so eager to get to my seat that what was supposed to be a 20-30 minute walk from Riverbank Arena to Olympic Stadium was done in 15 minutes.

I got to my seat with plenty of time. Enough time in fact that I wondered how much more of that field hockey game I could have watched. Well, hindsight is 20/20 and if I stayed, I probably would have stressed out about getting to Olympic Stadium on time.

The first thing I did was take in the fact that I was there. And I surely wasn’t the only one. For a morning session, this place was packed.

The view of the track and the field from my seat in Olympic Stadium.

The sprint track was on the far end, where Usain Bolt sprinted to Olympic glory once again earlier in these games. It’s where the Ashton Eaton and other decathletes start their grueling 10-event journey. The backstretch was on my near end, and even closer to me were the straightaways for the long jumps, which will be the second event of the decathlon, held today and tomorrow. Right in front of me was the qualifying competition in the men’s pole vault and on the other end, qualifying took place in the women’s hammer throw.

What’s great about watching an athletics event is that there is so much going on at once, perfect for the guy like me who has a severe case of sports attention deficit disorder. When there’s no race happening on the track, there’s always something going on in the field. So many stories of Olympic dreams ending and continuing. Athletes who have come to London for gold, while others who were just happy to compete.

Even in the stands, there’s no shortage of stories. For some, they have traveled thousands of miles to see the Olympics. Others are from somewhere in the UK, or live in London. Some have been to numerous Olympics before while others like me are attending their first. Moms, dads, their kids. Young professionals. Military servicemen. Former coaches and athletes. Interns. You don’t realize it until it’s right in front of you. Everyone has a story.

But the stories that people care about are those of the competitors. I got the chance to see Ashton Eaton compete in the decathlon, and home crowd favorite Mo Farah run in the heats of the 5000m. I saw a pole break during an attempt of the pole vault. But while broadcasters will show highlights like those, I’ll remember my time at Olympic Stadium for seeing two athletes that won’t win a medal or make the Not Top 10 of Sportscenter.

First was Saudi Arabia’s Sarah Attar, the first female runner from that country to compete in the Olympics. It was the first Olympic Games in which Saudi Arabia allowed women to compete, a late but certainly welcome development from the conservative kingdom in an Olympics where women outnumbered men on Team USA. Attar won long pants, a head scarf and a long-sleeved shirt and get a roar of approval from the crowd as she was introduced before her women’s 800m heat.

She finished last, but that wasn’t the point. The fans cheered louder for her than the woman who actually won the heat. The motto of these games was to “Inspire A Generation”. Attar surely inspired a new generation of women in Saudi Arabia.

The other athlete I’ll remember is Rene Herrera, a 5000m runner from the Philippines. I’m a Filipino-American so to be able to witness a runner from the country where the rest of my family grew up is pretty special. Herrera has won competitions at the Southeast Asian Games and was the oldest competitor from the Philippines competing here in London. There were only 11 Filipino athletes at these Olympics, the smallest Filipino delegation since the 1996 Olympics.

Herrera was in the same heat as American Lopez Lamong and British athlete and 10000m champion Mo Farah. He received cheers and applause when he finished the race with a time of 14:44:11, a personal best for Herrera. Though he was lapped by his other competitors and finished dead last in his heat, I can tell my family that I got to watch an Olympian from the Philippines compete.

Rene Herrera competing in the 5000m at Olympic Stadium.

He later said, “Every runner is a winner here.”

My time with ‘The Flame’

The highlight of my visit to Olympic Stadium was finally seeing the flame in person. Said to be the source of inspiration for all athletes, for some, it’s just really pretty to look at. For me, to see it with my own eyes meant a lot, especially considering that the flame cannot be seen outside of the stadium unlike in previous Olympics.

There are plenty of songs, poems, and euphemisms about what the flame means to the Olympic movement and to an Olympic Games itself. Other multi-sport events have also made lighting a cauldron a part of their tradition. The flame is lit by the sun’s rays in Olympia and travels thousands of miles to the host city. Needless to say, the flame isn’t just like lighting a candle or starting a grill. There’s a reason why the last torch bearer is a closely-guarded secret and why the lighting of the cauldron is always the climax of the closing ceremony.

So yeah. It’s a big deal to be able to see the Olympic Flame. After most of the morning competition ended, I left my seat and made my way down. I wasn’t the only one that wanted to take a picture of the flame.

I rarely ask for pictures to be taken of me. I don’t really like being in pictures for the sake of being in a picture. But this was one of those times where I myself needed proof that I was there to see the flame.

The Olympic Flame and I.

The Long Walk Back

I had a tough time leaving Olympic Stadium. I took way more pictures than I normally would at a sporting event, with plenty of photos of the flame. I stayed for most of the decathlon shot put competition, even though most of the spectators left. Each time I got up to leave the stadium, I would end up sitting a new seat, not wanting to leave this magical arena.

Insert every cliche you know about dreams coming true, but my dreams did. And I knew it wouldn’t be something that I’d repeat. Who knows when the Olympics will return to London for a fourth time or if this stadium will even be standing. This was thus-far the highlight of my Olympic experience.

After taking a few more pictures, I somehow left the stadium, with the biggest smile on my face. I walked back to the IBC so happy with what I was able to witness this morning.

And I wasn’t alone. As I continued walking, I was amazed with how many people were here, with just about the same intentions as mine: to watch the best athletes in the world compete. It’s a magical atmosphere really. Someone compared it to going to Disney World, where you pay just to get inside and are surrounded by visitors from all over the world. Instead of rides, you pay and wait in line to see sport and spectacle.

There were people hoping to swap tickets to see their country in this afternoon’s handball semifinals. Families walking around with their strollers. Young people walking with their flags.

I’ve never been to Disney World. And now I never want to. Because I don’t think I’ll be any happier there than I was in Olympic Park today.

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