Sunday, 16 August 2009

London's warm-up weekend of sport allows two Olympic venues to shine

A school basketball court is the scene of my most embarrassing moment. I had just scored after coming on as a sub following a time-out and was standing under the basket, my 16-year-old arms aloft, wondering why no-one was celebrating my amazing dribble and dunk from the re-start. The reason no-one was sharing my elation was because the time-out had, in fact been half-time and the teams had swapped ends. I’d been sent into the game unaware and had promptly scored in the wrong basket.

No surprise, that was the end of, not only my basketball career but also any future interest I may have developed in the game. I should add that I went on to achieve at every other school sport but I never returned to a basketball court, until last week.

Game On at the O2 was a four-nation tournament that began on Friday 14 August. It kick-started a Warm-up Weekend of sport that would be the UK capital’s first real test for two 2012 Olympic venues.

Whilst Turkey got the tournament underway with a comfortable 85-69 win over Israel, my Melbourne accomplice was still crying with laughter as we'd swapped the opening game for happy hour on the O2’s entertainment avenue and I’d told her of my embarrassing school tale.

I tried to distract her from recalling my teenage sporting failure by asking how she thought London would measure up as an Olympic host city in 1076 days time.

I was heartened to hear that, compared with her own 2006 Commonwealth Games host city, she believes London already has a much cleaner and more reliable transport infrastructure. I elected not to tell her that the Jubilee Line would be closed from Green Park to Stratford the next day for engineering work, thus significantly reducing the chances of a high-turn out for the tournament’s final day.

The game we’d come to see was Team GB versus Poland. So too, it seemed, had most of London’s youth Polish community and the sounds of ‘Polska Polska’ reverberated around the arena.

We took our seats in amongst a band of passionate Polish supporters who, throughout the game, depending on which team had the ball, kept up their cries of ‘Defense!’ or ‘Polska!’.

When taking free throw penalties, both sets of supporters tried feverishly to put the opposing team off by booing. It proves, in my view, that ‘extra man spectator tactics’ is simply a part and parcel of sports banter worldwide and it only added to, rather than detracted from the overall atmosphere.

It didn’t help the Team GB cause however as their line-up, apparently depleted through injury and unavailability, could only match the Poles until half-time.

A 17-0 run, wrapped around the half-time break, set Poland up for a 70-56 victory. If only my school had put on a half-time show, half as good as the dancers and slam-dunking trampolinist that entertained the crowds at the O2, maybe I’d have paid more attention to what stage of the game we were in all those years ago.

Unsurprisingly, with its wealth of experience for hosting major events, the O2 (or the North Greenwich Arena as it will be referred to during the Olympics) sailed through its 2012 test. It’s already a world-class venue and will prove a fitting arena for 16,500 artistic gymnastic fans and 20,000 basketball supporters in three years time.

The next day it was the turn of Hyde Park to test its Olympic credentials.

One of the Royal Parks of London, Hyde Park is more famous for its Speakers’ Corner than it is for holding large capacity sporting events. In 2012 however, it will stage both the Olympic Triathlon and the 10km Open Water Swim and have grandstand seating for 3,000 spectators.

On Saturday, 15 August 2009, it staged the London leg of the ITU Dextro Energy Triathlon. Participants swam the Serpentine before cycling 40km and running 10km in laps around a park that was created to satisfy Henry VIII’s passion for hunting.

Britain’s 21-year-old Alistair Brownlee was the sporting hero of the day as he stormed to victory, underlining his status as an early gold medal favourite for London 2012. Earlier, in the women’s race, Britain’s Helen Jenkins was edged out into bronze medal place after a dramatic sprint finish.

For me though, one of the most inspiring aspects of the day, on a par with the British triathlon performances, was the aerial broadcast footage, beamed onto big screens and aired by global television networks as it followed the athletes as they made their way around the course.

Hyde Park is a lush green space surrounded by famous London landmarks. On a sunny day, and filmed from either the air or ground, it makes for an amazing setting. When you consider Hyde Park alongside other Olympic backdrops including Horse Guards Parade for the Beach Volleyball and Greenwich Park for Equestrian and Modern Pentathlon, the picture of just how stunning the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games will look on a global television stage begins to really take shape.