I made my first visit to the Olympic Park on Thursday afternoon, for a session of men's basketball. Despite warnings about delays on public transportation, my trip on the Underground to Stratford Station was relatively quick, and not crowded at all. Upon arrival, though, it was immediately apparent just how massive the crowds attending the events at the park actually are. Everything is well marked and well staffed, and from what I have seen so far, all staff seem to consistently display a friendly, helpful, and humorous manner. Once I got through security, signs said I had a 20-30 minute walk to the Basketball Arena. There is plenty to look at on the long walk, which, due to the crowds, is necessarily a leisurely stroll, including other venues, shopping areas, broadcasting booths, and interesting sculptures.
As I approached the area of the basketball arena, I spotted the set of The Today Show, and stopped by to see what was happening. A few members of the gold-medal winning USA women's gymnastics team were waiting to be interviewed, and there was a big crowd, mostly American, checking things out and getting pictures with Matt Lauer, Savannah Guthrie, and Natalie Morales. I may have been seen on the air for a split second when the 8 a.m. (EDT) hour started, but I'll have to bring a sign next time!
The basketball venue itself is one of the largest temporary structures ever built for an Olympics. It seats 12,000, and will host preliminary round and quarter-final basketball games, as well as Handball and Paralympic events. Like at the Beach Volleyball venue, there are announcers working to keep the crowd excited and involved; at any given team event, there are many people in the audience who may not have a rooting interest, but are just there to enjoy the games and soak up the atmosphere. Entertainment included various dancers and Get Tricky, a group of talented jump-ropers – much more exciting than I expected when they were announced!
The first game was a match-up between Argentina, featuring Manu Ginobili of the San Antonio Spurs, and Tunisia. Tunisia fought hard, but it was the Argentine fans who celebrated by breaking into song as the clock wound down. The second game was a nail-biter between Russia and Brazil, with the Russians winning on a three-pointer in the final seconds. While there were fans of each team in the crowd, fans of Argentina and Brazil each had an especially strong presence and were enthusiastically waiving flags, chanting, and cheering throughout.
It was a great afternoon of basketball and afterward I met up with the one other person from the United States who I knew would be at the Games, a Stonington High colleague. Amazingly, she and her husband had tickets to the same session of basketball, so we left the park together and went back into the city center for dinner. While it's great to be visiting a foreign country and meeting new people, sometimes it's nice to see a friendly face from home.
I enjoyed my visit to the Basketball Arena, but I'm really looking forward to my return on Sunday, when I'll see the Team USA women take on China!