Kovacevic: A test of Olympian stamina
By Dejan Kovacevic
Published: Tuesday, August 7, 2012, 8:56 p.m.
Updated: Wednesday, August 8, 2012
LONDON — Wednesday marks the opening of the Olympic decathlon, in which athletes compete in 10 track and field events over two days. These guys can run sprints, distance and hurdles. They can throw the javelin, discus and shot put. They can even pole vault without becoming shish kabobs.
But they're wimps.
All of ‘em.
In reality, I've begun the one true test of Olympian -- nay, Herculean -- strength, an all-access media pass, unimpeded wireless, unlimited caffeine and an Underground rail network capable of moving you about with uncanny ease.
This is, of course, the reporter's decathlon.
Ten events, ten venues, two days.
And only one regret: Judo has ended, so I'll never get to ask a follow-up question to poor Nick Delpopolo. He's the American who was disqualified this week for doping, then explained it was caused by "inadvertent consumption of food that I did not realize had been baked with marijuana."
If only I'd had a chance to stir that pot.
Anyway, we're off ...
One hasn't fully experienced the Olympics without a visit to the velodrome, the saddle-shaped structure unique to track cycling. In this case, I just happen to walk in on what would be one of Great Britain's many crowning achievements at these Games.
This should sizzle, right?
The two racers in the men's sprint are pushed by a helper up the steeply slanted track to the start line, the gun goes off and ... almost nothing happens. Jason Kenny, one of the Brits' own, takes a single pedal, then looks back over his shoulder. France's Gregory Bauge barely budges.
The PA announcer informs us, including the throbbing Union Jack-waving crowd, "Ladies and gentlemen! These are two of the sport's great tacticians."
I ask the Brit in front of me what that means.
"Oy, just watch the race, mate!"
So, after the first of three laps is invested in cat-and-mouse strategy - Who will use the top of the oval? Who will cut off whom? - the racers finally take off. And it's breathtaking, right down to Kenny jutting his wheel ahead for gold.
Gets even better afterward when French reporters at a press conference challenge the legality of the British bike. To which David Brailsford, chief of the British cycling association, dryly snaps back that his side uses "especially round wheels."
No, not that hockey. The Winter Games call that ice hockey. You'd call this one field hockey, except that the bright blue field makes it more akin to Boise State football.
I'm at Belgium vs. South Korea in the women's bracket. It's a packed stadium of 10,000, one of many temporary venues that will be folded after the Olympics. But it's beautifully decorated, with flags flying all around. Great atmosphere. The fans even start the wave during a critical portion of the match, something seen as a crime only in certain corners of Western Pennsylvania.
The game itself is a curious but fun combination of soccer's motion, "ice" hockey's skill set and a chiropractor's dream come true for the athletes' posture.
Best part is the wild format for the penalty shot: Five defenders, including the goalkeeper, are required to begin the sequence inside their own net. It's quite a sight. They can't emerge until the attacking team plays the ball for a shot on goal.
Finally, a penalty-killing system more passive than the one the Penguins employed against the Flyers.
Easiest sport in the Olympics?
Some joke about the race walk, but I saw up close what those athletes endured over the weekend at Buckingham Palace. One guy from Iran could barely lift his right leg coming off the road.
It's not the handball you play with your boss at the Racquet Club. It looks like soccer except it's about hands rather than feet, and you can be called for traveling if you don't dribble, presumably to avoid confusion with the NBA guys across the way.
From afar, it does look easy. The net's really big, the ball really isn't, and the keeper isn't protected by much more than knee pads.
But sitting no more than 20 feet from courtside, I can see I'm as wrong as all those who mock the walk.
A young Korean left winger, Hyobi Jo, is smaller than most of the Russians, but she's agile and nasty enough to leap up and clothesline one after another. The referee gives her a yellow card, to which she responds with a dismissive flick of the hand.
Only in the Olympics: The undersized female Korean goon.
ExCeL North Arena 1
You could interview NFL defensive backs forever not produce better trash talk than what I heard in Athens eight years ago at table tennis. This was from Korean player Seung Min Ryu, after beating his opponent: "From the beginning, I attacked him aggressively. And I felt him to be shrunk."
Yeah, that'll get you flagged for taunting, 10 yards lost in the demilitarized zone.
Those matches were held in a dedicated arena, but these are one of several events London organizers squeezed into a convention center. The atmosphere is still robust for this women's team final - China vs. Japan - as fans of the sport always enjoy a tastes-great-less-filling form of back-and-forth.
Alas, the match isn't great: Ding Ning, Li Xiaoxia and Guo Yue overwhelm the Japanese, 3-0.
By the way, don't confuse Ding Ning with Dong Dong, China's gold-medal gymnast.
ExCeL South Arena 3
If you can't stand Americans, this is the place for you. Not a single U.S. weightlifter has medaled yet, and there's barely a red, white and blue flag to be found in the risers, either.
Have we become a nation of nose tackles?
Shezad Malik, a security officer at the venue, is telling me on the train to watch out for a North Korean named Om Yun Chol.
"He lifted three times his own body weight!" Malik says
Sure enough, upon checking, Om lifted 370 pounds in a 122-pound weight class, after which he declared, "I think to myself, I have lifted the world!"
That's impressive in deed and word. But the guys I see aren't faring quite as well.
Weightlifting audiences wrap the stage on three sides, and they consider themselves part of the event. In the clean and jerk, they'll maintain golf-level silence for the initial lift. But once the athlete bellows, they do, too, hoping to help. What a scene.
Until it turns badly.
Matthias Steiner of Germany, the defending Olympic champion, follows a string of guys who have lifted 432 pounds. He succeeds in getting the bar onto the shoulders, then a bit over his head, then ... crash!
The bar, and all that terrible weight, slam down on the right side of his neck. He collapses. Doctors rush the stage, and volunteers quickly raise a curtain to prevent us from seeing more.
Soon, though, Steiner is helped off. He'll be fine.
Should have been a nose tackle.
THURSDAY: Day 2
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