Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Flashback 05: Gunpoint in Colombia

We arrived soon after sun down in the small diving town of Taganga on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Having left behind some poco loco times in Cartegena and spent much of the day squeezed on a bus, we were in no rush to do anything. This all changed with the news that two Israeli girls I had met in Ecuador, Eliana and Tali, had left that morning for the fabled beaches of Tayrona. A few beers, some kip in a hammock and we set off in hope of finding them.
Tayrona National Park is 300 square kilometres of stunning nature reserve to the east of Santa Marta. It contains rainforested hills, the famous Cuidad Perdida (Lost City) and as it meets the Caribbean some of the most beautiful beaches you could imagine. And so it was that Dave, Alex, Ryan and I transitioned from taxi to bus to pick-up truck and then trekked a couple of kms through the forest to the sea. The first view made it all worthwhile. In front of us a broad golden beach, hemmed in by imposing granite boulders, lapped by the frothing turquoise ocean and cut by freshwater streams. Behind us large, leaning palms gave way to a thick rainforest flowing up into the wild hills of the sierra. Wild, isolated and inspiring.

We were heading to the small beach of El Cabo. The directions we had been given were simple. Hit the beach, turn right and keep walking. Sounds simple enough, but Dave and I took a “short-cut” around a large outcrop of rocks, climbing and scrambling over increasingly perilous terrain. With packs on our backs we should have cut our losses and tuned back, but instead soldiered on lunging, leaping and, by the end of it, swimming across the choppy waters that filled the gaps in the outcrop. Eventually we made it back on to the beach, trekked another 45 minutes through the forest and arrived at our destination somewhat cut, torn and looking forward to a chill out.
We were not disappointed. In between large boulder outcrops, a tightly curbed beach bridges the gap between sea and forest. El Cabo is nothing more than a small hut, some chairs and a number of hammocks. Paradise.

The first thing I did was to drop my pack, scramble up over one of the boulders and greet our friends Eiana, Talia and Geoffrey. After a lot of smiles, a couple of hugs and general rapid catch up of the type so common among backpackers, we climbed back over and onto the beach. Even better, there were Heiko and Ursula, the lovely German couple I spent a night chatting with in Cali. It had all come together. Great place, great people and time to enjoy it. It seemed we had reached an apex in our travels, making it to one of the most northerly points in South America to relax, swim, get a tan and take stock before the long road south to Patagonia.
After watching the sun set with gusto over the sierra we seriously kicked back. The darkness deepened and the stars came with an intensity only possible when you are nowhere near anywhere. What more can you want then sitting out under the stars with a few mates, a beer in hand and the sea gently lapping at your feet..... a double barrel shotgun shoved in your face.
Out of nowhere, with no warning, a balaclava clad man dressed in black and carrying a shotgun appeared and made some ever so slightly threatening gestures with his piece. It sounds strange, but the initial reaction was not one of fear. A context of armed men being two a penny in Colombia almost certainly played a part in this. Paramilitaries ruled the region, so perhaps it was just a routine patrol. I suppose this was my initial reasoning, but it just wasn’t right. Confusion ruled. In broken Spanish Dave muttered “un momento por favor" as he glugged down the rest of his beer.
The stream of events over the next few hours are not entirely clear to me, but I will do my best to do them justice.
We were herded by an uncertain number of armed, masked and it is fair to say rather sketchy characters into the seating area set back five meters or so from the sea. My attention was drawn to at least one AK 47, pistols and shotguns. What in the fuck was going on? Why would paramilitaries do this? Were they paramilitaries and, if not, then who the fuck were they?
My reaction was simple and instinctive. Get as close to the centre of the herd as possible and KEEP MY HEAD DOWN. What are they doing? What in the heck should I be doing? Try to regain some of my wits and just keep fucking still.....
From what I could make out through stolen glances, they spent the next few minutes securing their position, checking for any stragglers and calmly taking total control. Only then did they start to communicate. At this point my Spanish was still, shall we say, sub optimal, so most of what I recall was latterly passed on to me by others. Something along the lines of "we are not robbers… give us all mobile phones… if you still have a mobile you are dead". The word "MUERTAS" got my attention. Can’t think why.
Believe it or not, they talked of us as hermanos (brothers). At one point a local guy stood up and confronted them. What resulted was a showdown of heated words, with one of the masked men putting a gun to the captive’s head until, eventually, he stood back down. To me this was barely real, like watching a movie play out in front of you.
The next hour and a half were the most formative of my life. As the intruders methodically shone torches from the face of one captive to another, I sat with my head down and eyes to the floor. This surreal situation created a unique atmosphere for contemplation and enforced soul searching. I do not particularly want to share the thoughts that went through my head but let's just say that a lot of questions I had been wrangling with for years were answered then and there with a clarity that could not exist without the tangible possibility of a near death.  I am not saying I thought I was going to die, rather that it was a genuine and immediate possibility. Rationalising it as much as I could, the likely paths in front of me were some sort of kidnapping, robbery, or simply death. As the night wore on the odds of each scenario had its time with the shortest odds. I made my peace and was surprised by the ease of acceptance.
I was suddenly snapped out of this dreamlike contemplation by a change in the situation.  A buzz of activity arose from relative silence. “Extranjeros" (foreigners) were ordered to put their hands. Anxiously, limbs started to obey and hung tentatively in the air. I figured that there was little point in violating the order as I stand out like a sore thumb in South America (pasty Celt that I am), so cautiously followed suit. The thugs made Geoffrey and Alexia stand up, come to the front, searched them thoroughly (even removing sandals) and then marched them off out of sight.
 Again......shit, what in the bloody hell is going on now? In my mind, the odds had shifted markedly towards some sort of kidnapping. The thought of the backpackers kidnapped in the same national park two years before ran through and through my head and one detail stood out. Last time they had only taken the fittest 8 of the 16 potential captives, chosen to best survive the jungle trek to the kidnappers base. There were quite a few of us, so if I kept quiet it might not be me.
My thoughts took a different direction. What should I do if I heard shots? They had been marched off into the dark without even shoes - that is not right for kidnapping – were they being executed? Contingency plans darted around my head, but I was conscious that in such situations affirmative action is often the worst thing to do and the local who confronted them was nearly killed. Even so I was determined to do something if I heard shots. There is no way you can just sit there like a lame duck if they start shooting people. But what to do? Fight? Against an AK, not very rational. Run? If done en masse, there were enough of us that some should get away, but where to run to? The forest, the sea?  I waited, full of tension.
Two more foreigners were ordered to stand, searched and marched off in the same professional manner. Then a finger pointing at me, and the Colombian lady in front ushered me to stand up. Bugger that. I just put my head back down and kept still. I think others stood up and went through the same routine. This happened once or twice more before eventually all “hombres” (men) were made to stand up, searched and marched off. The girls including Talia and Eliana were being left behind but what could you do - nothing.
They took my watch off my hand, and searched me from top to bottom. I was then moved on to another armed man who repeated the procedure, and then..... it was obvious where we were going. Partial relief. We were not being marched off then and there but shoved into the sole small shed-like building. There I was once again searched and led into the dark hot room already occupied by a good dozen people. The room was cramped as it was, but people kept on being pushed in, including the girls. That at least was a big relief. It did not bear thinking about what could be happening to them while we were separated. All in all I reckon circa 35 people were squeezed into a shack that consisted of two rooms in total no bigger than 4m by 3m. Legs on legs, bodies bunched together in the tropical heat. Not a pleasant situation.

The general feeling was still one of bewilderment. We were contained but for what purpose? We had no clue if it was temporary or long term and what we could expect next. I relaxed a touch when blankets were offered round by the masked ones. Why would they do that if they were going to kill us? Large breath out. Kidnapping was still high on the potential  agenda. Slightly dazed in the heat and humidity, I kept thinking I heard boats. A multitude of possibilities, outcomes and actions filled my imagination. Such an odd, fucked up situation. For god’s sake there were kids locked in with us, gripping to their parents for comfort.
At the start I was sitting on the bed and Dave was just in front of me. The first words we shared since a shotgun was first shoved in our faces was a joke. A dark one. This was a common theme of our entrapment. A joke here, talk about a good pub in Brighton there and intermittent attempts at assessing the current state of affairs. Oh, and one could not forget the little game of “I spy”. “I spy with my little eye something beginning with D”… “Dark”. “B”...”Black”. I am sure you get the gist of it.
As time wore on the tension went down half a notch and consequently the noise level in the hut rose as people began to talk. A loud bang and shout of "Do you want to be dead?" put pay to that. Everyone went dead silent and back on edge.
Then the bed collapsed on Heiko's leg. Not surprising with all the people scrunched together sitting on it.  He screamed in pain and writhed, triggering knock-on movement all around. I had a chat to some of the others to see how people were doing and then moved to the other room, getting as far away from the door as possible. This little box room was even smaller. Pressing heat and the sweet smell of sweat and piss. Legs cramped up and bodies rubbing against each other.  Behind me were a few crates of soft drink cans which I decided to spread around. Oh for a beer, but no such luck.
After being in the smaller room for a good hour or so without any noticeable noise from outside the hut, the general thinking was that they were either gone or at least settled down for the night - one possibility was that they were an armed group looking for shelter for the night. This relative calm was shattered by a large bang on the wooden shutter of the room I was in. It was opened and again I put my head down and avoided any possible eye contact. Alexis, who was at the far side of the room, later explained that there was a guy with a gun looking straight at her and barking orders. He demanded drinks and they were given. Eventually the shutter closed and left us in silence.
No one dared speak. With nerves strained, quiet suspense reigned. Very gradually the tension lowered and we waited and waited. As the night passed I slipped into a subdued contemplative state. 
FUCK. Gun shots rudely forced me back to reality. Possibilities fire across the synapses and fill the head like a charged balloon. Wide eyed glances flicker around the dim room.
Then silence... silence... silence. Exhausted, one by one the captives crashed out on the hard floor. I could not sleep. For what seemed and certainly was hours, I stared out the window at the opposite side of the shack. Waiting for the next bang, I listened to the sea lap the coast. At last, I too succumbed to slumber amongst the entanglement of bodies.
Awake. Faint light outside and bustling impatience in the room. Dripping with sweat, I stretched off the aches of the night. A quiet, yet intense discussion was dominating attention. What to do? We had heard nothing from our captors since the gun shots. Some said we should break out, others cautioned that we should stay.  Eventually the desire to keep our heads down was trumped by the lure of freedom. We decided to bust out of our dank, cramped shack. We bashed against the wooden shutter. No reaction from outside. A few more knocks and it flung open. Cool, fresh air surged into our temporary prison. Indescribably refreshing.
One by one we scrambled out. Scanning the scene, I could see no sign of the intruders. Hell to paradise in an instant. Unbridled elation.
A sunrise I thought I may never see lit up the most beautiful of beaches. I was filled with pure joy to be alive. A sensation I will never and must never forget. I inhaled the intense beauty of our world with gluttonous relief.
A snap back to reality. Our captors were gone, but so where two of the locals who had never made it into the shack.  All over the camp stuff was ripped open and strewn about. They had gone through every pocket, corner, nook and cranny. They stole cash, cameras, sunglasses, knives, money, torches, mp3 players, CD players, speakers... Helpfully, they did not take passports or credit cards, perhaps because they are traceable.
An odd, chilled out morning followed before we headed back to civilisation. We washed the stink off in the sea, intermittently rummaged around trying to find our stuff, sat and reflected. Thankfully, the two hostages returned with the news that the robbers - only at this point could we call them this with certainty - had taken two donkeys to carry the loot, ridden through the forest to the nearest road and jumped onto a public bus.
The events of the next couple of days will not be repeated, safe to say that Heiko, Ursula, Ryan, Geoffrey, Eliana, Talia, Dave and I spent a very confused and, to be frank, screwed up period of time trying to sort our heads out. A lot of us acted quite out of character.
Amongst all the conflicting thoughts and emotions, one thing was crystal clear. I was enthused to be alive and did not give a damn about the stuff I had lost. Life is not about such things, despite what society tells us. Unfortunately the robbers had not learned this lesson. We have good reason to believe that they were caught and shot by the paramilitaries.
Colombia does not deserve the bad impression that these recollections inevitably give. This was a freak incident and is not representative of what is a relatively safe country that has come so far from the dark days of the 1990’s.  It is a beautiful place filled with warm, welcoming people and I highly recommend a visit. Indeed, I can’t wait to return.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Olympic Roundup

It's all over and wasn't it fantastic. Bar a sub-standard domestic ticketing system and a good but could do better closing ceremony (where are Led Zeppelin when you need them?), I can't fault the games. Great, imaginative venues, vibrant crowds to fill them and, of course, inspiring performances from the athletes.
As the proceedings drew to a close I managed to squeeze in two final events (numbers 12 and 13). Working from home for the day, I popped out for a 20 minute cycle round the parks on my lunch break and happened to overtake a forthright Bulgarian. As I was passing he asked me if I was heading to the swimming marathon. I said no. He said why not, I said why not and off we went. After following the bloke to what he guaranteed was the best viewing spot, I was at the south-western corner of the Serpentine and watching a flurry of arms froth past in the water. These guys are nuts. A 10 km freestyle swim in less than two hours and what a place to do it. In the pond at the heart of central London's largest park, surrounded by thousands of cheering fans. The sun was even shining. A couple of pics and I was back off home.
Living just south of the river there was no excuse not to jump over Waterloo Bridge, melt into the exuberant crowds one last time and support the men's marathon runners as they flew past. So many had gathered for this final athletics event. Lining the streets 10 deep on either side, clambering on top of monuments, squeezing onto steps and leaning out from atop the bridge to get a glimpse of the action and wish these games farewell.
On that note I will sign off these short scribblings on what has been a simply wonderful 16 days. It has been so refreshing to see the ever pervading cynicism wash away from the capital as the world poured in. London has done itself proud. I can't wait until Rio!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Olympics 11: Taekwando

High kicks, shouts, punches, reverse kicks, screeches, flying kicks and knock downs. Taekwondo is an exciting martial art to spectate. No Brits in action, so the big match for us was a Greece vs Turkey grudge match in the heavyweight division.

The fighters have three rounds to score the most points. One point for a punch or kick to the body, two for a reverse kick to the body, three for a kick to the head and four for a reverse kick to the head. All these possibilities to attack and therefore defend often lead to quite conservative contests. Each fighter weighing the other up, circling, testing with half attacks, but rarely going full out. So the Eastern Mediterranean derby proved. To our disappointment the Turk edged it against the former Olympic silver medallist from Greece.

I would say two thirds of fights were similarly low-scoring affairs but the rest were crackers.  All it took was a couple of high scoring head shots by one of the fighters for the fight to explode into flying kick action as the other fighter was forced onto the attack. One particular fight between a Slovenian and a Kazakh lady was fantastic. The lead must have changed hands six times. It is amazing how flexible and fast the athletes were, the Kazakh drawing level at 16-16 with the last kick of the final round. In sudden death the Slovenian managed to evade her opponent and score the winning kick. Pure elation as she punched the air while the Kazakh fell to the floor in desperation. The razor sharp edge between success and failure is what draws us into such contests.
If I had any flexibility at all I would be tempted to take up this sport (my kung fu instructor told me I was one of the least flexible people he had ever met...). As well as being a high tempo flurry of high-kicking action, it has an interesting Korean heritage. It is great to see they have retained much of this as the sport has spread across the world (there was a fight between Gabon and Samoa!),  the judgements and instructions being kept in Korean. Once you have worked out your chungs from your hongs, you have invested enough mental energy to be sucked into this fascinating martial art. Yet another more minor sport that the Olympics publicises and spreads around the world.
As the morning went on the crowd got more and more into the contest, culminating in the only Jamaican lad being spontaneoulsy cheered on by one and all with "JAMAICA, JAMAICA" ringing around the arena. He was clearly inspired by this fervant backing and so nearly clawed back a major deficit against a giant Chinese fighter. Unfortunatley it was not to be, but he still walked out with a huge grin as the crowd took to their feet the cheer him off. 

Before I knew it another great session of Olympic action was over. We stepped away from the Excel centre for the last time very satisfied and a little less ignorant.

Olympics 10: ATHLETICS

A very special evening. One of those rare times in life when you know, with complete certainty, that there is nowhere you would rather be on earth then exactly where you are. The Olympic stadium for an evening of athletics finals.
From the moment we won the tickets in the draw, this was the event that we were waiting for. Expectation had been building and building. Running out of work, jumping on a tube jam-packed with fans, entering the Olympic park, making our way over to the stadium, up the stairs and we were there. With a sigh of heightened expectation I walked into the arena.
A vast, beautiful theatre of sport. Packed to the rafters with expectant fans, the Olympic flame burning and the distinctive triangular floodlights of the stadium crowning it all. We were based half way up the stand by the 200m start line and had a great view of proceedings.

It started and ended with the men's decathlon. First up was the high jump, each success being greeted by a mass cheer. Last up the 400m, with many of the decathletes falling over that finish line after a tough day of competition. Our favourite was Brad Newdick from New Zealand, who has probably overcome much bullying to represent his country. In between was a whole host of running, jumping, hurdling and throwing. Each roared on by 80,000 people. 
There were of course a few events that particularly lit the touchpaper. It was only a semi-final, but the men's 200m was undoubtedly one of these. It was that man. The man. Usain Bolt. As he entered, the crowd erupted. This is a guy who knows it is his place and his time. Smiling, joking with the volunteers, communicating with the enamoured crowd. Stretch, crouch, on your marks, set.... The split second before BANG is the most magical moment of an athletics meet. The expectant audience takes a collective intake of breath, silence rules and thousands of flashes pierce the panorama. Only an instant and it's gone.
In the first 60m Bolt had destroyed the field. By 100m he was noticeably relaxing, by 150m slowing to a jog. Phenomenal. I just feel for the other guys. The only guy who compared was his training buddy and mate, Yohan Blake. He raced just before, similarly destroyed the field and slowed down so fast that he was almost pipped on the line.
As you would expect in London, the atmosphere revved up multiple notches whenever a Brit competed. Flags were raised and GB chants chanted. Shara Proctor in the long jump final, Lisa Dobriskey and Laura Weightman in the 1500m semi, Andy Turner and Lawrence Clarke in the 110m hurdles.
It was the last of these that put in the local performance of the night. Lawrence Clarke exceeded all expectations to make the final of 110m hurdles, so a fourth place in an Olympic final was fantastic and deservedly received a great reception from the crowd. So close to a medal, but we even got a bit of that with British high-jumper Robbie Grabarz receiving his bronze medal from the night before.
The Greek side of me was also delighted to watch a Greek man star in the javelin qualification. Seeing throws and jumps on TV is one thing, but viewing them in the flesh hammers home just close they come to conquering gravity. Spiridon Lebesis exceeded 80m with the javelin.
The night though belonged to the USA. Winner in the women's 200m, women's long jump and men's 110m hurdles. Only the Russians got in on the act, pipping them to the women's 400m hurdles. Each one fast, competitive races and followed up with flag-draped laps of honour. I was particularly impressed by Allyson Felix storming to 200m victory in 21.88 seconds. It was a privilege to witness these athletes reach such heights and join the crowd's outpouring of positive emotion towards them. 

I walked out of the Olympic stadium stuffed full of joy and so proud that my home city could put on such a show. A night at the Olympics athletics and a real dream fulfilled.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Olympics 9: Women's Footie Final

The grudge match. The USA, the most successful team in women's football history, were left in shock by a penalty shoot out defeat to the Japanese in the final of the last world cup. A gold medal was on offer at Wembley and the Americans were out for revenge.
After a bit of a debacle getting into the stadium where a rude Wembley employee prioritised assisting an NBA star over a heavily pregnant woman (the first example of thoroughly unhelpful assistance we have encountered at the games), we walked out into the top tier stand and were greeted by a wonderful scene. Over 80,000 fans to watch a women's match. A world record and great to witness.
There was a real contrast in style between the sides. The Japanese were all about slick smart passing. A real fluidity to their play and a pleasure to watch. The Americans were more about pace and power. Unfortunately, the more rugged approach of the USA gained them an early goal which meant the Japanese were facing a real uphill struggle.

At least half of the crowd were flag waving Americans who basked in their side's early success. I know I have said it before in this blog, but it is a real pity they cannot learn a new chant. After a while "U S A, U S A" does start to grate. That said, they were really up for it and the USA takes a lot of credit for being the driving force behind women's football. There were a good 10,000 Japanese as well. Shouts of "NIPPON, NIPPON" rang around, taken up by the majority of the Brits in the crowd, as always supporting the underdog. The Japanese lady next door to us was so happy when we chanted along with her. This spurred on our already obvious support for the Japanese side to the clear and comical annoyance of the large American on our other side.
Enjoyable as this match was, it could not keep us away from Mr Bolt. We and I would guess a quarter of the stadium congregated under TVs in the refreshment areas at the start of the second half to watch the Jamaica 1-2-3 in the 200m final. An awesome performance from the big man.
While we were gone the USA had added a second and things looked desperate for the Japanese. This was a real test of character as the Japanese had had the better of the first half, hitting the woodwork twice, but were now two behind. What was their response? A goal. The Japanese then pressed on for the equaliser showing real spirit, but it was not to be. The Americans got their way and they retained their Olympic title.
A top evening and a real showcase for the women's game. It puts the half-arsed mostly under-23 men's competition to shame. It has come a long way in a short time and Sepp Blatter tried to grab some of the glory taking part in the presentation ceremony. We had left by then, but I was delighted to hear later that the crowd booed him en masse. The success of women's football has been achieved in spite of rather than because of such backward misogynists.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Olympics 8: Greco-Roman Wrestling

Oh yes, the king of all Olympics tickets. The final of the Greco-Roman wrestling! But before I write about that graceful, poetic sport, a shout out to a memorable moment. As luck would have it, not too long into our evening's entertainment, it was pointed out to us that Helen Glover was sitting just in front of us. Wow. Who? Before last week I would have had no idea either, but then she won Gold for GB in the rowing coxless pairs. Going against all my instincts to leave renowned people to their privacy, I approached her and the result was...

I am glad to report that she was very friendly and gracious. If she was bothered by the attention she did not show it and even let me touch the gold medal (awesome!!!). It is wonderful to see people like this get the attention they deserve for all their hard work. Move over Joey Barton.


On entering the arena I was completely clueless as to what this sport was. Leaving, I was barely more in the know, but will do my best to interpret. Unlike freestyle wrestling where you can use your legs to attack and defend, in Greco-Roman you can only use your upper body. Lunging and slapping for a grip, muscle-bound dudes grab hold of each other's hands, neck, head or torso and tussle. It resembles a bear fight, especially with the hair on some of the Eastern Europeans.
The aim is to throw the other man onto his back or out of the ring with points scored for each. Whoever scores more points wins the round and whoever wins enough rounds wins the match. Simple. Not quite. There were a plethora of other niceties such as illegal moves and challenges (at one point a wrestler was so pissed with the decision of the judge that he refused to shake hands and stormed off down the wrong exit). The most peculiar bit though comes if the scores are level with 30 seconds to go in a round. One of the fighters lies prostate on the floor, the other one approaches slowly from behind, mounts and then, in tight embrace, tries to wrestle the other guy off the floor in the remaining time. More of that later... 

A full evening's entertainment included the repercharge, bronze and gold medal matches of the lightweights (sub 60 kg - approx a small woman), middleweights (sub 84 kg - approx me, on a good day) and heavyweights (sub 120 kg - approx MASSIVE). In many ways the small guys were more entertaining. Faster and with many more throws compared to the giants who seemed to be locked in a slow full body arm wrestle.

All this was fascinating to watch, but the crowd was just as interesting. It had passed under my radar that this sport was huge in a whole host of countries roughly equating to the combined range of the Byzantine and Russian empire. Turks, Georgians, Egyptians, Iranians, Poles, Kazakhs, Russians and... OK the pattern does not quite fit, a gigantic Cuban who won the heavyweight crown. Instead of being full of clueless Brits, the place teemed with noisy, partisan fans from each of these countries. Particularly good were a bunch of burly Georgian men congregated in the far corner, some rowdy Poles, hundreds of excited Iranians and two drunk Swedes kitted out in lycra who were man-handled out of the arena by security after running on to celebrate when their compatriot won bronze.

It was a special moment to see three gold medals awarded, complete with obligatory tears from the victors, but the lasting memory from my first encounter with this most ancient of Olympic events is its touching homo-eroticism, lost from so many modent sports. Fitting for a sport which originated in ancient Greece (although then it was done in the buff as opposed to overly tight lycra), the big matches were won in a groaning eliminator man tussle. A beautiful sight to behold.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Olympics 7: Volleyball

I'm not quite sure why, but my expectations were a good deal lower for the volleyball than for the other events I was due to attend at the Olympics. Perhaps it was the seemingly low key non-Olympic Park venue, Earls Court. Maybe it was because of GB's low standing in the sport. Almost certainly it was because of my general ignorance of all things volleyball. 
First to the venue. Tucked away in west London, Earls Court is a crumbly old exhibition centre. I am sure it was very impressive when first opened in 1937, but the intervening 75 years have taken the gloss off it. When you think of the Olympics you think of shiny new state of the art arenas rather than aged concrete monoliths complete with the odd missing roof tile and damp stained walls.You know what though, if a trick can work for dozens of temporary scaffold stands around the games it can work for an OAP of a venue. All it took was a bit of cover up. A few hundred meters of logo'ed cloth and a lick of bright paint made the place look up to scratch, with a sniff of a Berlin rave warehouse.
To the sport. GB were due on second, but the big draw of the night was the opening match between world number one Brazil and world number five USA. A real clash of heavy weights. The crowd went nuts as a dozen or so absurdly tall pumped up men stepped out onto court. I had clearly made the mistake of thinking that just because I do not care about volleyball others felt likewise. It could not be further from the truth. The placed was packed with at least 5,000 crazy Brazilians jumping, singing and shouting for every point. So distinctive in their green and yellow garb and wonderfully inhibitionless dance moves, the carnival had come to the borough of Kensington and Chelsea. 
As much as I hate to admit it, the few thousand Americans present did a pretty good job too. Countering the Brazilians flare with repetitive, monotone though undoubtedly enthusiastic "U S A, U S A" chants. Backed up by the neutrals who were easily persuaded to their cause, the Brazilians clearly won the fan war, but the match was closer.

Much more epic then I would have imagined, the two teams went at each other hammer and tongs. For the first two sets, neither side managed more than a couple of points gap with multiple changes of lead. The points were punishing, the players brutally digging (two hands down), setting (two hands up), spiking (one hand smashing down) and blocking (as it sounds) the ball. The guys really pushed themselves to the limit, diving all round the place and throwing themselves in the way of balls travelling at well over one hundred miles an hour.
The USA edged the first set, showing real composure when the pressure was on. Their aggressive style contrasted with a more skillful Brazil. Just like watching their football team, players often did the unexpected with a mixture of success but plenty of entertainment value. Loads of reverse passes, dummies and small flicks against the non-stop American pummelling. This helped Brazil to edge the second set by a couple of points.

The atmosphere was electric and building as the game went on. All in, some 15,000 peoples' cheers, shouts, claps and whistles echoed off the concrete walls and intermingled to a cacophony. The noise level was up there with most football games I have ever been to.
While I was out buying another exorbitant Olympic beer the USA took a decisive lead in the third set and held on to be within one set of victory. First to 25 with 2 clear points is a lot of sweaty game play. Moving into the fourth set we were approaching the two hour mark and my respect for these athletes was going right up. To the despair of the green and yellow samba army, the USA squeezed through in the fourth to win 3-1 and cause an upset. Credit where it is due, they had won a great game.

Next on were Team GB. A mentioned earlier, GB do not have any particular status in this sport so I expected very little when they came up against world number 11 Italy. For the hosts this was one of the scratch teams built up since London were awarded the Olympics with the aim of being more competitive than GB had been before and raising awareness of the sport in this country. They did not disappoint.
I won't build up expectations of a successful underdog upset. They lost in straight sets. What they did do though was fight toe-to-toe with the Italians for the first three quarters of each of the first two sets. Some inspirational spikes and blocks kept them in the game. Unfortunately the greater technique and experience of their opponents increasingly told. Whereas the Italians always seemed to have two or three men up for every block and multiple options for the spike, GB increasingly only had one of each.
Most of the crowd stayed on towards midnight to cheer the home side on and in the context of the sport's standing in this country they did a good job. Plenty of encouraging GB chants and flag waving showed the support of the viewing public. Hopefully the great arena sticky-plastered together for these games and the solid performance by the team will inspire more people to take it up. You never know we might even win a game next time. That is if we qualify...

A bit knackered, I wandered onto the tube feeling ever so less ignorant of volleyball and really impressed with what it entails when played at the top level. Next up the most randomly intriguing and homo-erotic of all my events, Greco-Roman Wrestling. Bring on the big hairy men!