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!