Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Golden Night For Women's Gymnastics

The North Greenwich Arena (a.k.a. O2 Center) is often the stage for the world's top female performers including Madonna, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Britney Spears, Rihanna and Katy Perry.

Tonight in London, Team USA launched the world tour for women's gymnastics with a gold medal performance on the world's stage: The London Olympics.

Congratulations to the new Olympic Champions of women's artistic gymnastics: Gabrielle Douglass, McKayla Maroney, Alexandra Raisman, Kyla Ross and Jordyn Wieber. The arena was teeming with Team USA supporters and local fans cheering on Team GB, which placed an honorable sixth in team competition.

During the event I was able to switch seats, moving close to one apparatus then another, starting with Team USA's vault performance (bravo, Maroney with a 16.233 score, the highest of any gymnast in the arena!) then a change to parallel bars, where Wieber, Ross and Douglas scored 14.666, 14.933 and 15.200, respectively.

Russia, China, Team GB and Romania traded spots for medal contention during the evening, and it was a surprising silver result for Russia considering Anastasia Grishina completed a brilliant routine only to tumble in her final landing on floor exercise (lots of team tears followed, though they may have been a mix of joy for maintaining a medal while not achieving gold). China also competed well but fell behind Romania.

Team USA had the final competitor of the evening on floor exercise, leading to a tearful victory huddle of cheering coaches and gymnasts encircled by TV cameras.

I spotted Bela Karolyi in a press box, sort of lording over all he surveyed -- it was interesting to me he seemed to have no interest in the Romanian team he once coached, and even across the arena you could sense him reliving his coaching glory days.

It was also very cool that the venue announcers introduced the Olympian with the most all-time Olympic medals, Larisa Latynina, the Soviet Union gymnast who earned 18 medals from 1956 to 1964. The audience cheered with Latynina on the big screen and she waved in appreciation, all unfolding only a couple of hours before Michael Phelps surpassed her record across town.

Team USA impressed me not only as competitors but also as Olympic Champions with high ranks for sportsmanship. After the bronze medalists from Romania and silver medalists from Russia received their medals, the U.S. Gymnastics women first shook hands with their fellow competitors before stepping up to receive their gold medals. I applaud this diplomacy.

I also have to wonder, however, why the Team USA wardrobe folks gave the girls SILVER team jackets to wear into the victory ceremony. Colour blind, anyone?

Shawn Johnson was not too far from my final seat, and she cheered and looked on with great enthusiam for the 2012 Olympic gymnasts. But you have to wonder what was on Johnson's mind in terms of what could have been.

While supporting all of the winners on this diverse gymnastics team, it pleases me most that Maroney succeeded in their company -- after meeting this home-schooled athlete at the Team USA Media Summit in Dallas in May, this young woman struck me as a rising star with all the right stuff to be a champion. I predict she will continue to succeed with all of her teammates.

Best of luck to all of the women's gymnastics athletes in individual competition!

Photos by Nicholas Wolaver

Thoughts on the Opening Ceremony Experience

It's four days past the London Olympic Opening Ceremonies, and words are still not easily found to describe the experience. Of course, it was a wonderful ceremony. But it was so different on several levels, and my reactions varied greatly from one portion to the next.

Entering the venue, I learned early on one major difference from past Opening Ceremonies. Most likely due to austerity considerations, the seats for attendees included no kit, no program, no pins. Nothing. This was a disappointment -- Opening Ceremony kits are a coveted prize of past Games!

How better to Ebay the experience, my dear?

Shaking off the sticker shock for official programs, priced at 15 pounds (!!!), settling into my original seat in the 222 section, I did enjoy the massive green field of play symbolizing the Isles of Wonder. In case NBC cut it, during the countdown sequence, there were live sheep, ducks, geese and horses with May Pole players on the British "island" in the center of the stadium. Audience members participated by "silking" the stands with massive blue silks creating water around the grand stage.

The massive bell featuring Shakespeare's quote from The Tempest -- "Be not afeard: the isle is full of noises" -- hung just a few row below my seat, and in the one-sheet run-of-show provided to spectators, I learned this bell will remain for posterity to be run in the year 2212 with a message from its creators commenting on the recent infancy of the World Wide Web, invented by British-born scientist Tim Berners-Lee, who said "This Is For Everyone" (the theme of the evening). Clever!

Other segments to love: The opening "Journey along the Thames" video, the "Green and Pleasant Land" countryside show on the British meadow, the songs from the Four Nations, Kenneth Branagh acting as a leading engineer (Branagh was the first of several predicted performers from my pre-ceremony post), and the transformation into "Pandemonium" and The Age of Industry (as described in the ceremony media guide).

I was delighted by the Olympic rings -- one forged by iron workers on the stadium floor -- took flight and rained gorgeous gold fireworks. Best rings arrival since Torino.

Also loved the pixel screens, which volunteers taught the audience to use during the countdown. This is the modern version of the flag cards famously unveiled by the spectators at the Los Angeles Opening Ceremony in 1984.

Paraphrasing a friend's friend via Facebook comment, I could have done without the tribute to socialized medicine. From my seat, the "big baby" did not appear as as such. Blowing bubbles was a good idea but not easy to appreciate outside of the venue (nor inside). The 3D glasses did not enhance a thing (and why not brand the glasses with Games logos?).

But Rowan Atkinson's performance set to "Chariots of Fire" was perfect. And the montage of music and TV via the BBC went over well (more Annie Lennox next time, please). I found myself awaiting Morissey's lyrics "There is a light that never goes out" for the arrival of the torch and cauldron, but the song's somber themes would not have played well.

I really did love the solo performance of "Abide With Me" sung by Emeli Sande. The modern dance segment was beautiful, and it struck me as the largest dance in opening ceremony memory. What a bloody shame NBC cut this (see my July 28 post for more on this segment).

It was brilliant to play tribute to the July 7 bombing victims with a memorial video (set to my favorite Brian Eno tune) ... why not add a brief remembrance for all Olympic Family members at future opening ceremonies (this would have easily covered the Munich 1972 victims and Olympic Family/IOC members lost in this Olympiad)?

The arrival of a record 204 national Olympic committees gave me time to grab dinner, trade a few pins and ... wait for it ... UPGRADE MY SEAT. With a wink, a flash of an unaccredited media badge, and a camera, I found myself on row 10 in section 124, this time under the stage right area of the big Olympic bell and platform for Sir Paul McCartney's performance.

As luck had it, I sat only a few seats from just about every living Team GB Olympic medal winner, and enjoyed a much closer view of the athlete parade including Usain Bolt/Jamaica, Team USA, Team GB and many more (I arrived during the letter "H").

The "dove bikes" were cool.

Much was made of the Queen's arrival with the James Bond actor Daniel Craig. Jolly good show! The only improvement I'd suggest ... perhaps Her Majesty could have high-fived the other living James Bond actors en route to the helicopter, or Sean Connery could have been revealed as the pilot.

I searched with loaned binoculars but did not yet spot the newlywed Royals, who I hope to see at beach volleyball or gymnastics.

For me, the more I learn about the Olympic cauldron, the better it gets. In the media section of the stadium after the event, the TODAY Show's Meredith Viera told me the delegations each carried in a bit of the cauldron that was attached (it was a bean- or melon-like chrome piece about the size of a football), which volunteers attached to the cauldron before it was ignited (Viera stated these pieces go back to each participating nation after the Games).

But it was, in my opinion, an oversight to permit its display out of public view. Vancouver got this right with two cauldrons in the Olympic city.

And inviting unknown youth to ignite the cauldron ... zzzzzzzzzzz ... (been there done that with the little girl who lit the cauldron in Calgary).

There are many things to love about the London Olympic Opening Ceremony and I will always cherish the experience. There is a light that never goes out, indeed.

Photos by Nicholas Wolaver

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Riding Shotgun To Olympic Gold

Sunday morning in London brought a bright blue sky and the big day for my first sporting event ticket of the 2012 Olympics -- shooting.

My first visit to an Olympic shooting venue, I did not know what to expect. Let me say the experience blew my mind!

It was a rocky start, however, when I realized at 8 a.m. that the start time was 9 a.m. and the Underground ride would be more than one hour (BLAST!).

Though London offers no bullet train service to The Royal Artillery Barracks, on the far east side of the city (even further than the Olympic Park), the tube-to-venue bus ride was brief, and I snapped several sunny shots around and inside the beautiful ultra-modern venue.

My general admission ticket included skeet shooting access, with a grandstand revealing three skeet and trap fields of play and nearly-full seating. The preliminary segment wrapped up with Team USA's Kimberly Rhode -- the five-time Olympian featured in a massive USA Today article last weekend -- in the lead with a near-perfect score.

Lunchtime arrived and I searched for ... wait for it ... bangers and mash, but settled for fish & chips (my first taste of this popular staple of the London experience). For those visiting Olympic venues in London, you may also enjoy the side of mashed peas (delicious!).

About this time, storm clouds moved in and a cloudburst sent many folks for cover. The rain did a high calibre number on my shoes, but my umbrella saved the day, and the vacant, damp seating yielded surprising access to the front row.

Imagine my delight to learn that my seatmates from the USA were Richard and Sharon Rhode, the parents of Kimberly. Rick and Sharon detailed their excitement, anxiousness and elation about the day, and they also told stories from travels to Atlanta, Sydney, Athens and Beijing for Kimberly's previous medal-earning Olympic competitions. Enjoy the video! Also, be sure to look for the LA Times' interview with Rick and Kimberly (shook hands with Bill Dwyre, the columnist from Los Angeles).

So there I was, seating by the parents of the medal favorite to my left ... wait for it ... riding shotgun and the shotgun competition at the London Olympics. All around us sat fellow Team USA supporters (I estimate about 25 of us, including several folks from Georgia like me). To my left sat a half-dozen Slovakia fans humming their national anthem. I love the Olympics!

Bonus -- the rain stopped just in time for the big final round.

It did not take long for Kimberly Rhode, Wei Ning of China, Marina Belikova of Russia, Chiara Cainero of Italy, Christine Wenzel of Germany and Danka Bartekova of Slovakia to blow through the final round. And in the fourth station of the competition, Rhode's parents were a bit more tense (Sharon explained it was the most challenging stage of the competition), but Kimberly kept nailing every shot.

She shoots, she SCORES!

So proud we were to learn by station five Rhode won the gold with China taking the silver. Russia and Slovakia began a sudden-death-pressure shoot-off, with Belikova missing her last shot, giving our neighbors seated to the left a huge occasion to celebrate as we had for Rhode.

Bravo, Kimberly Rhode! Her smile beamed as some blogger in the audience cheered "We love you, Kimberly!" drawing laughter from the crowd.

With "The Star Spangled Banner" playing as Old Glory ascended the flag pole, Rhode wiped away tears as did China's silver medal winner Ning and Bartekova donning her bronze. What a moment! So proud.

Rhode's post-competition actions also impressed me deeply. After completing a wave of media interviews in the venue's mixed zone for reporters and athletes, Rhode heard from anxious U.S. fans asking for autographs and a photo with Rhode.

Rhode not only stayed to sign every autograph and pose for may photos, but for kids in the venue she placed her brand new London Olympic gold medal around their necks and invited the young fans to hold her medal ceremony flowers. So polite and inspiring. Again, bravo Kimberly Rhode! A true Olympic champion.

My fellow International Society of Olympic Historians (ISOH) friend Brian Carberry is quick to point out that Rhode is the second Olympian in two days to win an medal in five consecutive Olympics. Though she did not five-peat, Rhode now has three gold, one silver and one bronze in her trophy case. And she has another opportunity to medal in London next weekend, according to her parents.

Rhode not only won gold, but she also shot a near-perfect 99 out of 100, equaling her own world record.

So excited I am by her victory, it's time to rifle through my bag for the Kim Rhode "blinkie" pin her mother gave to me in the stands. Time to wear it with pride.

Photos and videos by Nicholas Wolaver

Saturday, July 28, 2012

NBC Cuts London Opening Ceremony's Iconic Dance Segment by Akram Khan

The plan today includes blogging about last night's London Olympic Opening Ceremony and my experience there. This remains part of the plan, but a detour just occurred at press conference attended at the London Media Centre.

The press conference included a surprising revelation that apparently went missed at a similar press event in the LOCOG (London organizing committee) Main Press Center and International Broadcast Center earlier today. The details is picking up steam online, and here's my contribution to the discussion.

Last night, fans in the stadium and television viewers in the U.K., China and most other corners of the globe enjoyed a moving dance performance serenaded by Emeli Sandé singing "Abide With Me," a popular hymn in the U.K. Like Pavarotti's performance in the Torino opening ceremony, or the drummer session of the Beijing opening, this dance segment was an iconic portion not to be missed.

Folks in the USA apparently missed it, however, as NBC cut this portion from their time-delayed broadcast. For shame!

The LMC session featured Akram Khan, the internationally acclaimed dance choreographer, flanked by Farooq Chaudhry -- a director in Khan's company -- and Alan Yentob of the BBC. Khan was hand-picked by Danny Boyle to create the aforementioned original dance segment to the London Olympic Opening Ceremony, and Khan delivered what I believe is the longest and best dance element to any Olympic opening event. It was beautiful, made all the better with Sandé's soothing voice.

Most of the questions at the LMC press event were standard, and Khan -- who turns 38 on Sunday -- shared some fun facts from behind-the-scenes. For instance, he explained a Goldilocks-like selection process for the segment's 11 year old boy (the first to audition was too chubby, the second was too athletic, but they eventually found a kid who was just right). When pressed by Chinese media asking for comparisons to the 2008 opening ceremony, Khan took the high road offering that each opening ceremony brought out the best of the host nation in its own way.

Khan also talked about the decision to use dust as a key prop (an element instilling a sense of memory) and when asked by this blogger about what Olympic moments may have inspired last night's segment, Khan said he suffered a leg injury and his physical therapist encouraged him to watch Olympians to see how their training might aid in Khan's recovery (Khan noted Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt among those he watched).

Then a surprising question popped up from an American reporter in the room (wishing I caught his name so I could credit him here). The reporter asked Khan for his reaction to the news that NBC did not air the dance segment in the USA.

Khan was silent, then he explained to the room and the reporter that this was the first he heard this news. You could see Khan was upset, stunned, shaken and disappointed all in an instant. But again he took the high road and did not express detailed feelings at first, taking in the news.

At this moment, Khan's colleague Chaudhry said he had just learned the news moments before the press conference and that it was disappointing since their dance company has such a following in the USA.

After fielding other questions, I asked Khan to provide his reaction now that he had 15 minutes to process it. His full response is on the video with this post, and via this link. Briefly, his initial response was, "I feel disheartened and disappointed." Chaudhry added his own take on the disappointment in the video.

After the press event, I asked Chaudhry to comment further and he said, "It's disgraceful U.S. media could make that decision and [I] would like to know why."

It is worth noting that, as shown in the video, neither Khan nor Chaudhry expressed anger during and after the press event. It was more of a downer for which they simply wish to know "Why?"

I asked some Italian journalists in the London Media Center, "What reaction would Italians have if NBC cut Pavarotti from the Torino Opening Ceremony?" and they answered, "That would be bad. A scandal!" I asked the same of a China media journalist who responded, "I think people [in China] would want to know why they did that."

I concur. I would like to know why NBC made this decision (I have a few hunches if anyone asks nicely).

Though it is unlikely a response from NBC will be possible any time soon, I will inquire with NBC about this question and post any response. During the IOC Conference on Women and Sport earlier this year, a very senior NBC producer answered my questions about Olympic broadcast decisions made by the network, and I suspect she has the answer if I can reach her about the Khan question as to why the dance segment was cut.

In the meantime, I am interested in others' reactions to the apparent decision by NBC to cut the dance segment from the London Olympic Opening Ceremony from their broadcast. It is my understanding (though unverified as of this initial post) that NBC also cut a segment commemorating the July 7 tragedy in London (which occurred the morning after London won the 2012 Olympic bid). More on that later.

UPDATE AT 9:40 PM LONDON: There is a post on Deadspin.com with a link to the BBC footage of the Khan segment. As an audience member in the stadium, I can tell you that the ceremony included a July 7 Tribute video on which July 7 victim photos were shown while a Brian Eno track "An Ending (Ascent)" played -- an appropriate selection. This was separate from (though happened to be the transition to) the Khan dance segment. The Khan segment was not related directly to July 7 (the 2005 day on which several Londoners died on the morning after London won the 2012 Olympic bid). Rather, Khan's segment was more about memory, mortality and dreams for which he leaves interpretation to the audience.

Also of note: Khan's dance company will tour the U.S. with stops in New York, Los Angeles, Irvine, Calif., and Santa Barbara, Calif., during October. Visit www.akramkhancompany.net/html/akram_calendar.php for more details.

Photos from LMC by Nicholas Wolaver. Photo of Khan pointing/performing by Richard Haughton via Akram Khan Company. Photos from Opening Ceremony by Associated Press photographers Ivan Sekretarev/AP and Jae C. Hong/AP via DenverPost.com

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