Olympics – Hockey Arena

Netherlands 3 Japan 2, South Africa 1 New Zealand 4 (31st July 2012)

When the alarm went off at 5.30 I did wonder if my decision to book a morning session of hockey was a wise one. I didn’t gain much joy from driving to the station either, having a warning light illuminate in my car. It’s engine-shaped and lights up for a specific warning, namely that it’s going to cost you a lot of money.

Never mind. I had a very full day in the Olympic Park to look forward to. In the afternoon I’d be at the basketball, but first up was women’s hockey in the Riverbank Arena. Being located at the far northern end of the Olympic Park, and with limited time to get there before the game started, it meant I probably didn’t appreciate the park as much as I could have done. It’s hard to appreciate the buzz of the crowds and the setting of the park when you’ve got about 5 minutes to cover a mile to the stadium.

In the end I took the pragmatic decision not to try to rush through the crowds. If I missed ten minutes or so, then so be it. 10 minutes of a four-hour session isn’t much. I was glad I did. Part of the excitement of a sporting event is the anticipation, and just walking through the huge crowds, past the venues, allowed it just hit home what a major event this is. It’s easy to be a bit cynical, but the place was just full of people delighted to be there, looking forward to the sports, just enjoying the experience.

Also pleasing me was the fact the rain had stopped. While still decidedly grey and gloomy overhead, the journey in had been characterised by the sort of downpour that made you glad to be indoors – which is exactly what the Riverbank Arena isn’t.

Technically it isn’t a proper stadium either, being steeply banked temporary seating raised up on a forest of scaffolding. Holding 15000, three sides of around 30 rows of seats form a U shape around the arena, with a smaller stand closing off the end. A small roofed section kept a few VIPs dry in one stand, while everyone else had to make to with waterproof clothing or crossed fingers, hoping the rain wouldn’t come back.

Eight large multi-bulbed floodlight pylons lit up the stadium’s most striking feature, the deep blue pitch with its flourescent pink surround. To call it distinctive would be a stretch of even traditional British understatement, but it was surprising how quickly you stopped noticing how odd it looked, and instead appreciated how well it worked in providing a contrast to the yellow ball, as well as the players.

Another thing to appreciate was that despite the early and damp start, the place was still nearly full. The traditionally orange-clad Dutch followers were there in force for the first game of the day, as well as small but noisy knot of Japanese fans in the far corner, whose “Nippon! Nippon!” chants drew warm applause.

Outnumbered in the stands, they were also outplayed on the pitch for much of the match, finding themselves 0-3 down early in the 2nd half. On an artificial pitch visibly sodden with rain, they hit back quickly from a penalty corner to give themselves a bit of hope with 25 minutes left. The comeback looked possibly on ten minutes later when they pulled it back to 2-3. Despite increasingly desperate efforts to get level though, the Dutch snuffed the game out to the delight of their fans.

In the second match, South Africa took on New Zealand in the battle of the funny accents. The South Africans were out to avoid beck to beck defeats, while the Kiwis were hoping to end the day on sucks points against a team who’d let in sivin in their opening game.

New Zealand didn’t hang about. The opened the scoring after just 90 seconds and had built up a pretty conclusive looking 3-0 half time lead. Despite the lopsided scoreline, it was an entertaining game, and South Africa got a lifeline with a penalty after 52 minutes. Pietie Coetzee, playing in what was remarkably her 250th international match (as announced over the PA), tucked away the penalty, but it didn’t help too much. New Zealand always looked more likely to add a fourth than South Africa to get a second, and that was the case when they made it 4-1 with nine minutes left. From there they just killed time, earning a round of disapproving boos from the crowds when they played the ball into the corners in the last couple of minutes. It’s not as if time-wasting at 4-1 up is entirely necessary.

So, ten goals in two matches – even if I missed the first one – made it a fine introduction to my first ever foray into watching women’s team sports in person. I’m not sure it’ll have me going down to the local hockey club on a Saturday afternoon, as any sport will seem somewhat different in front of a large enthusiastic crowd, but is has become one of “my” sports I’m tuning into during this Olympics. Well worth getting up a 5.30 am for.

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