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Thursday, September 13, 2012
I have spent the last couple of weeks living inside a bubble. More accurately it was a sort of parallel universe based entirely around sport. A world in which each building contains a different set of highly-trained athletes to marvel at, freedom only truly exists if you have the right combination of letters and numbers on your special ID card and you can’t have a sandwich, bag of crisps and a drink for anything under about £8.50.
This is not science fiction or an old-fashioned police state. It’s London’s Olympic Park.
Having been fortunate enough to land a job covering the Paralympics for BBC Radio, it has been difficult to stay in touch with real life. Why trouble yourself with reality when there is sport to go and watch, and top quality international sport at that, virtually 24/7?
Football does exist in this alternative reality, but it is not like anything you will have seen before. There were two football tournaments within the Paralympics – seven-a-side for players with cerebral palsey and five-a-side for those with a visual impairment. It is the latter ‘blind football’ which is most fascinating.
The four outfield players on each side wear bandage-like white blindfolds to ensure that, whatever the level of impairment, they can compete on a level playing field. None of them can see a thing. The match ball contains a bell and it is that noise, together with instructions from two specially-appointed guides who stand by the pitch and the respective non-blindfolded goalkeepers, who are among the few able-bodied competitors in the Paralympics, which are clues as to where the ball is.
Players who can’t see trying to score in small five-a-side size goals past goalkeepers who can may sound like a recipe for a 0-0 draw, but the level of skill on display was astounding – even Hoolahan-esque at times.
What took most getting used to was the atmosphere. A packed house at the Riverbank Arena, the mini-stadium with the dark blue pitch used for hockey during the Olympics – and yet it did not sound like it. No singing or shouting and certainly no band. The crowd are told to remain silent while the game’s in progress so the players can hear where the ball is. It means that when a goal, or even so much as a near miss, occurs, the crowd can’t help but roar like they’ve just seen a 30-yard screamer in a World Cup final. Any excuse to let out those pent-up emotions.
It must also be a dream job for referees. No matter how many dodgy penalties get given, clear fouls go unpunished or incidents get missed, no one can say anything. How wonderful that must be for the whistle blowers.
I can think of a few referees we have seen at Carrow Road in recent years who might be better suited to this kind of quiet life. Not that I would wish them on the unsuspecting world of blind football.
While this form of the game is easier for refs, it is exactly the opposite for broadcasters. I wondered whether a trick was being played on the new boy when I was sent to cover a game in which the main requirement is to remain absolutely silent.
As I left the Arena, having executed my best Whispering Bob Harris impersonation, one of the wonderfully helpful and smiley volunteers or ‘Games Makers’ as they are known in the park, asked if I minded waiting on the stairs so a man could be shown to his seat. Lord Sebastian Coe strolled in and sat down to take in a bit of sporting action at the games he has done so much to organise.
The appeal of the five-a-side football might very well have been the skill and intrigue of a big match between Brazil and Argentina, but it may equally have been the only place on the park that Lord Coe could find a bit of peace and quiet. I considered approaching him with my microphone but decided against it, partly because it was not really the Arena in which to cause a commotion but mainly because if he hadn’t reacted well to an impromptu interview request I know I don’t have the required pace to get away from him.
• LIFE IN THE FAST LANE PROVED TO BE A LEARNING CURVE
Spending a fortnight watching the Paralympics was utterly fascinating.
London 2012 appeared to be the Games when the penny dropped amongst the wider world that Paralympic sport is elite international sport played at the very top level.
Of course it is inspirational to see thousands of people, each with their own powerful story to tell about how they came to be on the starting blocks, but you genuinely do forget about any disability once the starting gun goes. In Great Britain’s case, the athletes get lottery funding and often train alongside their Olympic colleagues and it is no wonder that millions of people wanted to be there to experience the Games.
For me the learning curve was a steep one and it went beyond quickly picking up the rules to a load of sports I had never seen before. For example, during the Olympics, no-one on the TV, not even Clare Balding, warned us how hot it was by the pool. Watching swimming in the London Aquatics Centre was akin to sitting in a sauna. At times I wished I had the confidence to sit and watch in my Speedos, but no one would have wanted that.
The other thing I quickly discovered about Olympic Park life, but hadn’t been warned about, was how long it actually took to get around. The venues are so grand they look deceptively close, but it is a big old place and when you add in the understandably tight security checks, carefully thought-out one-way systems and my own eccentric sense of direction, I often found myself needing a personal best time to get to where I needed to be for a broadcasting appointment.
As if that was not difficult enough some events were taking place outside the park. I attempted to go to see Great Britain’s Women’s Wheelchair Basketball team play at the North Greenwich Arena (or the O2 as it is known when it’s not London 2012). I knew I would miss the start of the big quarter-final clash against Germany because I was losing more pints of sweat in the pool (through temperature, not hard work, just to be clear) but attempted a dash to catch a bus for the short journey. The old cliche about London busses is right. You do have to wait ages for one to turn up.
In the end I arrived through the front doors of the Arena just in time to see the crowd coming out. So don’t ask me about women’s basketball. I didn’t see a single pass. As for the result, well, it was a quarter-final of a major competition against the Germans so you can probably guess who won.