Monday, August 18, 2008

Around the tennis venue

The Tennis Events are officially over; Russia swept the women's singles events, Nadal, Gonzales, and Djokovic earned their singles medals. In women's doubles, Venus and Serena captured gold. It's a strange feeling knowing that no more tennis will be played at these Olympics--volunteering at these Games has been a goal I've been working on achieving for three year, and now that goal is completed. It's exciting to have something new to look forward to, but the last few weeks have flown faster than I could have ever imagined.

Here's what the venue looks like from the inside!

This tennis structure greeted spectators after they passed security.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Venus Williams comes to Iowa!

My encounters with professional tennis athletes usually occur in the mixed zone; called so because it is the first area (“zone”, if you will) in which athletes “mix” with the press after a sporting event, you can correctly assume that it is filled with reporters trying to grab a few quotes from the player of choice. It’s the classic high-stress environment that non-journalists always imagine for sports journalists: It can be an impersonal, no drooling over Rafael Nadal’s left arm or asking for an autograph atmosphere. Notebook pages flip across the metal spirals as pens race over the light blue lines. Recorders seem to jump out of pockets, journalists who didn’t get a chance to fight their way to the front of the mixed zone hand their recorder to friends from other media agencies who did wiggle to the front to hold out. All the while, the print journalists are careful not to trip over the long wires that the broadcasters are lugging behind their equipment as they walk alongside the player on the opposite side of the white metal gate which divides media from athlete. With all the lights flooding from broadcast cameras and the occasional flashing camera, the scene is visually intimidating. However, it’s the aural aspect that is the most intense. The only sound throughout the hallway is the voice of the lucky reporter who got the athlete to stop to talk, followed by the anticipated answer. Getting the golden quote from the athlete before they wave their hand and say, “That’s it today, thanks!” is essential.

It’s a short-lived hype; within one minute, the athlete is gone and the journalists have returned to the media offices to insert the fresh quotes into the article they finished before the match was even over.

While some athletes legitimately enjoy talking to the media spew excellent quotes for a good five minutes or speak in multiple languages for multiple agencies, being in the shark frenzy that is the mixed zone has the potential to frustrate even the most dedication fan or zealous journalist.

Unless they’ve been doing it for 36 years.

My friend and supervisor at the Olympic Tennis Green Center, Sandra Harwitt, has a long-running rapoire with many professional tennis players, including Serena and Venus Williams. Immediately following their press conference after they won the gold medal in women's doubles Friday, my colleagues and I were hanging out in the office, talking about how cool it would be to be on a first name basis with the Williams sisters like Sandra has been for years. My roommate and I also joked about some of the more creative and unusual questions asked of the Williams’ during the press conference. For example, one of the questions flowed, "You have a lot of fans in Morocco. Will you ever go to Morocco to see them?" we turned into, "You have a lot of fans in Iowa. Will you ever come to Iowa?" followed by laughter.

As soon as we chuckled about Venus Williams coming to Iowa, into the office walks Sandra, wearing a large smile. Following her into our office was Venus Williams.

Sandra introduced us to her, and we tried not to let our jaws drop. It was such a different from the crowded mixed zone—there were only a handful of people around, no cameras, no notebooks, no recording devices. There wasn’t even a divider separating us. Venus wore her hair back in a tight pony tail and was still wearing the outfit she and Serena had won in; they hadn’t received their medals yet, so she was still wearing her athlete accreditation. It was such a change from the Venus I had seen in the mixed zone who was always in a hurry. The ever-poised, yet surprisingly shy, Venus gave us a wave, told us it was nice to meet us, and apologized for not always stopping to talk to us in the mixed zone, admitting that with all the media hype, she’s been “jaded”.

Before Venus left, we gave her a pin from the University of Iowa (pin trading is a big deal at the Olympics). Unfortunately, the Olympic Tennis Event is over, so Venus will no longer be wearing her accreditation with the pin-laden lanyard. But you can bet I will be looking for that round black pin with a golden dome on it on her 2012 Games lanyard.

Ambience of the Bird's Nest

The moon was absolutely gorgeous! It was brighter than it's ever been, too, as if it knew 90,000 spectators would be taking photos.
These are the Fuwa, the Olympic mascots. They have potential to easily drive a person crazy, but all in all they are fun-loving, mischievous creatures that dance around Olympic venues and are beloved, and sometimes mobbed, by Chinese children. I have photos of Fuwas dancing in the volleyball venue, with volunteers standing nearby acting as body guards because dozens of children simultaneously often run toward them for hugs!

It's hilarious when they fall over. I hope I get to try on a Fuwa suit before I have to leave... :)

This woman was one of thousands taking advantage of the many photo opportunities by the venue at night...

Olympic Record!

This is the NEW world record time for the men's 100 meter dash!
Set by this man, whose name is--are you ready for this?--BOLT. He's from Jamaica. He was dancing for the crowd around the track, stopping to shake hands with fans bearing Jamaican flags. His fans were so proud!
We waited for 3 hours to see the last, most anticipated event, the men's 100 meter dash. It was over within 11 seconds! Immediately after the race was over, this popped up on the screen.

I'm gonna make off with the Olympic Torch!

...just kidding, but it looks like I could take it, doesn't it? This was taken outside of the National Stadium (aka "The Bird's Nest", for its similarity to, well, a bird's nest) after my colleagues and I watched the Jamaican athlete, Bolt, break the previous Olympic and World Records in the men's 100 meter dash. His new time was 9.6 seconds. Pictures coming soon!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Last day of practice

Today, August 7, 2008, was the last day of practice at the Tennis Venue. The Opening Ceremony is tomorrow (of course) at 8:08:08 pm. Sunday, 10 August, will be the first day of tennis tournament play.

The athletes made use of their hastened time--Roger Federrer practiced twice on the courts on this last day (earlier days he only practiced once, so I saw), Nadal also twice, I believe. The Americans made their debut today--the Williams sisters played a few rounds, as did James Blake and Sam Querry, and Mike and Bob Bryan.

I interviewed Serbian athletes Janko Tipaservic (current ITF ranking 45) and Novak Djokovic (current ITF ranking 3). I won't write what they said, but I was surprised to learn how amiable and open these world renown athletes are; Nadal is known for being uncannily humble, but many of the other athletes also have been extremely friendly, much friendlier than I imagined a competitive spirit would allow. During the last few days, the question, "How do the Olympics compare with other tennis tournaments?" arose often; in many of the answers, athletes have cited the presence of their national friends as a huge boost and a crucial differentiation to the energy and spirit of the Olympics. Instead of rushing past us, as I was afraid could potentially happen, the athletes respond politely to a few questions asked in the mixed zone (well, at least, so far--there haven't been many negative emotions from athletes yet, as no matches have been lost yet...) and have even entertained audiences.

For example, today during practice, Djokovic practiced attacking a lob ball. After a few, however, instead of slamming the ball with a typical and impressive attack, Djokovic simply let the ball fall from high in the air and bounce quickly on the court. Immediately after the bounce (almost invisibly from a spectator's view), he caught the ball in his shorts, turned to the laughing audience, and took a deep bow.

The playful attitude of the Olympics has definitely arrived at the tennis venue. I'm so excited that practice has finally ended--the real matches begin!

Note: There is no picture here because taking pictures, as a volunteer journalist, in this setting, is considered unprofessional from BOCOG; however, many other volunteers who aren't held to journalist standards took pictures galore, so perhaps I can borrow one of their copies later.