Ten minutes into my first Olympic event as a ticket-buying punter, a key question cropped up: “Do hockey players wear shorts?” It looked from my vantage point high up in the Riverbank Arena in London’s Olympic Park as if the men representing Australia and South Africa were wearing shorts. The garments at issue certainly bore close resemblance to the shorts I am familiar with, as worn by football and rugby players. But do the hockey players call them shorts?
The question was prompted by the man sitting next to me. On the other side of him he had his son, aged about 10. Each was munching hungrily on a pork roll, which looked and smelled like one of the more appetising items on offer at the Park’s many food stalls and halls, even if everything could do with a 30 per cent cut in price to bring them closer to reasonable value. That goes too for the t-shirts, key rings and stuffed Wenlocks and Mandevilles (and “stuff Wenlock and Mandeville” could be an early catchphrase for the Games, as the official mascots are playing almost as small a part as the Scottish and Northern Irish footballers).
An incident between an Australian and a South African had prompted a snort from my neighbour – who I fear got some apple sauce up his nose as a result – and he explained to his progeny: “He’s got the other player’s stick caught in his trousers.” At which point I snorted, inwardly of course: “Ha ha, ‘trousers’ indeed. Obviously this fool knows nothing whatsoever about hockey, even to the extent of naming pieces of kit wrongly, which as we all know is a heinous crime. Think Americans describing football shirts, shorts and socks as ‘uniform’.”
Instantly, though, I retracted my cynicism, as I sat there enjoying the skittish sun, taking in the Olympic skyline afforded by my seat (left to right: velodrome, Basketball Arena, Aquatics Centre, Orbit and main stadium), and resolutely eating and drinking nothing purchased on-site to keep the cost of my trip down to the £20 hockey ticket I bought from a friend of a friend. A £1.25 sandwich purchased at St Pancras on the way to Stratford was keeping the stomach grumbles at bay. Throw in the offset of the free Travelcard that comes with the ticket and it was a cheap day out. But it was the lowest priced adult Olympic ticket and if you find yourself coveting an official programme – a fiver for the day-specific version – or the Orbit (£15) or a beer (£4.20) you had better trust your Visa card to be able to keep pace. The champagne-and-seafood bar, which has tinted windows to keep the hoi polloi from too much intrusion, advertised bubbly starting at 19 quid and I didn’t fancy checking on the price of a lobster.
The truth was that I didn’t know anything about hockey, either. In a past job working for a sports photographic agency I attended three summer and one winter Games, but hockey had been low down the list of events I’d ever been keen to get to. Athletics (I forever count my blessings that I was able see the 100 metres final in Seoul, Barcelona and Atlanta), weightlifting, table tennis, basketball, swimming… But never hockey.
Yet there we were, the three of us, with no more clue about hockey than the universal basics that can be applied to handball and basketball, too: the aim was to score more goals than the opposition and to qualify for later rounds by finishing in the requisite position in the group (or is it the pool?). As to tactics, positions, rules (or are they, as in rugby, laws?), etiquette, history and all those other things that go toward genuine understanding and love of a sport, we were non-starters.
Or, perhaps, false-starters, as we belonged instead to what surely was the majority in the audience for that hockey match, and the audience at almost every London Olympic event, because we were there for another reason, that of saying “we were there”. Parents keen for themselves and their family to be involved had piled in for tickets in the random ballot last autumn – a scattergun operation in which something like 0.000001 per cent of the population who wanted a 100-metre final ticket had got one, and a vastly greater percentage were sent a ticket to hockey or handball or badminton or nothing. There were three-year-olds crouched between the seats behind me in the Riverbank Arena busily colouring in the picture books wisely brought in by parents who knew that if they were mostly uninterested in what they were watching, the chances of little Jake or Jocasta being engaged were nil.
I did notice through a basic instinct to take note of the unfolding result that nil was the score of South Africa. A man behind me who did, in fact, know something of hockey having been a club player in his time, filled a few of us eavesdroppers in on the subtle difference between playing left half and right half. The public-address announcer promised to give us some primers on hockey but as far as I heard limited it to a brief explanation of the different kinds of sendings-off. When a green card was shown, there was an odd but pleasant playing of new age music while the PA man announced the offender’s name with a jauntily rising inflection as if going to the sin bin (though it probably isn’t called that) was something to be proud of. (Er, it isn’t, is it?) Otherwise, goals were greeted with the standard “woo-hoo” of Blur’s “Song Two” or the like. This is common, I think, to every sport on the planet. Considering the 8.30am start-time of the session, the audience after their interrupted sleep and pork rolls might have preferred a pillow and a power nap by the time Australia’s sixth goal rattled the backboard (yes?) at about 12.30.
I left two minutes before the end (do they call it full time?) to beat the rush down the stairs and continue the main purpose of the trip, which was to walk around the Park, enjoy the surroundings and simply be part of the London Olympics. The man with the knowledge man behind me in the Riverbank Arena, which is to be dismantled after the Games, said of Australia, who won 6-0: “Well, you wouldn’t say they look unbeatable.” Actually, that was exactly how they looked to me. But who was I to say?