Thursday, August 21
The Event: Athletics (various events)
The Competitors: Too many to list
The Venue: The Bird’s Nest!! In some ways the venue was the star of our night. Although I have no architectural expertise whatsoever, for me the stadium’s curves conveyed an impression of uplifting contrasts, both soft and soaring, muted and majestic. I’ll plan to post several photos in an upcoming “Photos” post, so keep your eyes out for it!
What we knew: We knew we’d be seeing several finals, most notably the Men’s 400 meter final, which would feature favored Americans Jeremy Wariner and LaShawn Merrit. We also knew that we had missed a chance to see the Chinese fans at their best (and surely their wildest), since the Men’s 100 meter hurdles final would not feature the injured Liu Xiang, the national hero and defending Olympic champion who limped out for the trials on Tuesday and then limped back off after a few steps.
How we prepared: We were starting to run out of new outfits and ideas at this point. Despite a couple inquiries, I hadn’t been able to find an “Obama 08” shirt to go with my American flag, so I went with my “I [Heart] China shirt” to complement the Stars and Stripes. Also of note: I keep neglecting to mention that we purchased an excellent pair of small binoculars while still in Qingdao (where they were much cheaper than in Beijing), and they served us well at all events, especially this one.
What happened: To be honest, Track and Field is kind of difficult to follow. There are usually lots of things going on at once; for instance, the Men’s Decathlon High Jump Event, off at one end of the field, literally took the entire night. And although our seats weren’t terrible, a lot of it was very far away. That being said, we witnessed a lot of cool (and a couple not-so-cool) things, which I will put in a list since that’s kind of how an evening watching track and field feels.
- The qualifying rounds of the Men’s and Women’s 1500 meters were cool, mostly because four laps around the track is long enough that you can see how utterly exhausting it is, but the Olympic runners are sprinting the entire time. Props to them.
- The Women’s Javelin final was unexpectedly exciting, with a surprising amount of noise from the crowd as we followed the dominant throws of the Russian who led through all five rounds, only to watch a Czech woman beat her on the incredible second-to-last throw of the night, which fell just centimeters away from the world record.
- The Men’s Triple Jump was cool, but it took too long. And why, exactly, do they need to jump three times? Whose idea was this event?
- The Men’s and Women’s 400 meter relay (qualifying round) were horribly disappointing for the Americans. Both the men’s and women’s team dropped the baton on the final transfer, with the men’s team easily set to qualify and the women’s team leading the field. Even though I don’t follow track and field at all, watching this happen the second time made me feel sick in that special way that only a lifelong Philadelphia sports fan can.
- Fortunately, the relay disappointments were redeemed quite a bit by a United States SWEEP in the Men’s 400 meters. This was incredibly exciting, especially because we only took bronze by having our third-best runner (who wasn’t expected to medal) literally dive across the finish line. The gold medal winner, LaShawn Merritt, has apparently been emerging from the shadow of Jeremy Wariner (the defending world champion) this year, so although Jeremy looked a little bitter afterward, it was fun to see Merritt blow away the field on the final straightaway.
- The Men’s 100 meter hurdles were meant to be the climax of the evening, but without Liu Xiang there was a lot less frenzy. Still, it’s a big event and it was fun to watch Cuban Dayron Robles (who broke Liu Xiang’s record this summer) bound to the gold. It’s crazy that they can run so fast and jump over all those sawhorses.
- There were a couple other qualifiers, I think, but these are the events I remember best. I think my favorite moment, though, was when the medal ceremony for the Men’s 400 meters was announced (some ceremonies are postponed until the next day). This meant that we not only got to watch the three US men parade around the stadium with their flags after the race, but we then got to watch them take the stand and receive their medals. Most importantly, though, for the first and only time in our Olympics, we heard the old “Star-Spangled Banner!” It was a good moment (and they really play a lovely version at the Olympics).
Also of note: The night’s events were actually interspersed with medal ceremonies, including two or three from the night before. So aside from hearing our own anthem for the first time, this had a couple other significant repercussions: we got to admire Usain Bolt and his many poses as he accepted his gold medal for the 200 meters from the night before, and I now know the Jamaican national anthem by heart.