The Weird and Wonderful World of Olympic Basketball

In Culture, Sport on August 10, 2012 at 5:07 PM

I, like much of the rest of the UK it seems, have always viewed basketball with a kind of outsider’s indifference to the huge stir it causes on the other side of the pond. So it was curiosity that I hopped onto the Jubilee Line to the O…sorry, North Greenwich Arena for the Women’s Semi-Final of the Olympics between France and Russia.

The first thing to say is that the arena is a spectacular host to such glitzy showcases. The 20,000-capacity arena also plays host to the ATP World Tour Finals, which takes tennis well away from the prim and proper world of Wimbledon whites to a showy American-style spectacle, with lights and monitors littering the stands and the area high above the stage, and the stands rising from the ground precipitously, offering great views and acoustics.

So walking into the stadium to the sounds of Kanye West’s Power, accompanied by a light-show on the floor to which all the players were introduced felt, if you’ll excuse the overused term, epic. The players were all introduced in that stereotypically American-sports-announcer manner as they warmed up with their court sprints and lay-ups. Meanwhile some black Ant and Dec-like figures were trying to whip the 75%-full stadium into a kind of friendly frenzy, designating the four sections of the crowd the ‘Rihanna Stand’, the ‘Oasis Stand’, the ‘Van Morrison Stand’ (us), and the ‘Bob Marley Stand’. For better or for worse, it’s hard to imagine that at Wigan v Bolton.

Then, almost as a surprise due to all the hoop-la, the countdown was sounding for the start of the game and the jump-off. I think France got the first points on the board, but in truth I couldn’t tell you in any kind of certainty. This is partly because of the ridiculous high currency of scoring in basketball, making the only real reaction to any baskets oh, that’s cool , good shot, rather than the hyperbolic reaction that meets, say, goals in football. It’s often said that the reason Americans have high-scoring sports, staged with such razzmatazz, is a cultural thing: that something in the (typically) more polarised, here-and-now, just generally ‘big’ culture precludes the appreciation of a gritty 1-0 win away at Stoke. And, watching this very un-British staging of sport, there’s certainly something in that. For the other reason it’s hard to keep track of the score is the whole atmosphere. It was almost as if the players were peripheral figures to whole thing; hired stooges, paid to entertain at some bizarre, faux urban disco/Butlins hybrid.

The dads’ dance-off

The break after the first period contained a dads’ dance off, for Pete’s sake (a tie breaker for their two families drawing in the family shootout they had…somehow it seems it was always destined for the dance-off).  The only thing that would make the whole thing any more ‘audience interactive’ would be if a searchlight randomly stopped on a crowd member every time there was a free throw (the equivalent of a penalty), and for that lucky lad/lass to COOOOMMMMEEE ON DOOOOOWN! and try their luck. That’s not to condemn the whole shebang – just to point out that dancing dads and kiss cams are probably not quite what the ancient Greeks had in mind when they created the Ancient Olympic Games as a noble and pure pursuit of perfection for mind and body. I, for one, had to consciously remind myself a few times I was watching the best female exponents of a sport in the world, not a circus troupe.

Not a spare second is wasted, unfilled by some hollering from a master of ceremonies, dancers, light trick or burst of music, the latter often reduced to sounding like an aggressive nugget of sound that would greet someone opening a computer. In the sphere of sports, basketball is truly the ADHD kid, let loose on all the toys (to football’s working-class kid done well who now votes Tory, somewhat guiltily). Every stoppage, even the second-long gaps between someone scoring and the defenders collecting the ball, is filled by a blast of music, typically hip-hop or dance. I was sat there, envisaging some hyperactive MDMA-riddled bloke up in the control room, uncontrollable in his excitement at all the gadgetry around, waging his personal vendettas on unadulterated emotion, silence and gravitas.

Britain’s Got Talent semi-finalists, Peridot, entertained the crowds at half-time, and in between the third and fourth quarters there was some guys and gals doing some breakdancing/somersaulting act with skipping ropes (very impressive, it must be said), and some dressed as Games Makers even broke into a little jig when sweeping the court. There was also some points scored in between I think.

All in all, not one for the Daily Mail reader who enjoys his cricket, but (or therefore) pretty good fun. (Oh, and I believe France won. But then I’m still not entirely sure I didn’t pay for the privilege of walking into some super high-tech, virtual reality vision of sport in the future, like a kind of sports version of Woody Allen’s Orgasmatron.)

Joel Durston

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