James O'Brien's Blog

Hoffa Takes Bronze. I (Almost) Smack a Bloke's Head

Friday, August 3rd

First, a confession. A couple of days ago, I wrote about the travails of moving around London, from Olympic venue to Olympic venue. I cautioned visitors to pay attention, for fear of winding up in Frognal. To be honest, I wasn’t sure where Frognal was. Today, I found out. It’s the next stop down the line from where I catch the train every day. Just goes to show: sometimes you can be in Frognal without even realizing.

Also today, the track and field competition began in the Olympic Stadium. Whether you’re a track fan or not, it’s undeniable that, once the action begins in the stadium - the focal point of any Games - the fever starts to burn a little hotter. Here, it seems as though London has been waiting for the track and field competition to begin. There has been magnificent competition to this point, much featuring athletes from the NYAC; but there has also been the nagging annoyance of venues with copious empty seats and, with it, a sense that there were crescendos still to be reached. That all changed today. 

At this morning’s opening session in the Olympic Stadium, there was not an empty seat to be had. The place was rocking and British heptathlete, Jessica Ennis, made herself an instant superstar by setting a US record in her first event, the 100m hurdles. Putting it in context, with her time (12.54 seconds) Ennis - a heptathlete, remember - would have won the open 100m hurdles in Beijing four years ago. There was blanket TV coverage in all media, including newspapers - they still have evening editions in London - and, for the later session, the stadium could barely contain the sense of anticipation. 

That’s what you want at an Olympic Games. Empty seats don’t do the job. You want a rocking and roiling cauldron of excitement. There’s something about 80,000 people jammed into a stadium with the music blasting and three events all going full tilt at the same time that can’t be replicated, or properly explained.

This was the arena into which Reese Hoffa stepped. He qualified for the shot put final with one throw this morning, and began this evening’s battle for the medals as one of the strongest of contenders. The worst of it is that the state of world shot putting in 2012 is such that any one of half a dozen competitors could be the best in the world on any given day. Further, the state of shot putting in the USA is such that you could be ranked fourth in the world and not make the US team. 

Joining Hoffa representing the US in London were Christian Cantwell and Ryan Whiting. Cantwell has a drawer full of championship titles to his name. Whiting is the 2012 world indoor champion. Also in the fray were defending Olympic champion, Tomas Majewski from Poland and reigning world outdoor champion, David Storl from Germany. As the competition began, there were a minimum of six guys who could claim the gold medal. That’s what you call a competition.
The way it works in the shot put is that the 12 finalists get three throws. After that, the leading eight get a further three throws. Your throws in the first three rounds still count in the last three rounds. Thus, many throwers get their big ones in early. You’re fresh and strong and you can ride the early-competition adrenalin. That’s how it went this evening.

Reese launched a throw of 20.98m/68’ 10” on his first throw, a mark that landed him in third position. Though he improved to 21.23m/69’ 8” on his third attempt, third position was where he stayed to the end. Majewski took the crown with a throw of 21.89m/71’ 10” - thus becoming the first man since Parry O’Brien in 1952/1956 to successfully defend an Olympic shot put title - while Storl claimed the silver at 21.86m/71’ 8 3/4”. That may all sound perfunctory; it was far from it. Hoffa fought valiantly, his fourth throw also exceeding the 21m mark, while Cantwell pressed hard from behind, intent on claiming a spot on the podium. He failed by four centimeters, the NYAC man, thereby, claiming his first Olympic medal.

When you have hopes of gold, though, bronze just doesn’t have the same gilt. Unhappy with his early attempts, Hoffa stated, “I was like, ‘Snap out of it, Reese. You’ve got to snap out of it; because, if you don’t execute, Dylan [Armstrong, from Canada] or someone else will and get the medal.’ Throughout the entire competition, I always thought that I would be able to hit a throw that might win.”

When you’re among the best in the world and you’re at the Olympic Games, you’re never “going for bronze.” In the aftermath of the competition, therefore, it can be hard to grasp the import of what an Olympic bronze medal means. Progressively, it sinks in. “I’m an old dog,” Hoffa continued, “and I came out with a medal. That’s pretty awesome.”

Correct.

There was plenty of other NYAC action today, Herewith, a brief recap:

- In the men’s hammer throw qualifying rounds, Kibwe Johnson launched the ball and chain out to 77,17m/252’ 2”, his best this year. That mark was the fifth best of the day and earned him a place in the final, taking place on Sunday (August 5th).

- In the women’s triple jump qualifying, US champion, Amanda Smock, produced a leap of 13.61m/44’ 8”, a fine performance, but only good for 11th in her group and insufficient to advance to the final.

- In swimming, Tyler McGill placed seventh in the final of the 100m butterfly, a race won by Michael Phelps, the latter securing his 21st Olympic medal and 17th gold. I mean, what does he do with them all? Tyler was also a member of the US medley relay squad that won its prelim, securing a place in tomorrow’s (Saturday’s) final. Tyler swam the third, butterfly, leg, hauling the US into the lead, where Cullen Jones kept them on the final segment. Tomorrow, the water will boil.

- The US women’s table tennis team, comprising Ariel Hsing, Erica Wu and Lily Zhang - all NYAC members - had a tough opening competition. They came up against a powerhouse team from Japan, who eliminated them from the competition. Sometimes, things just don’t go the way you’d like. That’s why sport is good for you. 
- Jeff Spear, a man with the most appropriate name imaginable for a fencer (other than maybe Ruben Blades or Mack the Knife), was a part of the US squad that contested the team sabre competition today. The 2008 team had claimed a massive silver medal in Beijing, and hopes were high that there would be more hardware in London. But...see the above table tennis philosophizing. 

The team’s medal dreams disappeared after a quarter-final loss to Russia, the two-time reigning world champions. After the loss, the team had half an hour to regroup bef
ore a match against China to determine the 5th-8th place tables. They lost that clash; after which came Belarus, which also resulted in what you might call a negative win. 

“Fencing is my favorite thing in the world,” said Spear, who came in as the replacement competitor in the Belarus match. “To do it on our biggest stage and represent our country? I’m very proud of that. I wish I could have done better. I know I could have done better; but, I’ll be back.” Spoken like a man who will be back, without question.
- In women’s water polo, the US held off a fourth-quarter surge by China to pick up a 7-6 win and finish second in Group A. The US and Spain had identical 2-0-1 records coming into this game, and had tied in head-to-head play; but, Spain had a +7 in goal differential, as opposed to the USA's +2. That means that next up for the Americans is the quarter-final round, where they will meet Italy. That happens on Sunday (August 5th).
And that’s all the action for today. Notably, NYAC athletes have won Olympic medals 
on each of the past three days. Tomorrow (Saturday), I predict that there will be more. I’m not saying from whom, and I promise not to change this after the fact if I’m wrong. 

One note in closing. As mentioned earlier, track and field competition began in the Olympic Stadium this evening, and the place was jumping. The athletes must take most of the credit for that; but, in fairness, the stadium announcer played a major role. Yes, he spent much time explaining to the crowd who was doing what when. But, he was just as intent on building the atmosphere, getting the people going, and in a big way. I’ve heard announcers try this before, but this was something new.

Picture this: the shot put is reaching it’s climax, the women’s 10,000m final is underway, the music is raising the roof, and said announcer is exhorting you to: “Come on! Loosen your clothing! Have a gargle! Smack the head of the bloke in front of you! He won’t mind!” Unfortunately, by the time I’d stopped laughing, the window for smacking the bloke’s head had closed.


       
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