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James O'Brien's Blog

Stratford, not Stratford

Saturday, July 28th

It occurs to me that there is one thing that the Games organizers should have made clear from the outset: this Stratford (in east London, where most of the Olympics venues are sited) is not that Stratford (the one on the River Avon, in the county of Warwickshire, birthplace of William Shakespeare). They are similar in name only, the first being an urban conurbation, part of the sprawl of the British capital, the second being an idyllic village, characterized by thatched cottages and car parks filled with tour buses. They are about as similar as Boston (Massachusetts) and Boston (Lincolnshire). If you come to this one expecting that one, you’re going to be gravely disappointed. And vice versa, for that matter.

That said, they do have a connection. While Stratford Upon Avon is renowned the world over for its contributions to theater, Stratford Not Upon Avon (it’s on the River Lea, in case somebody asks you) is home to the Theatre Royal, a venue celebrated as being, among other things, the theater at which Brendan Behan’s “The Hostage” was first performed. The building is but a short walk from the Main Stadium. At least, it used to be. Hopefully, it hasn’t been victim of the staggering urban renewal that has made this area unrecognizable from how it was six or seven years ago. (I wish the same of the King Eddie, a delightful little pub that is (or was) not far away).

In its own way, this part of London is as steeped in history as is its more famed namesake a couple of hours to the northwest. Not far from here, is the Whitechapel Bell Foundry - a mile or two closer to the City of London - in which Philadelphia's Liberty Bell was cast. Whitechapel is also that area of London where Jack the Ripper plied his trade. And Bow Church is also in this neck (there are no woods). Those born within earshot of the church’s bells are London’s true Cockneys. (If you don’t know what a Cockney is...google. While you’re at it, google “Pearly Kings and Queens.” That’s a facet of London culture with deep roots in this area, but which are just about withered these days).  

To have been born a stone’s throw from here - which I was - and to see what it has become is simply staggering. The enormity of the Olympic park and the beauty of the facilities (the little that I’ve seen so far) are the finest tribute imaginable to the organizers and, let it be said, the city and the country. These, of course, are the Games that New York coveted. In the midst of the cavernous new structures, one has to ask, “If New York had won, where the heck would they have put it all?”

These Games are still in their earliest days, of course. Today (Saturday) was Day One of the competition and there are still many dramas, thrills, scandals and revelations to savor. (The Indian team is angry that a mystery person marched with their group in the Opening Ceremony; Michael Phelps got hammered in the 400m IM final this evening; world record holder, Paula Radcliffe revealed that she may pull out of the marathon). From an NYAC perspective, there is an enormous amount to anticipate, and an enthusiastic group of Club members is here - many staying at the New Cavendish Club, one of our reciprocals - ready and eager to lend sterling  vocal support. (A uniquely British ad on the Underground observes, “The anthem won’t sing itself.” You’ve got to love that British humour...I mean humor.”)

On the NYAC front today, it was table tennis and rowing that were on the radar. The news was bitter-sweet, the way it often is at the Olympic Games. Timothy Wang and Lily Zhang were defeated in straight sets in their opening rounds of the men’s and women’s singles table tennis competition. (Wang is the only male member of the US team). Ariel Hsing, on the other hand, blasted through her opener, prevailing over Mexico’s Yadira Silva, 11-9, 11-8, 11-3, 11-5. In the second round (tomorrow - Sunday - at 10am, GMT), she will face Xia Lian Ni from Luxembourg. Check back for results.

In the rowing competition, David Banks was on the water as a member of the US men’s eight, while Megan Kalmoe and Nick LaCava contested the women’s quad sculls and men’s lightweight four, respectively. All of the news was good, if not exciting. Banks and the remaining seven advanced to Wednesday’s A final, when hardware is on the line. Kalmoe and the female quad scullers placed fourth in their heat, meaning they next contest Monday’s repechage. LaCava and the lightweight four placed fifth, meaning that they next compete in Sunday’s (today’s) repechage.

In writing this, it hits home that, for sure, these Games have begun. On Sunday, in addition to the above, I must keep an eye on the US men’s water polo team (they won medals in Beiing, don’t forget), plus the women’s eight. It will be hectic; but, you don’t go to the Olympic Games to take a rest. In exploring the Main Press Center yesterday, however, I confess that I came across an area with a few couches, a place where the oft-oppressed members of the media can take a few moments respite. Feeling fairly banjaxed myself, I thought I’d sit for a while; but, then I saw one poor journo, stretched out, fast asleep. So, I thought I’d best not disturb her. After all, I reasoned, if this was how she felt on Day One, she’s going to have a very long Games. 

Check back later for updates of Sunday’s NYAC action. 

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