Sunday, December 16, 2012

My Highlights of 2012- Part I

Hi everyone,

We are nearing the end of the year, and many people take that time to draw up lists of their favorite albums, movies, or songs of the year. I used to do this as well, but the last couple of years I haven't really bought an awful lot of music, which would necessitate a list. In fact, these days, I can't come up with 5 new CDs a year, and the ones that I do buy are mostly obscure Ramones bootlegs, so that does not require a list either.

No, what I decided to do instead is make a list of the 5 things I liked most about this year.
This, for me, is more interesting than telling you which movies I liked (Rock of Ages was really good though) because that is all rather subjective and wouldn't amount to much.
So, without further delay, let's have a look at what made me tick in 2012.

5. The London Olympics.

London is one of those places that, as an avid traveller, you get to, for some reason or other, about once a year. Sometimes for a couple of days, maybe to watch a match, or maybe you're just passing through an airport on your way somewhere else.  This year, however, I did not set foot on London soil, if I remember correctly. And this year, more than any recent years, there was a very good reason for going to London: the Olympics were in town. The first summer Olympics that I really followed were the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984. I had seen the Sarajevo Winter Olympics earlier in the year, which is also why it was so special for me to visit the Sarajevo Olympic stadium when I was there last year.  I have intently watched every Olympic Games ever since. I just love it. There's sport on TV every day, all day, everybody follows it, even people who don't normally care too much about sports, and I even find myself watching sports that I wouldn't normally even consider watching, like rhythmic gymnastics or rowing.
The Olympics are always a happy time for me, and it starts right at the opening ceremony, where I can play my favorite game: Guess the Flag. If you are obsessed with maps and geography like me, this will keep you happily occupied for a couple of hours. During the 2008 Bejing Olympics, I spent half an afternoon in a local pub near my dad's house, where I played Guess the Flag with one of the locals, a guy by the name of Henny, who used to drink there with my dad when they were growing up and, well, he probably thought that if it ain't broke, he shouldn't fix it, so when my dad set off to get a career, a family and a mortgage, Henny stayed.
When I relayed this story to my dad, he looked at me with a look that said "I can not even start to imagine how you could possibly have fun doing something as trivial as that"

There are 2 things that stood out for me in the London Olympics: They were very happy games, without any major incidents. There were no kidnappings, no bomb attacks, no security issues, nobody boycotted the games and they were very well organised. What also contributed to this feeling is the fact that, for the first time as far as I can remember, the organising committee had actually thought through what they were going to do with the facilities after the games had ended. Most Olympic facilities, you see, are basically left to rot. There is a website that has pictures of abandoned Olympic facilities around the world and it is not a pretty sight. The Barcelona Olympic stadium has no present use. Nothing happens there. The one in Sydney gets 1 or 2 games a year thrown in their direction by the Australian Rugby Union, but that's about it. The Sarajevo stadium sat idle for years and then were lucky to find out that a local team (FK Sarajevo) needed a new ground so they moved the team there. The one in Amsterdam was used for football games for about 2 decades but has now been redevelopped as a business centre. The pitch is now  a park, with a fountain in the middle of it. The only Olympic Stadium that I know of that is being used in any meaningful sense, is the one in Atlanta. After the games they tore down half of it, and it is now in use as a baseball park. So in that way the new London stadium is quite unique in that it was already known that it would be used every week after all the paperwork had been done, as the new home ground for West Ham United. In fact, 3 teams were in the running for the ground, but it appears that West Ham has won the race, much to the detriment of local team Leyton Orient who now fear that having their big brother around the corner, they will loose support as people will go visit West Ham in the Olympic stadium instead.

What was also  a novel experience for me, is that I watched pretty much the entire games in the USA, which gave the whole enterprise an entirely different feeling to watching it in Europe.  As you will know, American news focuses mainly on American issues. You can watch CNN for 3 hours in the safe knowledge that probably not once, you will encounter a news item that is set outside of the US, or is not connected to American interests elsewhere.  This more or less works for sports coverage as well, and I don't just mean that they call their national championships World Championships, even though there are never any none-American teams involved (The only exceptions being 1 Canadian team in the NBA, and about half a dozen Canadian teams in the National Hockey League)

Don't get me wrong- I love American sports broadcasting. It is always accurate, exciting, up to date and stuffed full with statistics, an area of expertise I am especially fond of. American sports on tv are always a party. However, as I said, it always focusses on Americans first and foremost, and the rest of the world later. If you watch an Olympic event on, say, British television, they will try to get an interview with the winner first. Later on they will focus on British athletes. In America, it is the other way around. The first thing you will see is the American athlete that came in 5th or 6th and after that they will focus on periferral characters like Usain Bolt or Jessica Ennis.

And that brings me, in a roundabout way, to my personal favorites of the London Olympics: Jessica Ennis and Katie Taylor. Katie Taylor, a girl-next-door from the Irish town of Bray, just South of Dublin, took part in the boxing competition and was, realistically, Ireland's only real chance of a Gold Medal. Fortunately, she delivered, a feat which sent the entire nation into frenzy. Streets, parks and even a brand of beer were named after her in the aftermath of the games.

My personal favorite, however, was Jessica Ennis. A bright and sparkling girl from Sheffield, who was a pleasure to watch during the heptathlon and was justly rewarded with a Gold medal after winning 6 of the 7 events. I have never seen an athlete who looked so happy and the fact that she stayed really down to earth when every paper and tv show in Britain wanted to see her makes her all the more special.

I was going to write something about the demise of a certain football club in South Glasgow, but as I want to end the year on a positive note, I have decided to focus on a different football matter.


It sounds really good, doesn't it? 

Okay, one more time:


3. The Irish came home.

American Football is getting ever more popular in Ireland. More and more pubs are picking up on the interest and start advertising that they're showing all the games. The thing is, other than the Woolshed, they only show the games on Sky, which means that if you really want to see a good selection of games, The Woolshed is where you want to go.
This story, however, has nothing to do with pro football as such, but with the news I picked up early in the year that a big NCAA football game was to be held in Dublin. What made it even more interesting was that it involved the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, a team with strong Irish links and massive support among Irish Americans.
For those of you unfamiliar with the NCAA, it is the governing body for college sports in the USA.
And college sports in the USA, are BIG Business. Really Big.

Let me give you some figures about how big it is. During the half time break of the game in Dublin, they held an on-field interview with the General Manager of Notre Dame and, when asked if he was impressed with the sell-out, 53.000 crowd, he said the crowd was amazing but they were used to big crowds as Notre Dame Football ground has a capacity of 81.000 and has sold out EVERY GAME SINCE 1964. 81.000. That is a bigger stadium than all but 4 stadiums in the whole of Europe, and that is just for 1 college team. Teams in the Southern states often have considerably bigger stadiums. The Michigan State Wolverines, up North, I was astonished to find out, have a stadium that holds a whopping 108,000 people. That is 2 Aviva Stadiums put together and then some. It is also the largest sporting venue, capacity-wise, in the world that is not used for racing.  And it's not just spectators. American Universities regularly publish annual merchandise turn-over figures that have teams like Manchester United and Real Madrid scratching their heads, wondering what the hell they are doing wrong. As you will understand by now, college sports are Big Business. 

So it was with some excitement (A lot of excitement, really) that we learned that the Fighting Irish would be playing Navy in Dublin in the first weekend of September. Getting tickets would be a nervy and tricky business. The stadium holds 53.000 but due to the Irish-American connection, many Fighting Irish fans from the States would be eager to make a holiday out of it and see Ireland, perhaps even trace their ancestral roots. So when the date came around that the tickets would go on sale, I was wired and, 10 minutes before the on-sale time, I unplugged my  phone at work and picked a bunch of papers from my desk that I had especially put aside to look busy while I was getting my hands on tickets. After 10 minutes of nervously refreshing my browser window, I finally got to the covetted 'On Sale' screen and, having pre-entered all my details, managed to get 2 great tickets right behind the press-section. Filled with joy, I walked into the hallway to inform Renae that we were in, and when I returned 2 minutes later, I refreshed my browser again, only to find SOLD OUT on the screen. We were very happy indeed.

In the run-up to the game, I regularly checked the Notre Dame websites to see if there was any news to report, such as the awesome notion that Notre Dame would be wearing boots in the colors of the Irish flag during the game. It was then that it started to dawn on me how massive an occasion this was. I checked the website of the Official Notre Dame travelling agency. The notion that a school has their own travel agency would come across as preposterous here in Europe, but in the USA it is apparently quite normal. Their website proudly stated that they alone had sold over 9000 tickets for the game in Ireland, 3600 miles away. 9000 people, to give you an understanding of the size of the operation, is 20 transatlantic Boeing 747s filled to capacity.
That's impressive.

Apart from the online stats, Dublin itself transformed completely in the weeks before the match. As many Americans had made a holiday out of it, and spent 1 or 2 weeks in Dublin or Ireland at large, everybody wanted a piece of the action. Pubs started showing baseball at night and ESPN during the day. Menus were hastily modelled after the Hardrock Cafe and TGI Friday's. There were American flags literally EVERYWHERE. At times I wondered if I was walking through Temple Bar or Gatlinburg. The atmosphere was great. I was lucky enough at the time to have some time off work, so I spent many a happy afternoon taking in the scenes of American tourists tracing their Irish roots, drinking Guinness and taking pictures of the banners that said 'WELCOME HOME TO THE FIGHTING IRISH' that were all around town. It really was quite awesome. With game day only days away. excitement reached fever pitch. All pubs were packed with Americans and American Football enthousiasts like me, and we all had a great time. I walked into a bar in Temple Bar(not something I do that often) on the Friday afternoon before the game, wearing a New York Mets hoody. I ordered a beer and within 5 seconds an American down the bar asked me how life in New York was. When I explained that I was not from there, he found it so amusing that locals followed American Sports that he bought me my next beer, and the one after that. To milk the situation, I then showed him my tattoo of the flag of California, which triggered another couple of free pints. But other than the free beer, the whole atmosphere in town was great. Everybody was having fun and all was well in the world.
The author at the game

When game day finally came around, it got even better. Merchandise for the teams was sold everywhere, Temple Bar, the official tailgate venue for the match was one big street party and every pub in town was packed to the rafters. It looked like St. Patrick's Day. When we got to the stadium, we found that we had the best seats in the house, directly behind the press section. We had a brilliant view of the pitch and all the action. The pre-game show was amazing, the band alone must have been consisted of over 100 people. The game was great, the halftime show was amazing, especially a choreographed move from the band, where they first filtered out in the shape of a Shamrock and then in a map of Ireland, which sent everybody into a frenzy. The weather was perfect and oh yeah, Notre Dame thrashed Navy by 50-10. It was a brilliant day and a very special occasion to be part of. I will remember it for the rest of my life and wouldn't have missed it for anything.

So that was part I. I will reveal my other highlights of the year next week.


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