After a day’s Armchair Olympics, Mrs Chrisparkle and I were up and out on a mid-morning train to London for some Flyweight and Welterweight Boxing Rounds at the ExCel. Lots of firsts for us here – neither of us had seen live boxing before, nor had we been to the ExCel, nor had we trekked out that far into the wilds of Docklands. When I amateurishly dabbled with Postgraduate life at Queen Mary College in East London in the early 1980s, this area was largely a wasteland. Mile End, Stratford and such places always had some liveliness, but one never ventured out as far as Canning Town. The DLR has opened up a whole new area which we had never seen. This was only our second ever trip on the DLR – the first being a good 15 years ago when we were in the company of the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle taking her on an excursion to Greenwich, where she spent the whole day scowling, as was her wont in those days. But I was amazed at how developed, lively, trendy and generally fabulous this part of East London has turned out to be. The ExCel is actually alongside the Royal Victoria Dock, where I believe my paternal grandfather worked; and not far from George V Docks, where both my dad and his brother laboured as teenagers. How times have changed.
A quick check of my Tube Map App recommended the Northern Line from Euston to Bank then DLR to Custom House. Quite easy – approximately 33 minutes. When we arrived at Euston, however, the recommended Olympic route, on all the information boards, was Victoria Line to Kings Cross, then Circle Line to Liverpool Street, walk to the mainline station, take the Overground to Stratford, walk 6 minutes to Stratford DLR, and from there head to Custom House – 1 hour 8 minutes. Or alternatively, with one fewer change, (but three minutes longer), tube it to Highbury and Islington, then take the overground to Stratford. Why all the fuss? We just went to Bank, changed nice and simply to the DLR and arrived at Custom House station long before we needed to, so much so that we stopped off for a decent cuppa tea at a bar adjacent to the station, which was awash with accredited people from all nations of the world.
Very jolly and friendly security checks got us into the ExCel. We walked its length and breadth and soaked up the atmosphere, which really was rather splendid. Not only does it house the Boxing, but also Judo, Weightlifting, Table Tennis, Fencing, Wrestling and Taekwondo. As our sports session was from 1.30 to 3.30pm, we thought we’d have a light lunch at one of the stalls. Again this involved the usual gluten-free hunt, but that was quite easily achieved by the appearance of a large and tasty looking Jacket Potato stall, so both Mrs C and I had a Jacket Spud with cheese and beans (£5.50 each) and some water. We sat on the floor, ate, drank and were merry.
Once you get inside the Boxing area itself, there are more food and drink stalls, plenty of toilets and a little semi-museum of boxing artefacts and full size shrines to famous boxers. A guy who looked as though we would be handy with his fists was posing next to a lifesize cardboard cut out of some boxing champion or other. His lady was attempting to take a photo that would doubtless serve as The Perfect Facebook Profile Pic. Looking round the museum area, I tried to find some references to the amateur boxers my Mum knew when she was young and carefree, but drew a blank. We wandered around a little more, and saw a weigh-in machine, and a few other exhibits. We turned to go into the arena, pausing to watch the posing guy still with his dukes up and bearing a very pained and embarrassed expression as his lady was still fiddling uselessly with the camera. I think the fun moment was lost.
Once inside the arena, I was impressed with the overall size of the room but felt the boxing ring itself looked a bit dwarfed by everything else. There were plenty of TV screens to help you see the action a bit clearer and closer up but if you’re going to rely on those you might as well stay at home. A jovial announcer chap introduced us to some video which explained the finer points of this noble art; and then he interviewed a few excited punters. Apart from the relatively small area obviously set aside for the “Olympic Family”, it was good to see that the hall was more or less full. The crowd was very expectant for the final bout as that would feature Great Britain’s Fred Evans’ fight against Lithuania’s Egidijus Kavaliauskas, so it was almost as though the seven matches before it were like a warm-up act.
What became very obvious as the afternoon wore on is that Olympic Boxing is highly tactical. You win by scoring points – and you get a point every time the knuckle edge of your glove strikes your opponent in the appropriate target place – head or torso. Points make prizes, and no score is no glory. There were a couple of bouts where the two boxers, admittedly nimble on their toes, spent what seemed like hours just tippety-tapping their gloves against their opponents glove, for which cheeky approach the opponent would just tippety-tap back. A typical end of round score for this type of shenanigans was 2-1. All tactics and no fisticuffs, which is actually a bit boring to watch, especially when you’re sat at a distance from the ring. They may have floated like a butterfly, but some of them stung like one too. There were, however, definitely some boxers who showed more fighting spirit than others. There was a 17 year old flyweight Puerto Rican, Jeyvier Cintron Ocasio, who was suitably polite and reverential to his elders and betters outside the three minute rounds but then went hammer and tongs at his opponent, the Brazilian Neto, during the match itself. Amongst the welterweights, Canadian Custio Clayton eventually seemed to get the idea that a little aggression is necessary and his final round against the rather overwhelmed Australian Cameron Hammond was worth staying awake for.
In order to overcome the tedium of paying attention to each second of each round, the crowd as a whole developed coping strategies. The most popular was to get up at all times during the session, whether it be before, during, or after any particular round, and go to the bar. Unlike at the football, you were allowed to bring alcohol into the arena. Some people took this opportunity several times during the two hours. It was as though they regarded their (at least) £50 tickets as entry to a very expensive club, where you simply go and get drinks for everyone, and there’s a bit of boxing going on as minor background diversion.
The next most popular activity was checking Facebook. Every other smartphone was lit up with that familiar blue and grey screen, as husbands commented on action pics and wives chatted to girlfriends. The other entertainment activity – the boxing equivalent of the Mexican Wave really – is to pick on an unlikely competitor and support them for no good reason whatsoever. It only takes one mischief maker to start up the cry “Mon-Go-Lia! Mon-Go-Lia!” for the whole crowd to join in and support the plucky pugilists from Ulaan Bator. I saw the person who started the Mongolia chant – he was about four seats in front of me – and I can tell you the nearest he’s been to a yurt was the camping sale at Millet’s. There’s no doubt the chant worked wonders – we had two Mongolian boxers in our session and they both upped their game in response to our admiration, although the Welterweight still lost – dashed close though. The mischievous chanter got bored – and with good reason – at the dull tactical bout between Ukraine’s Shelestyuk and Moldova’s Belous, and started up a “Mol-Dov-A! Mol-Dov-A!” chant; but we knew what game he was playing, and no one was having any of it. After a dozen or so lone shouts, he shut up, embarrassed.
The whole thing is a surprisingly theatrical event. The entrances of the boxers; the arrival of the next lot of judges and referees like a changing of the guard; the pantomime reactions of the crowd. There were no busty blondes walking the number of the next round inside the ring, but I guess we weren’t in Vegas. For that final match between Britain and Lithuania, not only did the crowd sing with one voice “Freddie! Freddie! Freddie! Freddie!” but they also loudly booed poor Mr Kavaliauskas, which was unsportsmanlike and I wasn’t very happy with it. Even less happy was I with the booing that met M. Vastine of France and Signor Picardi of Italy, whose sole transgressions were to have been pitted against a Mongolian. Still, I cheered on Freddie like he was an old mate, even if he was extremely tactical in his approach to his opponent; and as my reward Evans did give him a good going-over in the last round to seal his victory. I’m not sure what would have happened if he had lost – the judges would have been lynched.
When it was all over we all got up quickly, and, ignoring Seb Coe’s recorded message of “thanks and bye”, we left the arena and headed down towards Pontoon Dock station to get the DLR, but first to enjoy a brief side visit to the Thames Barrier Park – for yes, it is indeed just here – and a rather enjoyable view of the Barrier. We had decided to go home for dinner (by home I mean eating out in Northampton, not actually “at home” of course) but thought we might first see what the West End was looking like in the height of London’s Olympic frenzy. I would say it was a little quieter than usual – particularly as far as traffic was concerned. Charing Cross Road barely had any. After a nice little Pinot Grigio in Covent Garden, we made our way back. A fascinating day out – not quite as entertaining as we had expected but well worth the experience; and a continued Hats Off to the organisers and volunteers who have made this Olympics a most extraordinary thing.