The Olympic Park in Rio is massive. It houses nine different Olympic venues and nearly as many giant sponsor areas. Inside, fans show up in all their national colors, draped in flags, faces painted and cameras capturing everything.
Skipping the big-ticket events, I took the opportunity to catch things I would never see outside of the Olympics—in this case table tennis and handball. Table tennis was a relatively low-key affair as China’s Ding Ning dominated Germany’s Han Ying in four straight matches. Ying impressively weathered the onslaught, returning most of Ning’s powerful forehands with a spinning, floating return, but it wasn’t enough as the Chinese woman moved on to today’s semi-final.
Handball was a different story.
In the first match, Egypt and Sweden came down to the wire. Like me, most of the crowd had adopted the smaller, quicker Egyptian team, so they were on their feet when, with 35 seconds left, a Swedish defender clung to the shirt of his opponent. He was sent off, and Egypt was down a man for the last plays of the game. Egypt played it to the corner and bounced it underneath the goalie with 12 seconds left to win the match.
For the second match, the volume in the arena tripled. Fans from Argentina made up nearly half the crowd. But Brazil and Argentina have some history in sports, and while there were only a handful of Croats present, the locals showed their newfound love for the Balkan nation by chanting “Cro – a – tia” throughout and booing their neighbors.
Argentina fans, meanwhile, sang like they were watching Messi and Higuain, not Simonte and Pizzaro. The level of play was much higher for this game as well with acrobatic diving shots and impossible-looking saves. Argentina played a much higher press rather than the standard, “let’s all stand in a line” defense. But the Croatians were huge, jumping high over the defensive line to rocket the ball into the back of the net.
Argentina’s skill was equally impressive and with two minutes to go, one of their players put a spin on the ball to make it slowly roll around the Croatian goalie in a way that can only be described as cheeky. It tied the game, but Croatia would go on to win by a single goal.
I didn’t always understand the fouls, but the rest was pretty easy to pick up. And down-to-the-wire finishes with a rowdy, singing, screaming crowd is a wonderful thing in any sport.