The divers had to plunge into a green pool; the windsurfers were advised to keep their mouths shut in dirty Guanabara Bay. Everyone was at least a tiddly bit worried about Zika. To the list of indignities facing Olympic athletes we can now add: falling ash.
Shortly before Britain’s ladies hockey team took to the pitch to thrash Spain 3-1 on Monday night, a huge forest fire began to rage on the hillside above the Olympic annex in Deodoro, a no-man’s land of half‑finished favelas and pungent rivers 40km west of Rio. The sky darkened as smoke filled the air. A strong wind dumped a load of ash right on to the field, bringing back memories of that Icelandic volcano with all the consonants that ruined spring in 2010.
An hour before bully-off, the venue organisers dispatched volunteers to the pitch to pick up the falling ash, like a particularly sisyphean edition of The Crystal Maze finale. They were always on to a loser, and before long the venue’s water cannons were deployed to wash the pitch as an insanely enthusiastic man in a mint green headband made a gallant attempt to gee up the initially lukewarm crowd.
The result of the cannon deployment was a somewhat waterlogged pitch that brought to mind every Year 10 match your correspondent ever played in the swamps of Morecambe. As the women warmed up, each thwack of the luminous yellow balls produced a substantial amount of spray, perhaps unwelcome on what was a slightly nippy Olympic evening in what amounts to the Brazilian winter.
If Britain’s women were unhappy about the prospect of mid-match smoke inhalation, they didn’t show it as they jogged cheerfully on to the pitch to perform a full-throated rendition of God Save the Queen. Hockey girls are like that: always willing to make the best of a bad situation. They were cheered along by a small but vocal gaggle of Brits, some dressed as knights, others with drums, who outsung the Spanish contingent with relish.
The British women showed their intent within the first minute by winning a penalty corner. The Spanish defence wisely put on Hannibal Lecter masks to protect themselves from the power of Hannah Macleod, who whacked the ball to Crista Cullen. Cullen, a hardnut who sleeps in a tent whenever she returns to her native Kenya, boshed the ball right on target, but it was saved by the Spanish goalkeeper, María López de Eguilaz. Despite having had the honour of representing her country more than 130 times in international competition, López de Eguilaz says it is her dream to win the lottery so she can become a writer instead of having 11 angry women pelt rock-hard balls in her face.
As the time in the first of four 15-minute quarters ticked down, 25-year-old Georgie Twigg scored her first goal of the tournament. Twigg was part of Team GB’s bronze-winning squad in London 2012 and has put her legal career on hold while she pursues her international sporting career.
The captain, Helen Richardson-Walsh, soon followed her with another goal. She and her team-mate Kate Richardson-Walsh are the first married couple to play hockey together for Team GB ladies, having fallen in love on the pitch and tied the knot three years ago. Both are competing at their fourth Olympic Games. A third goal followed from the 24-year-old Giselle Ansley, an enthusiastic baker, with just over three minutes left of the second quarter.
It took until the eighth minute of the final quarter before Spain got a goal past Maddie “Mad Dog” Hinch, GB’s fearless goalie. The scorer was Georgina Oliva.
Shona McCallin and Ansley both received green cards, hockey’s equivalent of being sent to the naughty step, but the Spaniards failed to take advantage of their automatic two-minute suspensions. Spain won three penalty corners in quick succession with less than four minutes left but failed to score.
As they prepare for the semi-final against New Zealand on Wednesday, the British team will be hoping to improve on their London 2012 performance, when a 3-1 win over that nation secured them the bronze medal and ended a 20-year Olympic medal drought for the women’s team. The performance in London matched Great Britain’s best ever Olympic performance, as they also claimed bronze at the 1992 Games in Barcelona. In total, eight of the women’s team who won bronze at London 2012 have returned to Rio.
The competition has changed slightly in the intervening four years, with games now divided into four 15-minute quarters instead of two 35-minute halves. Between 1988 and 1996, Great Britain made the semi-finals at three consecutive Olympic Games, but failed to maintain that record at the 2000 Games in Sydney, where they finished eighth with just a single pool victory. Worse followed when they missed qualification for the 2004 Games in Athens. That failure triggered an administration change and a resurgence that eventually led to sixth place at the 2008 Games in Beijing.
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