LONDON | Lucy Stewart says she likes water polo — even if it doesn’t have horses.
Like many spectators at the London Olympics, Stewart was watching with perplexed pleasure Monday as Australia beat Greece in the men’s preliminary play. She had never been to a water polo game before.
“I did think until a week ago that it was horses. My husband had to explain that it wasn’t,” she said somewhat sheepishly. “I was completely clueless.”
Stewart is absolutely not alone at these Olympics.
Fan at all sorts of stadiums are going to sports they’ve never seen. The British public wanted to see this spectacle, the Olympics — to be part of the action, no matter the sport.
A complex ticketing process fueled this desire. London organizers were faced a huge demand for tickets, since most of this island nation of 63 million can get to London within a day or so, and the capital itself has 8 million potential ticket buyers.
Not everyone was going to get into high-demand sports like athletics, where British favorite Jessica Ennis took gold in the heptathlon.
In hopes of being equitable, organizers established a lottery system in which people blindly registered for tickets and handed over their credit cards before they knew what — if any — tickets they were getting. Some people put down thousands of pounds (dollars) in hopes of getting to see Usain Bolt run — only to find themselves at table tennis or archery.
The sports themselves recognized this conundrum and responded with how-to guides.
Take water polo. A giant video screen introduces newbies to the sport. One video sketches basic rules, including the number of players and size of the pool. Another describes three standard scoring techniques, causing a more experienced fan to mutter “it’s not called a ‘bounce’ shot, it’s a ‘skip’ shot!”
Local children put together another video, explaining the sport using rubber ducks in an inflatable pool. One of the alleged rules — do not splash your opponent — might seem to be completely ignored as fans watch a churning mass of male players, but never mind. And there appears to be no video that explains a sport in which much of the action is underwater.
But fans like Maria Ramos could care less about the rules.
“It’s fun to come — just to take in the atmosphere,” she said. “It’s a girl’s dream to see all these Greek Adonis-es in Speedos.”
At beach volleyball, organizers simply assume their fans know nothing about the sport but want to be entertained. In a Circus Maximus atmosphere, fans are directed by a showman, who tells them when to clap and to stand up for set points. Even brief pauses are filled with dancers starting conga lines. People party on to the late hours — and a standard joke is that the fans are keeping Prime Minister David Cameron awake in his nearby Downing Street home.
At a recent match, the announcer dubbed Latvia’s Aleksandrs Samoilovs “the Lion King” because of his distinctive mane of blond hair. The fans jumped on the idea. From then on, every time Samoilovs stepped back to serve, a group of Australians began to sing “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight…”
And just in case they want to identify what they are seeing, a video screen offers helpful clues like “block!” or “SPIKE!”
This ain’t Wimbledon, that’s for sure.
But fun and games like this are part of the reason that fans are willing to pay to see anything — anything — just to be part of the London Olympics. And the response from organizers has been to play on every stereotype and gag to help spectators along.
At water polo, a ticket taker was using a little polo pony on a stick to direct fans to their seats. It was not clear how many got the joke.
But others were prepared. Simon Chow of Essex decided he was going to bone up on water polo before taking his family to the match.
“It’s the Olympics,” he said. “You want to try to watch sports you don’t normally.”
His son, Michael, 10, was surprised at how much he liked being in the arena.
“I thought it was going to be rubbish,” he said. “But it was better than I thought.”