The red side of my cardboard fan read 'Diversity shines here." The blue side had the moderately creepy, "WE are always behind YOU." I slapped it against my hand and made a clapping noise, like a startled duck. Koreans packed the stands, chanting their country's name and slapping their own fans. We were a roaring, cheering flock. "Daehan Minguk!" Quack-quack quack-quack QUACK!
Across the stadium, the Thai contingent chanted back. There were fewer of them, but they'd brought drums and spinning flags. On the court below, the athletes focused on the physical; the rest of us had the spiritual side of the event covered.
After months of waiting, Sam and I were finally at the Asian Games. Not too soon, either--it was the second-to-last day. The games were held every 4 years in rotating countries. This year's host was Incheon, South Korea. Events included mainstays like swimming, track, and soccer alongside more 'local' sports that don't feature in the regular Olympics.
Like Sepaktakraw. It was a combination of soccer, hacky sack, and volleyball. The athletes spun and flipped, doing back blocks, mid-air splits, and upside-down kicks. The volleys were intense, gravity defying.
I was surprised by the size of the crowd. Only one of my co-workers had heard of this sport, even though Koreans have their own version called joku. (Obviously, Sam and I hadn't heard of it before buying the tickets-- we were going out of our way to find unusual events. We only ended up at sepaktakraw because kabaddi was sold out.) But it happened to be a national holiday, so people were off work and free to watch Korea and Thailand fight it out for the gold.
After Thailand swept the women's and the men's events (to most of the fans' dismay) we set out to find the cricket field.
Cricket isn't a big sport in Korea, and the seats were free. We had to locate the stadium first, though. The Games were scattered across Incheon, and the city's two subway lines went nowhere near them. It took some walking and a long taxi ride (plus a bonus trip on a totally unrelated bus), but we ended up at the match in time to see Sri Lanka step up to bat against Afghanistan.
My knowledge of cricket was a mix of P.G. Wodehouse and Shaun of the Dead. I was relatively certain it involved hitting things with bats. Which was true. But there was also a lot special terminology, and I knew none of it. The British announcer made it sound like a mash-up of accounting and croquet: "And after 4.3 overs and the collection of a very important wicket, the Sri Lankan bowler has ousted the left-side batsman in a surprise spin bowl." Then there was a long pause, and a confused woman broadcast the Korean translation: "The pitcher got the batter out."
It wasn't until I tuned out the jargon that the sport became almost comprehensible. The pitcher ("bowler") threw balls at the batter, trying to knock down the tower of wooden wickets behind him. The batter swatted the balls away and ran back and forth across the field to score points. It was kind of like baseball, but with more screaming.
Sri Lanka and Afghanistan had brought their fans along, and the excitement was real (though, to novices like us, all out of proportion to the amount of action). Unfortunately, we ended up in a section of Korean volunteers, placed there to pad the crowd. Their blue T-shirts read "WE are always behind YOU," which they definitely were--and in front of us and generally surrounding us. They were nice and cheerful, and in no way interested in the game, which kind of sucked for anyone trying to actually watch. Their overseer dismissed them at halftime, and the stands cleared out. Only the true fans stayed to see Sri Lanka win gold. (Yes, we left early too.)
The 2014 Asian Games weren't without drama: FIBA regulations prevented the Qatar women's basketball team from playing in hijabs for no good reason whatsoever, and an Indian boxer who arguably should have won silver refused to accept her bronze medal. But there were unexpected good things too, like North Korea's surprise delegation at the closing ceremony.
It was the same on the street level: we had to walk a lot of miles and put up with crowds of chatty, disinterested teenagers. But we were also introduced to fantastic sports by some of the best athletes in the world. We saw a Thai kid kick a ball while hanging upside-down in midair. We witnessed a bunch of really great cricketers do fantastic things that I don't even begin to know the words for--beamers and belters and innings and ducks. I'm pretty sure there were ducks. At least, it sounded like ducks. And there were definitely fans. Acres of fans, all happy to be part of the action.
Anyway, it was a great time.