It was a moment to savour when Northern Ireland’s Alan Campbell guaranteed his place in an Olympic final yesterday afternoon about 20 miles north of Beijing.
The conditions were oppressively hot in the packed grandstands where we sat under the flags of the competing nations and in the midst of spectators from all over the world.
At 4pm, Campbell set off in lane five 2000 metres away from me somewhere in the hot grey mist that shrouded Shunyi rowing park, the impressive waters sports complex specially constructed by the Chinese for these Games.
The giant screen in front of the grandstand put Campbell narrowly in front after 500 metres raising the first cheer from his supporters even though we couldn’t see him or his other five opponents. And then our spirits dropped as the screen showed him falling behind at the half way mark and still in that position after 1,500 metres
But, as the line of single scullers hit the last 500 metres, the cheering intensified for all the rowers. For a moment we thought Campbell had given his all. Then, as he passed where I sat, with 100 metres to go, his stroke quickened, the cheering reached a crescendo, and he finished the fastest of all.
Campbell’s qualification for the final later this week was the triumph of his physical and mental strength over yesterday’s adverse elements. Spectators in the grandstands were soaked in sweat. For Campbell, himself, as he lost pounds through perspiration, it was certainly a long way from a cold winter’s morning on the River Bann, where he learnt his skills.
Seldom have I been in a more uncomfortably hot and humid atmosphere as Shunyi Park. But seldom either have I witnessed such magnificent crowd camaraderie and sportsmanship.
The applause was not reserved for the winners but also rang out for those whose Olympic dreams were ending as they trailed in well behind the leaders. If ever there was a strong advertisement for the Olympics ideal, this was it as spectators around me from New Zealand to Scandinavia, from
the United States to China, joined together in their appreciation of all the athletes.
To be in such a crowd was a rare privilege, not least to watch Coleraine’s Campbell take another step towards the medal-winner’s rostrum. It stood vacant yesterday by the finishing post, the flagpoles awaiting the outcome of the finals which I am looking forward to attending later this week.
It will be a memorable occasion if he makes it but, come what may, he has already made a significant mark and is guaranteed much support from the large number of UK spectators who have gathered at Shunyi in the expectation of several British successes in the rowing events.
The most poignant moment of yesterday’s Olympics was surely when a two-man rowing crew from Iraq rowed head-to-head against the United States.
The Iraqis have a team of only four in China and when they passed by, trailing several lengths behind, they received the biggest cheer of the day and a long standing ovation from the USA spectators seated in front of me.
Despite the arrest and subsequent release of ITN’s Beijing correspondent yesterday, security in the city remains remarkably low-key. As I walked across Tiananmen Square and through the adjoining Forbidden City, I passed through a cursory check but there was nothing like the heavy presence of police or security agents that accompanies so many sporting events in the UK these days.
Security is slightly stricter for entry into the Olympic events with bag searches for everyone entering the Olympic Village or yesterday’s rowing on the outskirts of Beijing.
But there is an added bonus for visitors. The Chinese have designated a special Olympic lane on roads leading to events which means coaches carrying spectators can proceed smoothly. As a result, I have yet to be caught in a traffic jam despite this city having a population of 16 million.