Wolf-whistles ring out after every set, the beers are flowing, the clothes in the stand are posh, even when disguised as they are in the pink parkas to protect against the drizzle. Out in the middle, clothes are lacking. Four women clad skimpily in bikinis stand on each side of a net fighting in the sand. At interludes, Hawaiian dancers put on shows as rakers set the sand for the next battle. Welcome to the hottest ticket of the Olympic Games. This is beach volleyball.
Most of London’s games are set in Olympic Park, an establishment that grew out of what basically was a hole in the ground. The Olympic Park, now a thriving city, hosts the Olympic Stadium, the Veledrome and the Basketball Arena among other things. But London has also spread the games as far and wide as Manchester. The posh surrounds of Central London and Westminister claimed beach volleyball.
“This is the only ticket worth having,” say a couple of guys dressed in suits. They are bankers. “We don’t want to go to the East, man. This is where it is at,” they conclude.
It will be easy to point out the arrogance, if there wasn’t a certain grain of truth in their statements. The East of London, is traditionally viewed as the abode of the less wealthy, a slew of council estates, inhabited by what Londonders call ‘rude-boys’. The East is down-market. The beach volleyball at Horse Guards Parade? Now that is in.
To be honest, the experience is slightly surreal. We are in the middle of London. The Big Ben chimes the hours, on the horizon the London Eye dresses up in different colours every minute, the Prime Minister lives a stone’s throw away. But right here in the middle, is a scene right out of the Caribbean. Well, except the rain of course.
“This is amazing, just the fact that beach volleyball is being held here,” says another Londoner. “How incongruous!” he concludes in true London fashion.
Incongruous indeed. The site of beach volleyball is the Horse Guards Parade. This was the grounds once used to mark the birthday celebrations of Queen Elizabeth, the first. For years, it served as the headquarters of the British Army. It’s hard to think they would approve of bikini-clad ladies trampling on their memories.
Minus the glamour factor though, and beach volleyball still remains one of the most difficult sports in the Olympics. The physicality needed to play this game is telling. Agility and perception are paramount; fitness is the be-all and end-all.
Brazil are playing on Tuesday night. The crowd are disappointed. Wolf-whistles turn into whistles of derision. The famously liberal Brazilians are dressed conservatively. The cold rain of London sees them swap their traditional bikinis for full-length tights. Mild boos ring across the 15,000 present, but it changes soon enough.
The Brazilians are the world champions, and it shows. In the first set, they destroy the USA, both teams putting on a feast of athleticism that makes the surrounds and frills around the sport but a distant memory.
But something goes wrong in the second set. Juliana Silva and Larissa Frana start miscommunicating. A Dutchman in the stands isn’t pleased. He cusses loudly.
“I don’t want the Americans to win,” he says. “They are too arrogant.”
But they win nonetheless and April Ross and Jennifer Kessy set up a date for an All-American final with their more illustrious compatriots Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh.
The Dutchman probably won’t be watching.
-With The Daily Star input