LONDON — It was around half-past four at Horse Guards Parade when the emcee passed along what he claimed was a ministerial request:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, I’ve just been told that the Prime Minister is trying to have his afternoon nap, and can we keep the noise down?”
The Olympics’ most rowdy crowd — with a few sections full of British soldiers — roared. They were here as part of the beach volleyball invasion on what’s normally a horse-marching ground between David Cameron’s residence at 10 Downing Street and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Architects dumped in 4,115 tons of quarry sand, put up four sides of scaffolding and created the Games’ greatest venue, with London’s classic architecture as the backdrop.
While television audiences have been fixated on swimming over the Olympics’ first weekend, the best party for those here in London is at beach volleyball. Even Cameron couldn’t resist stopping by on the opening day, and he didn’t mind the noise. London mayor Boris Johnson wrote a Sunday Telegraph guest column headlined “Here’s 20 jolly good reasons to feel cheerful about the Games,” and No. 19 was:
As I write these words there are semi-naked women playing beach volleyball in the middle of the Horse Guards Parade immortalised by Canaletto. They are glistening like wet otters and the water is plashing off the brims of the spectators’ sou’westers. The whole thing is magnificent and bonkers.
The lowest common denominator is inevitably drawn in by the whole semi-naked-glistening-otter aspect, but there is also excellent volleyball (the leading U.S. duos of Misty May-Treanor/Kerri Walsh and Todd Rogers/Phil Dalhausser are unbeaten) … as well as sand-raker interludes set to the Benny Hill theme, dancers doing choreographed set-break routines (if you haven’t seen Dirty Dancing on sand, you haven’t lived) and the highest concentration of spectators carrying their full ration of four Heineken back to their seats. The first match here on Sunday started at 9 a.m., and the first beers were available at 8.
Beach volleyball’s medal rounds aren’t until Aug. 8 and 9, but after posting a walk-through of the Olympic Park and Village on Friday, I felt it was vital to give you an inside look at the downtown scene that trumps everything in the Park. My photo-tour begins at the Tube, in Charing Cross Station:
Fans have to pass through the Admiralty Arch before reaching the venue. One would think this is an important government building, but no: The government actually vacated it as an austerity measure, and plans to sell it to a Spanish hotel magnate for 60 million pounds.
Through the gate, then down the Mall …
… where I ran into the Dutch-fan version of the Dumb & Dumber tuxedos:
I can’t be the only one who enjoys hearing “beach volleyball” in a British accent. Play the video.
Classic Greek abs on a statue of a modern Brazilian “Beach Volleyball Hero”:
Lesser Beach Volleyball Heroes — such as Poland’s Mariusz Prudel — don’t get statues. They get angular signposts in the venue courtyard.
Scores of British soldiers are granted the opportunity to chill out in the stands, but only after they march to the venue in lockstep.
Anyone for some sport-against-stone juxtaposition? That’s the Guards Division Memorial, and that’s the giant beach volleyball icon, and that’s a pigeon that flew into my frame at just the right moment.
Even the practice courts have a breathtaking backdrop — the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Lest you’re a beach volleyball novice who doesn’t know how to appropriately digest what’s happening, the corner-court message boards provide constant commentary and instruction. (Two I failed to capture: “POWERFUL SPIKE!” and “MONSTER BLOCK!”)
And if you’re the type who gets bored during lulls in the sport, they have a co-ed troupe of dancers doing routines in retro bathing suits. The only thing un-sexy about them is their name: The Horse Guards Dancers.
There was a two-person breakout routine that re-enacted Dirty Dancing. The straddling generated much applause.
In their downtime, the dancers retreat to the tunnel and put on robes. They said they were hired for the Games and went through three weeks of training; Mr. Polkadots is from East London, but most of the women are part of a Spanish crew called Personal Plus. (That’s exclusive SI reporting. We go the extra mile.)
With so many reports of empty seats at Olympic venues — particularly for swimming and diving — why don’t they follow beach volleyball’s example, and fill them with soldiers? They were the ones starting most of the “Team GB” chants during the afternoon session.
It’s not only the best venue, it’s the one that runs the latest. Sunday’s final match didn’t start until 11 p.m., and the Horse Guards building was lit up for the occasion.
I wish organizers had coordinated with the London Eye to make it look like a giant, spinning volleyball, but that’s a small complaint. They’ve already worked wonders here. At no other Olympics has a gravelly field of horse dung been converted to an iconic beach.