August 6, 2012 8:19 pm

At the volleyball, life’s a beach

Beach volleyball should be a permanent feature of the London summer

Since beach volleyball was first included in the Olympics in 1996, it has been the custom for reporters to turn up on Day One, shake their heads in wonderment at the silliness of it all, write a mickey-taking piece and then disappear to concentrate on the more businesslike aspects of the games.

I duly paid obeisance to this tradition at London 2012 but cut the mickey-take to two paragraphs because, after 16 years, the joke has gone a little stale. The facts are now established: beach volleyball is just that – a beach game. It has minimal tactical depth and the players’ skill levels are mediocre. But they are all fit (in more than one sense of the word) and the women, by decree, play in their scanties, which is the sole reason for the sport’s inclusion. The International Olympic Committee, amid their pompous self-regard, have a keen eye for showbiz.

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Matthew Engel

However, there was a rumour that at Horse Guards Parade this strange sideshow had mutated into something even more bizarre. “Have another go,” someone suggested. “Go to the late night session.” This was good advice. It was wild.

“It’s Saturday night!” cried the stadium disc jockey (“announcer” does not really convey his function), “Let’s party!” Moments later, he added: “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve just had a call from Buckingham Palace. Please can you keep the noise . . . UP!”

Somewhere across London, Britain was winning gold medals in a rush, which was one tiny element in the crowd response. Very occasionally, the sport on offer also played a minor role. But only minor. Essentially 15,000 people, a fair number in fancy dress, had come along to make their own entertainment. It was like some giant student party, a rock festival without the underlying profundity.

In deference to British weather, the women players have been allowed to dress more warmly at night. For the US-Holland match, the Americans wore sweat tops and bikini bottoms; the Dutch were almost Islamically demure. The spectators coped by making their own entertainment. They were certainly unperturbed when the US won quickly, leaving a half-hour gap before the men’s match. It was just a chance for more beer, more yelling and a longer show from the dancing girls, who were definitely in their beach wear.

“Let’s jump around, London,” the DJ cried. And London did, all evening, trying desperately to attract the attention of the cameras. The kids jiggled about and did endless repetitions of “the wave” but that palled after a while. So then young men started running up and down the steps, yelling. And finally, with the US men leading Russia 3-2 in the second set, this morphed into a
200-strong conga line along the concourse, substantially populated by blokes in boaters and Victorian bathing costumes.

At most sporting events, bullet-headed stewards would have waded in and expelled the ringleaders. That assumes though that they were irritating other customers. But they were the best part of the show. And the stewarding was being done by genial, mostly female, volunteers who looked on indulgently. Maybe this is why, in the country that was once famous for football hooligans, the Olympics have been so trouble-free. There have been no enforcers around looking at it.

There was some concern early in the games when the beach volleyball fans got into the habit of collecting plastic beer cups to make mountainous stacks, and at one point this actually distracted the competitors (the who? Oh, them!). But the zeitgeist seems to have moved on. So here we were making mayhem on one of the sacred sites of British history and pageantry, the scene of Trooping the Colour. Around us were the Admiralty Citadel and William Kent’s Palladian Horse Guards building with Big Ben peeping at us from the south. In any other circumstances, the more censorious newspapers would be outraged by the goings-on in such a place. Not a peep.

I sense a business opportunity. The Olympians are irrelevant here: any old bathing beauty could flap her hand at the ball and serve at 30mph to provide an excuse for the party. Beach volleyball should be a permanent feature of the London summer. It would become like those midnight matinees of the Rocky Horror Picture Show where men and women alike would dress up in stockings and suspenders and have food fights. Britain wants an Olympic legacy. It would be a delicious souvenir of this wacky fortnight.

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