LONDON – The Benny Hill theme plays over the loudspeaker at Horse Guards Parade, the crowd cheers and the raking crew scurries out to smooth over the footprints in the sand.
This is beach volleyball, British style.
The Olympics’ sexiest sport opened with a raucous debut on Saturday, mixing in a little local flair with all of the more traditional trifles that have made the event one of the most sought-after tickets at the London Games (though Sir Paul McCartney managed to get one for the afternoon session).
A dance team in bathing suits jiggled for the sold-out crowd during timeouts, while rock music nearly drowned out the pealing of Big Ben. And, much to the relief of the British tabloids, many of the athletes still wore their traditional bikinis despite the chill in the air that left the sand at 67 degrees when the day started.
“There are so many people out here already, and it’s only 10 o’clock in the morning,” said Germany’s Ilka Semmler, who with partner Katrin Holtwick beat Hana Klapalova and Lenka Hajeckova of the Czech Republic in straight sets. “It’s really, really, really nice.”
Located just inside the gate used by the queen – and only the queen – to ride up to Buckingham Palace, the beach volleyball venue offers views of the London Eye, the Big Ben clock tower and 10 Downing Street. But the real excitement this fortnight is inside the stadium, where tickets are scarce for virtually all of the thrice-daily sessions.
McCartney attended the first half of the afternoon session, blending into a crowd that was content to samba in the aisles or re-enact their favorite slapstick routines along the concourse. (One fan, who had taken to chasing and being chased by a pair of blonde women every time the Benny Hill theme music came on, collided with a volunteer during the routine; neither was hurt.)
“What I expected was probably about 30 notches lower,” said Britain’s Steven Grotowski, who with partner John Garcia-Thompson lost 21-19, 21-13 to Joshua Binstock and Martin Reader of Canada.
“To be out there on the court, it feels like all 15,000 people were cheering for us,” said Grotowski, a native of London who has been living in Boynton Beach, Fla. “It was amazing to look out there and see seas of people supporting us. It was a really special experience. I don’t think there’s anything that prepares you for something like this.”
Americans Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor, who are trying for a third consecutive gold medal, beat Australians Tasmin Hinchley and five-time Olympian Natalie Cook in the final match 21-18, 21-19. The No. 2 U.S. men’s team of Sean Rosenthal and Jake Gibb needed just 33 minutes to put away South Africans Freedom Chiya and Grant Goldschmidt.
Defending men’s champions Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser of the United States play their first match today, as does the No. 2 U.S. women’s team of April Ross and Jen Kessy.
But the star of the sport – so far, at least – has been the venue.
“It’s maybe the most amazing site I’ve ever played at,” said Gibb, who has competed everywhere from scenic Gstaad to the Eiffel Tower in Paris. “You look around and you see the Eye as we’re playing, and you hear Big Ben chiming. It’s amazing.”