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, the athletes 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 on Sunday, as does the No. 2 U.S. women’s team of April Ross and Jen Kessy.
Play began Saturday morning with an upset in the first match, when Russians Anastasia Vasina and Anna Vozakova beat Beijing bronze medalists Zhang Xi and Xue Chen 18-21, 21-14, 16-14. In the men’s openers, Latvians Aleksandrs Samoilovs and Ruslans Sorokins edged Grzegorz Fijalek and Mariusz Prudel of Poland 12-21, 21-15, 15-12 and Germans Julius Brink and Jonas Reckermann beat Konstantin Semenov and Serguei Prokopiev of Russia in straight sets.
In the afternoon, Sascha Heyer and Seba Chevallier of Switzerland upset China’s Wu Penggen and Xu Linyin 18-21, 21-16, 15-12; Marketa Slukova and Kristyna Kolocova beat Beijing quarterfinalists Stefanie and Doris Schwaiger of Austria 10-21, 21-13, 15-13; and Brazilian favorites Larissa and Juliana beat Elodie Li Yuk Lo and Natacha Rigobert — Mauritius’ first-ever beach volleyball competitors — 21-5, 21-10 in a mere 30 minutes.
At night, Brazilians Ricardo and Pedro beat Martin Spinnangr and Tarjei Viken Skarlund of Norway in straight sets and Simone Kuhn and Nadine Zumkehr of Switzerland beat Maria Tsiartsiani and Vasiliki Arvaniti of Greece in two sets as well.
But the star of the sport so far 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.”
The public address announcer played the part of disco DJ, calling for cheers so loud that the prime minister might hear at his residence next door. When the wave circled the grandstand, he gave it at least as much attention as his athletic play-by-play, following it from Downing Street to St. James’s Park and back around to Horse Guards Road, where a royal sentry still protects the sovereign’s exclusive entrance to Buckingham Palace.
”What can I say? It’s the best spot we could have chosen in London,” said Samoilovs, who has a bushy mane of hair that earned him the nickname ”The Lion King.”
”All the other athletes are jealous” of the venue, he said. ”It’s the best one ever.”
Talk of cold weather had created panic in the British press that the female players would go for long-sleeves instead of the standard bikinis — a longtime but little used rule in international volleyball. But the Russians and Chinese were in the two-piece swimsuits for the opening match, and the Germans and Czechs did the same when they played an hour later.
But the beach party atmosphere was augmented by the dancers, who filled the downtime with kicklines and even one tango that ended up with the dance partners flopping suggestively in the sand.
No wonder most in the crowd of 15,000 — the biggest-ever Olympic beach volleyball venue — had trouble tearing themselves away.
A half-hour after the last match ended, a voice came over the loudspeaker imploring them to leave.
”Have a safe journey home,” he said, ”or to the pub.”