Staring out at Big Ben and the London Eye, wedged between 10 Downing Street and Buckingham Palace, players and fans at the beach volleyball venue wondered whether organizers had created the perfect Olympic site.
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Then they discovered what was missing from their quintessential English experience: the rain.
Scattered showers sent fans at the picturesque Horse Guards Parade scurrying for shelter Sunday during the second day of the beach volleyball tournament, dampening what had been a festive mood but not deterring the second half of the field from making its 2012 Games debut.
”I didn’t see the rain. I didn’t see anything,” said Emanuel, a five-time Olympian and defending world champion from Brazil who won his opening match against Austria. ”I did not even know it was raining.”
Rules set by the FIVB, the international governing body, allow matches to be delayed only by lightning or other unsafe conditions. It is not uncommon to play in the rain — or, at least once, in the snow — and the women’s gold medal match in Beijing went on despite a downpour.
”It’s usually the sort of weather we play well in, because we are used to it in Austria,” said Clemens Doppler, who with Alexander Horst lost to Emanuel and Alison 19-21, 21-17, 16-14. ”We knew they were good in the wind and they played better. We did not find our rhythm.”
The venue at Horse Guards Parade was an early success of the 2012 Games, both to fans who enjoyed the beach party atmosphere and TV viewers drawn to views of London’s top sites. But putting the venue in the middle of the city – in a public square normally used by the royal cavalry – turned out to have its disadvantages.
Because the grounds were used for the Queen’s birthday celebration last month, organizers had only 35 days to construct the temporary 15,000-seat stadium and many of the surrounding support buildings.
That meant some compromises. For example: a roof of any sort, like the one in Beijing that shielded at least some of the spectators from the rain and sun.
Still, Saturday’s opener was a smashing debut, with fans raving about the venue and players unanimously calling it the best they had ever seen. The sold-out crowd clapped, cheered, sang along with the music, joined in with the wacky antics of the public address announcers and still managed to cheer on the players.
Day 2 started out much in the same way, but somewhere around the middle of the third match in the morning session dark clouds blotted out the sun. A thunderclap was heard in the distance, and the crowd gasped before scrambling to put on their Mackintoshes and open their brollies.
The scene was repeated for much of the day, which included a heavy downpour during the afternoon opener between the Netherlands and Venezuela. Despite the entreaties of the public address announcer, many left the seating bowl for drier ground, leaving empty seats at a venue that has been one of the toughest tickets at the London Games.
”The weather had been perfect until today,” said Elsa Baquerizo McMillan of Spain, who with Liliana Fernandez Steiner beat Marleen van Iersel and Sanne Keizer of the Netherlands 14-21, 21-16, 15-11. ”It makes the ball a little bit heavier and slippery, but it’s OK.”
Also playing their first matches Sunday were defending gold medalists Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser of the United States, who beat Japan’s Kentaro Asahi and Katsuhiro Shiratori 21-15, 21-16 in the night session. The No. 2 American women’s team, April Ross and Jennifer Kessy, who came in second at the Horse Guards Parade test event last summer, beat Ana Gallay and Virginia Zonta of Argentina in straight sets.
The morning’s game between Brazil and Austria looked to be one of the biggest mismatches in pool play, pitting the No. 1 team in qualification against No. 44. After the Austrians took the first set — and held a 14-12 lead in the second — the P.A. announcer repeatedly referred to the makings of ”the biggest upset in Olympic history.”
But the truth is that Doppler and Horst are accomplished players, each a former Olympian, who didn’t start playing full time together until this year and thus had little chance to acquire the points needed to move up the rankings (and qualify for London). They needed to win the last-chance World Cup on July 1 to earn a spot in the 2012 Games.
Doppler said he did not take it personally.
”First of all, we know it,” he said. ”We know we’re not the 44th in the entire world as a team.”
In other action, Reinder Nummerdor and 1996 gold medalist Richard Schuil of the Netherlands beat Venezuelans Jesus Villafane and Igor Hernandes 21-18, 17-21, 15-10; Spain’s Pablo Herrera Allepuz and Adrian Gavira Collado defeated Premysl Kubala and Petr Benes of the Czech Republic 25-23, 21-16; Martins Plavins and Janis Smedins of Latvia edged Jonathan Erdmann and Kay Matysik of Germany 19-21, 23-21, 15-9; and Italians Paolo Nicolai and Daniele Lupo beat Patrick Heuscher and Jefferson Bellaguarda of Switzerland, 21-19, 21-18.
In other women’s play, Marta Menegatti and Greta Cicolari of Italy beat Ekaterina Khomyakova and Evgeniya Ukolova of Russia 17-21, 21-18, 15-8; Laura Ludwig and Sara Goller of Germany beat Australians Becchara Palmer and Louise Bawden 21-18, 19-21, 15-8 and hometown favorites Zara Dampney and Shauna Mullin beat Canadians Annie Martin and Marie-Andree Lessard 17-21, 21-14, 15-13.