It was a grey, blustery, rain-speckled day, typical of the British summer of 2007. Looking down from the prom at Sandbanks, the posh Dorset resort where the property prices are said to be the highest in the land, the scene looked rather like Wimbledon-on-sand. A packed Centre Court, with several more stretching down to the sea, and balls pinging furiously over the nets. But this wasn't anyone for tennis; more just about everyone for beach volleyball.
Never mind the weather. They may have been swinging barefoot in the rain, but come 2012 the bathing-costume dramathat brought a gleam to Tony Blair's eyes when he heard itwas to be one of London's Olympic showpieces will be performed at a specially-built 3,000-seat arena in the middle of Horseguards Parade.
Des Lynam once sighed: "Going down to the pub is not an Olympic sport, but apparently beach volleyball is." Traditionalists will get the drift. Baywatch with balls it may be, but the International Olympic Committee love it, as do the TV sponsors. Obviously the IOC believe the best way to put bums on seats in front of the box is to put them on the screen, as skimpily covered as decency will allow.
Thus tall and tanned and young and lovely girls from Ipanema became the new-age Olympians, with beach volleyball second only in Brazil to football as the national passion. The Brazilian champions now not only look a million dollars, they also earn it competing in global events.
Down in Dorset, at one of the 16 official tournaments played on English beaches, bikini lines were drawn in the slippery sand, with evidence that the British are getting serious about it, too. Life really is a beach for Zara Dampney, 21, a law graduate who also happens to be tall and tanned and young and lovely, though she is from closer to Bournemouth than Brazil.
She admits most observers dismiss what she does as a bit of fun, a competitive knockabout on the beach, but insists: "They've got the wrong idea about it in this country. OK, most people mainly play it on holiday, but there are many other countries where it is a major sport. There's a professional league in the US and China are getting really good. Yes, it's a beach game and places like Brazil have the weather for it, but it's also played in countries like Switzerland, where they don't even have beaches, and they seem to produce some really good players, so why shouldn't we?"
Naturally, the Russians have discovered it, too. Dampney is playing there this week in the St Petersburg Open. She and her Scottish partner Shauna Mullen – only doubles are played – are rated as Britain's best prospects for 2012. They are the cream of Britain's 385 registered players in an activity enjoyed worldwide by 35 million.
"Last year was the first summer I really played it seriously, competing in the World University Games in Cyprus and the World Under-21 Champion-ships," Dampney says. "At school [Parkstone Grammar in Dorset] I did mainly athletics, hurdles and long jump, but I also played indoor volleyball, and although I got to quite a high level I didn't get enough fulfilment. There are six players on court and I felt I wanted to take more control. When there are two of you, you can do a lot more, so I switched to the beach game, where it is actually easier to compete at top level. It turned out I was perfect for the game because of my height and athleticism."
In Britain, beach volleyball has been played for 25 years but is largely watched by the bucket- and-spade brigade. At the 2000 Olympics it was Bondi's beach party, on show virtually every day of the Games with the theme to Hawaii Five-0 thumping out in the background.
Following the sport's impact on television, the men's game has been rather overshadowed. Dampney's boyfriend is Luke Sheaf, a member of the British men's squad. Team-mates have labelled them the Posh '*' Becks of beach volleyball.
The game is played over three sets, a sort of handball keepie-uppie using the hands and wrists to lob the ball for your partner to smash over the net. You can only score on service, so you try to keep winning the rallies. First to 15 points with a two-point margin wins, some matches taking more than an hour. A lot of time is spent twiddling the fingers, the forward player tic-tacking tactics to the baseline server. Depending how many fingers are indicated, the player at the back can tell how a shot is to be blocked.
"People who think thatit is justa bit of fun obviously aren't aware ofjust how demanding it can be," says Dampney.
"There is as much skill involved as in any other sport." It is also a sport which has decreed that female competitors should show more flesh,not less, much to the chagrin of the PC police. Dampney is comfortable with that.
"The fact the girls don't wear much suits the game because that's what you'd wear when you're on the beach. If it attracts a TV audience, that's no bad thing. The more publicity the sport can get the better."
Britain's only previous Olympic appearance was in Atlanta in 1996, the first time beach volleyball was included in the Games. Audrey Cooper (see story below right) and Mo Glover finished ninth.
Louise Boulton and Denise Johns, who train in California, are now Britain's leading pair attempting to qualify for Beijing. Dampney's own sights are set on London 2012. Although she has completed her law degree at Sheffield University – she eventually hopes to specialise in human rights – her Lottery funding enables her to be a full-time player.
"Obviously beach volleyball is never going to be a professional career for me, but there is a bit of prize-money on the world tour so I will keep at it as long as possible. What I would really like to see is us winning a few matches on the world tour – consistently getting among the best and into the mainstream – so that when it comes to 2012 we are not there just as a showpiece sport to titillate the crowd."
A permanent beachfront venue at Brighton and a purpose-built indoor facility at Bath University will become Team GB's training bases, with some £4 million invested in the sport over three years.
Volleyball England have hired one of the world's top coaches, Australian Matt Grinlaubs, 35, who was formerly head coach at the Queensland Academy and a member of the Australian team at the Sydney Games.
Grinlaubs says: "There's no getting away from the fact it will always be a minor sport here, largely because of the weather and the culture, but there's no reason why with a bit of luckand some planning it can't become bigger.
"Zara and Shauna in particular have got a good chance of doing well in 2012. Beijing will be too soon for them. But Zara is a phenomenal athlete. Wejust have to keep her playingand involved."
Grinlaubs is contracted to take Dampney and Co through to 2012 and Horseguards Parade, where the London eye will be firmly on the bottom line. Let's hope it keeps fine for them.
Message from an icon: Audrey Cooper
"I know Zara very well, having been involved as a coach in the beach volleyball team as well as having competed at the 1996 Olympics myself, and I think she has got great attributes to be a really strong player.
"Zara is very athletic, is keen to learn and is very dedicated. She started out as an indoor volleyball player, but living by the coast she became curious about the beach game and had a good transition into the discipline. I would like to see her now work hard on committing to the sport 100 per cent and working with her partner, Shauna Mullen, to create a strong partnership. Competing against the best in the world will be a tough step to take and with beach volleyball there are no reserves, so the partnership needs to be good; it seems to be working well so far.
"The next 18 months is a chance for the girls to learn about each other's games and compete against top countries such as Brazil and America and get important experience under their belt.
"Zara is now able to trainfull-time thanks to National Lottery funding, which has also allowed world-class facilities to be created in Bath for the beach volleyball players and in Sheffield for the indoor teams, where I am now working as assistant coach.
"These centres will allow Zara to work hard away from the court on her fitness and strength and she will have everything she needs on hand to help her in terms of mental fitness and medical support.
"This will be key to Zara's progression as a player asshe looks towards London in 2012 – and I have every confidence that she will be competing there."
Audrey Cooper represented Great Britain at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta
See Matt Grinlaubs' beach volleyball stats at bvbinfo.com/player.asp?ID=1013Reuse content