Bakare stands up to be counted

Comedian and actor jumps at chance to bring volleyball to nation's attention in 2012

This time next year a host of currently unfamiliar names are likely to be bouncing their way into our consciousness as the Olympics start to unearth fresh personalities, some of whose talents are not confined to the sports they play. So make a mental note of this one: Pete Bakare, Team GB volleyball player who is also game for a laugh as a stand-up comic.

There was a time a few years back when volleyball itself was a bit of a joke, hidden under the radar in a nation obsessed with myriad higher-profile ball games. But as Bakare himself might say, a funny thing happened on the way to 2012. When volleyball takes its Olympic bow there is every chance of capturing a long-desired audience.

While volleyball is an absorbing, fast-paced sport played at the highest level with skill and agility, so far it hasn't really tickled the British palate. We're talking here about the indoor game as distinct from the beach variety, which will be a top attraction on imported sand at Horse Guards Parade largely because female competitors will be clad in costumes more in keeping with Bondi than The Mall.

However, the bottom line at Earls Court, where your real volleyball (invented in the United States in the late 19th century as an alternative to basketball) will be played every day, is that thanks to home- advantage seeding and a trans-formation of form and fortune under the Dutch head coach, Harry Brokking, Britain's men's team have become capable of mixing it with the world's best. The women, coached by Briton Audrey Cooper and bereft of all funding, astonishingly aren't far behind. At last week's test event the men, ranked 94th in the world, came within two points of the Olympic silver medallists USA in two sets and beat 14th-ranked Egypt.

What a game played by some 35,000 Brits needs now are eye-catching characters with pizazz. Enter stage left Pete Bakare, a young man of many parts who, as well as playing in mid-court for GB, has blended the occasional turn on the comedy circuit with straight acting roles, notably at the renowned Hackney Empire, and helping to script the Bafta award-winning youth drama series Skins on Channel 4. He has appeared on BBC Radio and does his own animations and video documentaries. "A little bit of this, a little bit of that," he laughs.

Born 22 years ago and brought up by his single mum over a Chinese restaurant in east London's Canning Town, close to the Olympic Park, his first stand-up was a show calledJunior Blaggers at Stratford Circus. "You get up there, say something and if the audience like you, you stay. If they don't, you die." He lived.

"For me, acting was a way of staying off the street. The people I knocked around with didn't exactly move in the best circles and doing something with your time is always the best way of staying out of trouble."

But he says his thespian career is on hold at least until after the Olympics. "I've turned down roles, because to compete in the Olympics in my home town is my dream. That really would be hitting the high stage." He adds: "When my knees and bones give way I'll be back on the boards, writing my own comedy material and animation scripts."

How come the move from vaudeville to volleyball? "I used to play basketball at college in Essex where I was studying media, maths and graphics, and my coach was also a volleyball coach. He asked me to join in lunchtime sessions. I wasn't keen at first as it was all jump, jump jump. But I found I was quite good at it."

So good that his party piece is to jump a 5ft 9in box from a standing start. He has come on in leaps and bounds after being spotted playing in Sheffield by the GB coach. Like several others in the national squad he now has a pro contract to play in Europe, for a Dutch club near Zwolle.

In mid-court, the 6ft 4in Bakare's job is principally to stop the other team from scoring and then try a quick "spike" (a forehand smash from about 10 feet up). "As a young team we've virtually progressed from nothing to having some great results, and with a home crowd behind us, who knows?"

He has eight GB caps but his 2012 place is by no means assured. Brokking says: "Bakare came into the sport relatively late, only two years ago. But he is a young player with great ambition, and you need characters. He has the athleticism but needs experience. He is definitely one for the future."

Brokking, a disciplinarian in the mould of his compatriot Charles van Commenee, the UK athletics chief, is one of the world's top coaches. He saw coming to Britain as an "irresistible challenge to bring volleyball from the cellar of sport to the second or third floor, where we need to be to at least compete in the Olympics".

The aim is to spike the big guns. "If we survive the group stage and are in the quarter-finals, it is like being in the 100m final with eight competitors. There is everything to play for," says Brokking. "That would be a great result for us. We would have done miracles in the volleyball world."

Pete Bakare has been supportedby the Lloyds TSB Local Heroes scheme for student athletes

British Olympic Association

The British Olympic Association are the National Olympic Committee for Great Britain and Northern Ireland. They prepare the "Best of British" athletes for, and lead them at, the summer, winter and youth Olympics, and deliver extensive support services to Britain's Olympic athletes and their national governing bodies to enhance Olympic success. Go to olympics.org.uk

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