Beach volleyball: Big Ben meets Bondi

London is not a natural home for beach volleyball but the sport's stars are honoured to be playing in such a historic venue, writes Jack Pitt-Brooke

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Glamour is not part of English sporting culture. Commitment, perseverance and tradition are the national sporting foundations, with space too for professionalism, individualism and a mild distrust of change. But no one would accuse London's traditional venues, from The Oval to the Boleyn Ground, of flirting, flaunting or anything like that.

Click HERE to view 'Beach volleyball: Everything you need to know' graphic

So when beach volleyball comes to town, as it does today with the first preliminary matches at Horse Guards Parade, it would be no surprise if it were met with a British response: some suspicion, a sneer, and of course vocal prurience concerning beach volleyball's famous uniforms.

For no other sport is there more talk about the gear than the game. Jake Gibb, who will be competing for the US at 10pm tonight, suggested yesterday that the British obsession grew out of unfamiliarity. "It is a little silly that the media are so interested in their uniforms," said Gibb, who will play with Sean Rosenthal. "They are even asking us about them. They aren't asking the athletics teams about wearing tights. Maybe it's different for you guys over here where there isn't so much of a beach culture."

There is certainly little comparable to the traditional heartlands of beach volleyball. In Sydney 12 years ago, the tournaments were held on Bondi Beach in front of 10,000 devotees. It was an event entirely in its element.

Beach volleyball, like any sport, is the product of particular cultures and environments. That explains the uniforms, the sand and the increased athleticism demanded by two-person rather than six-person teams of the game played indoors.

Naturally, since its introduction as a full event at Atlanta in 1996, after a successful trial as a demonstration event in Barcelona four years before, the medals have been won by predictable nations.

Of the 16 gold and silver medals in men's and women's competition, all but three of them have been won by the sport's twin giants of the United States and Brazil. And those three went to Australia in Sydney, China in Beijing, and Spain.

Given this hegemony from agreeable climates, perhaps the expectations should not be too heavy upon British pair Steve Grotowski and John Garcia-Thompson, who start at 4.30 this afternoon against Canada. That said, Grotowski grew up in Florida from the age of 10 and learned his beach volleyball for high school and college teams there. So there might be some hope. Zara Dampney (below) and Shauna Mullin start, also against Canada, tomorrow evening at 5.30pm.

Of course, beach volleyball is popular with spectators, as most of the Olympic events are. But it is not just a cynical invention, or a mixing of sport with Baywatch for profit. Some people grow up with the game, learn it, excel at it and now compete in it at the Olympics.

Misty May-Treanor, for example, grew up in California, playing beach volleyball by Santa Monica pier. Her father, Butch May, represented the US in volleyball in the 1968 Olympics, before opening a beach-side pizza stall. At the age of 22, May-Treanor competed in Sydney before winning gold alongside Kerri Walsh at Athens. In Beijing May-Treanor and Walsh regained their title, the first beach volleyball champions to do so, winning every match in straight sets for the second consecutive Games.

This will be May-Treanor's final Olympics. She is re-united with her former team-mate, now Kerri Walsh-Jennings, and is hoping to end her professional career in the perfect way. "Kerri and I had not played together for two years and it has been fun to reunite," she said yesterday. "We started our journey together in 2001 and for me it is coming to an end after the Olympics."

"I felt in Athens that I had accomplished everything that I wanted to, so in Beijing I enjoyed my time with family and friends. We want to go for (gold medal) No3 because it has never been done before, but you still have to enjoy the process. This is my last Olympics, so I'm going to enjoy the journey and take everything in."

May-Treanor and Walsh-Jennings are going to face Natalie Cook, who was part of the famous Australian team who triumphed at Sydney, and is here in her fifth Olympic games. "She was one of the players I looked up to when I was just beginning," said May-Treanor, one great of the game speaking about another. "She has always been a true competitor."

But Cook, like May-Treanor and everyone else, will be a long way from Bondi Beach this morning. Temporary sand-courts have been set up on Horse Guards Parade, by the administrative and ceremonial hearts of the British state. The result: glamorous athleticism in the midst of power and privilege. It will be as unfamiliar for the athletes as for the spectators.

American April Ross was impressed by the venue. "I feel so blessed to be playing at such a historic site," she said, "and I think we have got the best location of the entire Olympics."

Germany's Katrin Holtwick said that the sand is deeper than she is used to while compatriot Ilka Semmler said that it was the second-largest court she had ever played on.

The learning experience will not be one-way. Beach volleyball might not be precisely what Horse Guards Parade was intended for but these cultural combinations are what the Olympics is all about.

Who would want a London Games that was just cricket, football and darts?