Monday 23 April 2018

Volleyball: Life's a beach on doorstep of 10 Downing Street

Much-maligned volleyball a big hit, says Tanya Aldred

Downing Street is used to oddities and takes them in its stride: in the last generation and a half we've seen the orchestrated flag-waving of Tony Blair's 1997 arrival, Margaret Thatcher's quoting of Francis of Assisi, and an IRA mortar bomb exploding in the garden. But nothing has been more bizarre than the Olympic beach volleyball tournament that started just around the corner yesterday morning.

Right on time, at nine o'clock, brazen and brassy with its mirrored shades, suntans and the skimpiest of swimwear, it took to the sand. It was a concept right out of Spike Milligan: take a patch of Horse Guards Parade, mark it out with tiers of purple seating, plonk tonnes of beach in the middle, play a bit of Benny Hill music, strip off and play.

It was quite the campest, highest-risk strategy this side of Beijing, but it works, beautifully. The setting is awesome. The London Eye turns gracefully, imperceptibly to the south while Big Ben peers over the top of the Downing Street End, struck mute by the persistent blasts of top decibel musical medleys. The band of the Blues and Royals, resplendent in ceremonial dress, prep the earlycomers with a brass version of Europop anthem The Final Countdown.

Beach volleyball became an Olympic sport at Atlanta in 1996 and has in the intervening years become more famous for its swimwear than its athleticism. Most coverage strikes a slightly dribbling tone, with The Sun outraged when it was suggested that the players would cover up if British summer fouled up and the temperature fell below 16C. But in fact the real sun did its job, with the sand reaching a temperature of 19.5C -- uncomfortably hot to land in.

The female players wear a costume best described by most women as "you have got to be joking". On the evidence so far, teams don't stray from a fig leaf of a pair of pants and a larger, though hardly substantial bikini top.

Hardly the most practical outfit to spike and dive in with 10,000 people watching your every move and a TV camera up your bottom. But the victorious 6ft German Ilka Semmler, slayer of the Czechs, said that her team designed their costumes themselves -- "the colour, where to put the flag and a little more here and a little less there".

The men, meanwhile, relax in board shorts and muscle T-shirts, not Speedos, an unfair clothing comparison which reflects the good taste of the female spectator rather than any latent sexism.

The morning session actually was stolen by a man nicknamed the Lion King, Aleksandrs Samoilovs. He was the bouffant-haired half of the Latvian team that defeated the Poles two sets to one and never walked when he could bound.

When the British men appeared in the afternoon they received magnificent support but they failed to use it to their advantage, losing in two sets to Canada.

The crowd was made up of a mixture of people: a happy product of the ticketing system. It seemed equally gender divided with lads, grannies, babies stacked on top of each other. There was no sign of Prince Harry but the presence in the VIP seats of Chris Patten and the Latvian president in the morning, and Boris Johnson and Kofi Annan in the afternoon told you something about the nuttiness of the whole thing -- and possibly about middle-aged men.

There may have been the odd person who knew exactly what was going on but the rest were there for the pure thrill: every volunteer, every official, every player, every sand-raker (a designated role) received a roar of approval.

Strangely, for all the talk -- unless you are in the front-row seats or a journalist able to examine the athletes close up in the mixed zone -- this is not a very lascivious experience. The voyeuristic aspect must have been higher for the viewer sitting at home with his high-definition TV for company.

What those in Horse Guards Parade saw were top-class, if slightly naked, athletes -- what they had was a total ball.


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