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Are we in London, or SoCal?
Let us go through the inevitable juxtapositions that occur when you hold an Olympic beach volleyball tournament in the heart of London, one of the world’s most elegant cities.
Begin with the location of the venue. This is St. James Park, one of the city’s most serene. The sweeping view from this 15,000-seat stadium includes Big Ben, the city’s most recognizable landmark, the giant London Eye, and then, further in the distance, Nelson’s Column at Trafalgar Square. Westminster Abbey, where the royals have held their weddings for nearly a millennia, is just around the corner. It’s a grand location worthy of this architecturally stunning, historically abundant city.
Then come inside the venue and you’ll quickly realize: Nothing could be less London than this.
An announcer / hype man tries to rev up the crowd in between snippets of LMFAO and Missy Elliott, Vampire Weekend and the Beach Boys. The players set and spike in a patch of beach that looks straight out of Santa Monica, Calif., where this sport may well have been founded, and yet even if London had a beach, no one in their right mind would go to it on this night, when the temperature is steadily dipping toward the lower cold end of the 50s.
A dozen swimsuit-clad dancers did a conga line in the sand during breaks in play. As for the bikinis — yes, the bikinis that made the masses realize beach volleyball is a worthy sport for our viewing pleasure! — well, the bikinis have disappeared, mostly. On Sunday night, after a day of smothering rainstorms that soaked the city, the American duo of Jen Kessy and April Ross wore the bottoms but wisely wore long sleeves up top. Better than other teams that showed up in body suits; not as good as their Argentine opponents, who braved the weather and wore bikinis, though that perhaps contributed to their loss in two sets.
America? Or England? Where am I, exactly?
It all made me dizzy, and made me regret ordering the coconut chicken curry at a nearby pub a couple hours before, as my curry had apparently been soaked in hallucinogens.
The Brits came in droves on Sunday night, filling the arena for the premier matches of the night — the two matches with the Americans, since beach volleyball is still dominated by Americans. (Five of the eight gold medals awarded since beach volleyball became an Olympic sport in 1996 have gone to Americans, and the four American teams won all their preliminary matches Saturday and Sunday.) But I’m not quite sure the Londoners really got the sport, or enjoyed it all that much. The most passionate cheers of the night came from a section to my left, where hundreds of beer cups had been piled in a teetering tower, topped with a Union Jack flag, and passed around. The beer-cup tower tipped precariously, the crowd gasped. The security guards thieved the beer-cup tower, the crowd booed. A conniver grabbed the top 30 or so cups of the tower from the guards and passed them around again, the crowd cheered.
“The weird thing for me is the music after every action, how they’re treating it all like a joke,” Ian Daniel, a 25-year-old artist in London who’d paid 20 quid (roughly 30 US dollars) for his tickets, told me when I wandered to the concession area. “It’s like they’re treating the crowd like a bunch of dolts, like we need to be entertained every moment. When you see a football — er, a soccer — match, the commentating and the crowd are quite serious.”
Behind him was a concession stand selling barbeque, and then another concession stand, selling champagne and oysters. Is this Cowboy Stadium, or is this Wimbledon?
“It’s absolutely choice,” Paul Colto, a 30-year-old musician from London, told me, using a British phrase that apparently means “very good.” “Normally this place is so sedate and peaceful, and it seems they’ve turned it into an American basketball arena.”
So this Londoner, at least, appeared to enjoy the desecration — or perhaps just the fun-ification — of London’s most recognizable area. Of course, he was dressed in full-body dinosaur suit, so I’m not sure I asked the right person.
“It’s a bit cold out, you see?,” observed his friend, Nico Barclay, who was dressed in a body-length tiger suit. “It was disappointing, because everybody’s been dressing in full bodysuits. Except the Argentinians. They came out in bikinis, so we rooted for them.”
At last, something about this beach volleyball thing that made perfect sense.
You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave, become a fan on Facebook or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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