My first thought as I trailed the human herd into the beach volleyball grounds at the Horse Guards Parade was: So it has come to this, the empire, that is.
The volleyball stadium is in the heart of what used to be hallowed grounds. A five-minute walk or less will take you to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, No. 10 Downing Street and the great bureaucratic palaces, stuffed with mandarins and generals, from which the British empire was run.
And now the area is an enormous sand box for bikini-clad volleyball players, carefully waxed and shaved for fear that the TV close-ups of bums, boobs and other bits might reveal something amiss. The arena is surrounded by no fewer than five bars, whose spigots can legally pump beer at 10 a.m. (the matches start at 9 a.m. and the guzzling duly starts an hour later). One of the bars is smack next to a sombre war memorial.
Queen Victoria would not approve. I suspect the current Queen would not either, though her grandsons have been spotted in the stadium, with their laddish grins.
My second thought was: Sorry to be insulting, girls and boys, you look like very good athletes, but are you really Olympic-quality material?
As far as I could tell, the best beach volleyball players are tall and have the singular ability to smash a ball into the faces and bodies of their opponents with terrific force.
I suspect that any of the top athletes in most of the other Olympic sports, from badminton to basketball, could become beach volleyball experts within a day or three. Imagine the damage a shot put player could inflict in this game. The ball would be buried a metre into the sand of the opponents’ court.
My third thought was: What a great sport! Friday was my seventh day at the London Games. For the most part, I have covered rowing and cycling and have been highly impressed by the talent and dedication of the athletes.
Not really. On Thursday, I was so anxious for the Canadians in the women’s rowing eight event that my stomach was in a knot before the race (they took silver).
On Friday morning, in the middle of London, I felt I was on a beach holiday.
It was sunny, the crowd was enthusiastic, the music energizing – Queen, AC/DC, Rolling Stones, Verve.
The first match pitted Germany against Germany. The girls in the tiny red bikinis were blonde; the girls in the tiny blue bikinis were brunettes. Was this planned? They were cute. I mean, does it get any better? Being your standard male, I was happy.
When the girls slapped each others bums after scoring a point, you could almost hear the male spectators moan.
When the competitors took a break, more girls in bikinis came out to dance and gyrate in the sand to pounding music, sometimes lying on their backs, their legs swinging provocatively in the air like 1940s poster girls. Cue the requisite TV camera close-ups.
I asked one lad, David Millington, 21, who is British and lives in Hong Kong, what he thought about the sport.
“Let’s be honest,” he said. “It’s about the amount of clothing they wear.”
Turning back to the players, he said, “You know, it’s a lot harder than it looks.”
I have no idea whether the red bikinis or the blue bikinis won the match. I don’t care. I don’t think anyone cared. It was just great fun, a rousing bit of levity in an event – the ever-so-serious Olympics – where athletes’ careers are made and broken in a hundredth of a second.
Is beach volleyball in the spirit of Olympic sport?
I don’t know, but it sure is a crowd pleaser.
And it would be rich for the IOC grandees who stuffed the Games with corporate sponsors such as McDonald’s and BP to argue that beach volleyball is vulgar.
Here’s hoping the sport endures in the Olympics.