It has been home to everything from jousting tournaments under Henry the VIII to celebrations of Elizabeth I’s birthday and, in more modern times, a controversial parking lot for civil servants.
But what London’s vast Horse Guards Parade ground is now getting used to is bikini-clad athletes and cheerleaders busting a move at centre court of beach volleyball games that involve cold weather competitors like Norway and Latvia.
That is the scene here daily next to the Prime Minister’s residence and around the corner from Buckingham Palace, with the changing of the guard occurring within earshot of the cheering of the dig throughout the Games.
The word “spectacle” hardly does it justice, what with 5,000 tonnes of carted-in sand, a temporary stadium and 96 beach bums turned Olympians who are competing in teams of two for a gold medal.
In the midst of all that history, grandeur and surrealism on Monday was the Canadian duo of Josh Binstock and Martin Reader, who came together as a team only within the past year and had to sink into debt to keep their Olympic dream alive.
Two games into these Games, they are 1-1 and likely going to be able to move on to the round of 16 after toppling Great Britain in their opener and losing to Norway in straight sets in their second match.
Given the ride they’ve been on the past month or two in trying to simply qualify for these Olympics, the pair from Richmond Hill, Ont., and Comox, B.C., took Monday’s lopsided defeat in stride.
“We’re doing it for the Olympic Games,” Reader said after outlining the various hardships they have had in getting this far. “That’s the ultimate goal, and now that I’m here, I want more.”
Beach volleyball joined the Olympic program in 1996, and it was there that Canada made its first and only splash in the sport with John Child and Mark Heese winning bronze in Atlanta.
Since then, the country hasn’t had a team make much of an impact at the Games, a gap of 16 years that shouldn’t come as a huge surprise given Canada’s lack of success in the indoor game.
Part of the reason, however, may simply be a lack of funding. Canadian players attempting to qualify for the Games had a hard time making it to tournaments this year due to a controversial funding dispute, and as with many other events, it can be difficult to get by playing at the elite level without the resources other countries devote to the sport.
“We have to fundraise a lot to make this dream a reality,” Reader said. “Our professional federation does the best they can, but it’s not very much. It is a full-time job and we’re not making too much money.
“We’re going into debt, basically, and paying for the majority of this Olympic voyage ourselves. Hotels, flights, accommodation, food, rent back home. The money that I get from my federation doesn’t even cover my monthly rent.”
Another limitation beach volleyballers in this country face is a lack of support when they’re on the road.
Unlike at the Olympics, where Canada’s men’s and women’s teams have a few staff members to work with, they typically don’t travel with a coach to most events, putting them at a disadvantage.
“Normally we’re all by ourselves,” Reader said. “And you get other federations that have five coaches for two teams. They almost know more about us [after scouting our games] than we know about ourselves. So it’s an uphill battle... but I think us being here demonstrates that Canada is improving in beach volleyball.”
While financial support hasn’t been easy to come by, Binstock and Reader have had plenty of support in the form of their own cheering section so far at the Games.
A contingent of a dozen rowdy, hockey-helmeted Canadians wearing flags as capes was on hand in the front row for Wednesday’s game as family and friends of the two players made plenty of noise.
Unlike many of those watching on, they knew the story of selling T-shirts and beach towels behind their journey to the Olympics.
There’s also the fact that Binstock put his job as a chiropractor in Toronto on hold to push for what may have been, at age 31, his final shot at qualifying.
And Reader, 28, missed time due to injury and has scrambled to find sponsors in order to continue to compete.
Despite how difficult it was to get tickets at the last minute – Binstock and Reader didn’t qualify until winning a decisive match in Toronto a few weeks ago – their personal cheering section wanted to be on hand for this turn on the world stage.
“Finally his dream came true to come here,” Binstock’s sister, Michelle McCully, said after their loss on Monday. “It’s been a long time but worth the wait. It’s just great to watch him representing his country knowing that beach volleyball for Canada hasn’t been here in many years.
“We actually had two fundraisers during the season to try and help them out. It’s been tough. But they’re making it here.”