LONDON, July 28 (Reuters) - Pounding music, raunchy dancing, Mexican waves, svelte Russian blondes in bikinis -- it’s just not what you expect on the doorstep of Number 10 Downing Street.
The Olympic beach volleyball event got off to a foot-stomping start on Saturday at a 15,000-seater stadium built for the Games at Horse Guards Parade, right next to the official residence of British Prime Minister David Cameron.
From the stands, spectators enjoyed stunning views, not just of the sandy court but also of some of the British capital’s most visited attractions such as the Big Ben clock tower and the London Eye, a giant riverside Ferris wheel.
A sport played barefoot in the sand in bikinis for the women and baggy shorts for the men, beach volleyball does not take itself too seriously, as an enthusiastic crowd of neophyte Londoners soon discovered.
Loud pop and rock music blared from loudspeakers in between points and, during the athletes’ short breaks, troupes of dancers in beachwear took to the court, gyrating their hips and rolling in the sand in suggestive routines.
The music and the cheers spilled out of the stadium and into Whitehall, London’s government district, where on normal days civil servants with briefcases scuttle between austere ministry buildings.
But these are not normal times at Horse Guards Parade, a vast esplanade used once a year for the colourful Trooping the Colour military ceremony to mark Queen Elizabeth’s birthday.
The entire site and a large swathe of nearby St James’s Park have been taken over by the sporting venue, where the atmosphere on Saturday was more reminiscent of a Brazilian beach party than of British royal pageantry.
“It’s amazing. The location is so cool. Look at this view!” said Ed English, a young doctor, attending his first beach volleyball event with friend Zoya Hamakarim, a medical student.
“They’re really getting the crowd involved. It’s exciting. It’s making me want to have a go at playing,” said Hamakarim.
“WE WILL ROCK YOU”
The athletes unanimously praised the venue, which is the largest in Olympic beach volleyball history, and the atmosphere.
“It’s the best place in the London Olympics. (Athletes from) all the other sports are saying ‘you are so lucky, you’re at Horse Guards Parade’,” said Latvia’s Aleksandrs Samoilovs, known as “the Lion” for his unruly mane of blond curls.
Samoilovs was certainly doing his best to contribute to the party spirit, falling to his knees after points, roaring in triumph and gesturing to the crowd to generate a big cheer.
“The people came here to see a show. So we are making a show,” Samoilovs told reporters after winning his match. “This is the best (tournament) ever.”
Digital screens in the corners of the court displayed not just the scores but also comments after good points such as “Powerful spike”, “Monster block” and, more succinctly, “Boom!”
There was also “Do the wave!” which the boisterous crowd duly did, encouraged by a commentator shouting through the loudspeaker system. “Downing Street end!” he shouted, whenever the wave was passing through that side of the stadium.
“I think the Queen heard you,” he told the crowd after one particularly loud cheer. Buckingham Palace, the monarch’s London residence, is just on the other side of St James’s Park.
The crowd were entertained with songs ranging from hits by the Beach Boys, who in the 1960s brought Californian surfer culture to the world, to “Sexy And I Know It” by electropop duo LMFAO and dance hit “Groove Is In The Heart” by Deee-Lite.
For match points, the commentator got the crowd on their feet and had them clapping their hands and stomping their feet to the unmistakable beat of Queen’s “We Will Rock You”.
Even the rakers, bands of men armed with wide rakes to smooth the sand during breaks, took part in the show, raking in time and in formation to the theme music from “Benny Hill”, an old British TV comedy show known for its vulgar, sexual humour. (Editing by Matt Falloon)